Burning Questions: Thanksgiving Edition

Burning Questions: Thanksgiving Edition

When done properly, Thanksgiving is a celebration of bounty. Which is probably why there was such a bountiful response when Joanna asked on Instagram for your most Burning Questions about the feast. Here were the cooking and hosting issues that came up most…

“How do you have everything ready at one time with one oven? It’s a mystery I can never solve. The math and science of it eludes me.” — Erin

Let’s consider this radical concept: Does everything need to be served warm? If your oven space and time is limited, consider loading the menu with side dishes that don’t necessarily have to be piping hot. Green beans are arguably as delicious when blanched, chilled, and tossed with vinaigrette than they are served casserole-style with fried onions. And though it might seem sacrilegious not to serve mashed potatoes, a room-temperature potato salad is perfectly capable of pinch-hitting. Or! Consider getting creative with heating sources: A gas grill on low heat can double as a warming oven (especially for foil-covered casserole-type dishes), slow cookers can keep mashed potatoes warm, and gravy can be stored in thermoses if stovetop space is tight. By the way, gravy is the one non-negotiable thing on the table that must be hot — it’s every dish’s best friend, something that elevates every thing around it, and makes them feel like the best possible version of themselves.

“What do I say when my mother-in-law/cousin/aunt asks (again) when I will be pregnant?” — Alexis

Remember that rule with tantruming toddlers: Distract, don’t react? It works beautifully for prying aunts, inebriated uncles, and impeachment-obsessed out-of-town guests alike. Don’t engage. Repeat: Don’t engage.

“I’m always looking for vegan and vegetarian dishes that aren’t trying to mimic turkey or meat.” — So Many of You

I am, too! I enlisted the lovely Jeanine D’Onofrio of Love & Lemons for help on this one — I turn to Jeanine (and her cookbooks) whenever I’m searching for a plant-based meal that must present as beautifully as it tastes. (Everything she cooks just looks so happy to me.) Jeanine recommends a bountiful grain salad with hearty roasted squash, roasted onions, and crunchy vegetables (like this one which contains the non-vegan but very optional halloumi); or Acorn Squash with Chickpeas & Chimichurri (easily vegan when you serve the yogurt sauce on the side) and Butternut Squash Pasta with Chili Oil, Feta & Mint, which is a riot of color in addition to being vegetarian. Thanks Jeanine!

“What can we prep (or mostly prep) ahead, so we can actually enjoy the day and guests?” — Tess

If you know me, you know my philosophy for entertaining any day of the year boils down to If it can be made ahead of time, make it ahead of time. This is triply the case on Thanksgiving when you don’t want to have one eye on the kitchen timer the whole time you’re catching up with Aunt Lynn. Pies can be made ahead of time, so can cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes if you decide to serve them casserole style, and why wouldn’t you? You can also go ahead and set the mise en place to end all mise en places. But think beyond the actual cooking, too. Water pitchers can be filled, fancy barware and gravy boats removed from their year-long hiding places, tables set, extra forks and dishes procured for dessert (I always forget about them!). If it can be done ahead of time, do it ahead of time.

“What are the easiest snacks and appetizers that don’t take away from the main meal?” — Erin 

Warning: this response might be slightly controversial, but I’m just going to shift all accountability to Sam Sifton, author of the must-own manual Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well, who articulated exactly what I’ve always felt: “I did not sit in my kitchen on Saturday night making lists, and deal with brining a bird on Monday night, and bake pies on Tuesday night, and spend all of Thursday cooking turkey, sides and gravy, then set a table appropriate to presidents and kings, so that you could come into my house and eat a pound and a half of nuts and guacamole before sitting down for the Thanksgiving feast.” Sifton recommends starting with oysters if possible, or (gasp!) nothing. I recommend wine, bourbon and flavored seltzers alongside a light salty snack (crunchy chickpeas or crudite) to whet the appetite, not squelch it.

“How can I make the holiday feel special beyond the food?” — Jackie

In my last book, I wrote about what I called ECS, or Empty Celebration Syndrome, that sinking feeling you get when you spend all that time making the meal perfect without anything to show for it at the end except a pile of dirty dishes. Luckily, the syndrome is eminently curable: start a ritual that is as much about the day as it is about the feast. Go for a family walk, have an epic game of charades with dessert, make everyone write a memory about the day in a dedicated journal, or bare minimum here — go around the table to express gratitude and make a moment for grace. This year, I plan to record a real sit-down interview my parents (maybe even using the Story Corps app) because there are so many things I don’t know about their personal histories that I want to preserve for generations. I’ll let you know how it goes! (I’d love to hear about your rituals, too.)

“How do you contribute to a Thanksgiving meal if you’re flying in from out of town and not able to bring a hot or prepared dish from your own kitchen?” — Keely

One idea: Have the host’s local florist deliver something the day before you arrive with a note that says “We can’t wait to see you.”

“I’m feeding a crowd with a low culinary bar. Is it worth it to try fun, new (sometimes complicated) recipes? Or just keep it easy, tried and true, and enjoy the holiday?” — Shelley

To each her own, but I find that “fun, new, complicated recipes” are for every other day of the year. The reason I love Thanksgiving so much is probably because there is zero psychic energy expended on the question you have to confront every other day of the year, i.e. What should we have for dinner? It’s the one meal a year when no one can complain about eating the exact same thing they ate last year and the year before that and the year before that. The same menu, eaten decade after decade, from coast to coast, connecting us all in a rare moment of unity, is, in fact, the point. It’s tradition and I highly recommend embracing it.

Great questions! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

P.S. 10 wonderful holiday rituals and a dinner party conversation starter.

(Photo montage by Maud Passini.)