A Thanksgiving to Remember
As with any kind of entertaining, the real work of Thanksgiving should be more in the planning and preparation than in the event itself. With a good plan in hand, you will be able to join the party and share in the fun. On this holiday, perhaps more than on any other, it is wise to keep things simple, abundant and real. Cook what you love and serve your feast with joy, and you will give your family and friends something to be truly thankful for: a celebration to remember.
A Reason to Give Thanks
Before you begin making lists and setting tasks, take a moment to think about the spirit of the holiday. The first Thanksgiving was a harvest feast to give thanks for nature's bounty. The more complex the world becomes and the more separated we find ourselves from family and friends, the more precious that simple idea becomes. When you host a Thanksgiving dinner, a day-after lunch or a leisurely breakfast over the holiday weekend, you are giving people a chance to connect with one another by participating in a centuries-old communal tradition: giving thanks together over a joyous meal.
That sense of tradition transforms a large family feast into a Thanksgiving celebration. But traditions need not be hundreds of years old. This year, why not start a few of your own? It might be anything from an unusual family recipe or a special way of setting the table to a quiet moment of contemplation, a song or a game you play after the table is cleared. Tired of turkey? Try a baked ham instead.
No room for a formal table? Move the meal to the kitchen or, if the weather cooperates, bring the indoors outside and create a dining room in the backyard. Keep the parts of Thanksgiving you enjoy and set aside those you do not like. Then let new traditions spring up from the unique realities of your life: the region where you live, the local ingredients that are in season and, most important, the things you and your family value and like best.
Celebrating Simple Gifts
There is something uniquely American about the idea that, on the fourth Thursday of every November, an entire country sits down to share a national meal. No matter who we are or where we hail from, on this one day we are engaged in the same activity. We come together with family and friends to express, through words, laughter and the pleasures of the table, how grateful we are to have one another.
Yet for all the enjoyment, the prospect of hosting a Thanksgiving celebration can be daunting. It is, after all, traditionally a big meal with many elements to manage, including shopping, decorating and cleaning. And the desire to create a perfect Thanksgiving, like the family celebrations created by our parents and grandparents, only adds to the pressure.
In fact, it is helpful to focus less on perfection and more on simplicity. And the simple truth is this: If your meal is genuine and satisfying, you and your family and guests will have a memorable time. That is a perfect Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving entertaining is all about bringing people together to share the wonderful food of the season, the warmth of home, and the bonds of family and friendship. These tips will make it easier and more enjoyable for you to celebrate those simple gifts when you take a seat at your Thanksgiving table.
Planning a Thanksgiving Celebration
Whether you are having a crowd for dinner or hosting a few people over the long weekend, the secrets to Thanksgiving entertaining are organization and planning. The more you can do ahead, the more relaxed you will be when guests arrive, and your calm, happy mood will set the tone. In that spirit, here is a planning guide to help you bring together all the elements you need to turn a meal into a celebration.
Picking a Style
Begin with the guest list. The number of people you invite, who they are, and the mix of adults and children will help you decide on an entertaining style. Four to six weeks before the holiday, call or write friends and family, especially those coming from out of town, to confirm not only their attendance at Thanksgiving dinner but also their plans throughout the weekend. Make a separate guest list for each meal you will be hosting over the weekend.
Next, think about the best place to serve each meal, keeping in mind what is realistic for your home and the number of guests.
If you do not have a traditional dining room (and even if you do), you can set up a table anywhere: in the kitchen, in front of the fireplace or, if you live in a warm climate, on the deck. The meal can also move from space to space, with drinks served, for example, outdoors or in the kitchen, dinner around the table and dessert in the living room.
Planning a Thanksgiving Menu
Now you can begin planning the menu.
Be realistic. Put together a menu that requires a minimum of last-minute preparation. If possible, try out the recipes before the holiday to see how well they match your cooking skills and the realities of your kitchen. You may wish to build in shortcuts, including store-bought ingredients like a pie crust or tapenade.
Think seasonally. Visit your local farmers' market for inspiration. This is an easy way to see what regionally grown vegetables and fruits are at their seasonal best. Let these ingredients and fresh flavors shine through in simple preparations.Add regional accents. Incorporate recipes and touches that reflect the area of the country you live in or your ancestral roots.Ask for help. If all the cooking seems like too much to handle, ask one or more of your guests to bring a first course, side dish or dessert. Offer to provide the recipe for whatever you assign.
Choosing Beverages and Serving Wine
Once you have settled on a menu, visit a local wine store for advice on selecting wines. Allow one bottle for every two or three wine drinkers.
Matching a single wine with all the other flavors that make up a Thanksgiving feast can be challenging. A good solution is to offer both a white and a red. For the white, try a crisp Chardonnay, and for the red, a Pinot Noir or medium-bodied Zinfandel. All of them pair well with most holiday foods.
Ideally, each place setting should include a different glass for each wine served. Classic-shaped wineglasses are best for concentrating the aroma and bringing out the flavor of wines. A tulip-shaped white-wine glass and a larger, similarly shaped red-wine glass are suitable for most wines. Look for lightweight glasses that make a pinging sound when tapped. If limited to a single glass, a large white-wine glass is a versatile choice. For sparkling wines, use tall flutes, which trap bubbles and enhance effervescence.
Once guests are seated, fill wineglasses one-third full. Serve sparkling wines well chilled (42° to 45°F) as an aperitif, with the first course or throughout the meal. Chill whites to 45° to 50°F and serve reds at cool room temperature.
Always include a few nonalcoholic beverage options, such as bottled still or sparkling water or iced tea, allowing one quart or liter for every two guests. Consider making a special seasonal drink, such as hot spiced cider, to serve with appetizers, or cranberry lemonade to accompany a lunch.
As your Thanksgiving plans take shape, it is important to keep track of all the logistical details and special touches that will bring the celebration together. This will ensure that you have enough time to plan and will help you stay relaxed during preparations for the meal. Start planning earlier than you think you need to, and keep all your notes handy in a central place.
Make lists. Draw up a chronological plan that includes all of the meals you will be serving during the holiday weekend. Go through the recipes you have selected and make a shopping list for each meal. Organize it by stores, including groceries, special produce, the turkey or ham, and wine and other drinks. Make a separate list for decorative items, serving ware and any kitchen equipment you may need. (Be sure to include flowers, greenery and seasonal items, such as gourds and pumpkins, that you might want to use in your centerpiece.)
Next, write out a schedule for each meal, working backward from the time you intend to serve the meal through all the preparations during the days leading up to it. Post the schedule and a menu for each meal in the kitchen, so you can easily refer to them as you work. As you complete each task, be sure to cross it off your list so you can chart your progress.
Plan ahead. The less you leave to chance, the more confident and relaxed you will feel when your guests arrive. Well before the holiday, take stock of your platters, bowls, linens, silverware and tableware to see if there is anything you need to borrow or buy. Arrange empty platters on the buffet to map out how everything will fit. If you plan to serve a meal family style, make sure your platters and serving bowls can both hold the right quantity of food and be comfortably passed at the table.
If time permits, try out unfamiliar recipes ahead of time to work through any kinks. Stock up on staples like wine, bottled water, candles and extra napkins. If you are hosting children, you might want to have some special games and books on hand for them. Buy some attractive take-out boxes at a restaurant-supply store to send guests home with leftovers.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma, Thanksgiving Entertaining, by Lou Seibert Pappas (Simon & Schuster, 2005).