This Thanksgiving I was betrayed. Deeply, inconsolably betrayed. What makes it worse is that I was undone by my own people. Culinistas.
During the two decades that The One and I have been cooking Thanksgiving dinner together, food authors, editors, and writers have been chirping the same saccharine, Pollyanna mantra: “Prep, and all will be well!” Each year, beginning in September, they hammer away their make-ahead message in books, blogs, newspapers, magazines, and on TV, like Glinda the Good Witch repeating, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” to Dorothy in that helium-infused bleat of hers. And each year, even though The One and I wanted to believe what they said, we were never organized enough—or, to be honest, humble enough—to think their message applied to us.
Instead we committed the sin of hubris, believing we were far bigger, greater, and savvier than the average 22-pound turkey. We laughed in the face of a never-ending list of guests. We were so confident in our non-existent skills that we didn’t even begin cooking until the night before—and that’s when the gods smote us. Because every single year found us spending Thanksgiving in an overheated kitchen having even more overheated arguments. The bird was usually undercooked, several side dishes went missing because we ran out of time, and 30 minutes before guests were due to arrive, we’d be racing around the bedroom, screaming at each other, “I’ll never do this again!” And we have the burned pots, physical scars, and couples’ therapy bills to prove it.
That’s why I decided to start cooking ahead of time this year.
“We’re going to do it right,” I told The One as we pored over potential menus two weeks before Thanksgiving. Two weeks! Normally I was still finding ways to use up Halloween candy two weeks before Turkey Day. But we finally decided upon a holiday menu to christen our new kitchen.
Our Thanksgiving Menu
Two 12-pound Roasted Turkeys, Portuguese Style
Grandma Costa’s Chouriço Dressing
Potato and Pork Dressing
Homemade Green Bean Casserole
Chestnuts, Onions, and Bacon
Broccoli and Blue-Cheese Gratin
My Euphemistically Killer Mashed Potatoes
Pumpkin Cake with Maple-Cream Cheese Frosting
Chocolate Espresso Pecan Pie
Mini Lemon Curd Cakes with Meyer Lemon Curd
I started cooking a full five days before the holiday. That’s 128 hours of potential prep time before 11 guests were scheduled to walk through the front door at 4 p.m. last Thursday. (Do the math—five days x 24 hours a day + 8 hours on Thanksgiving = more than 9 hours per dish.) So the Saturday before Thanksgiving, I set upon the kitchen gladiator-style. I ripped opened three packages of turkey necks and gizzards with my teeth and seared them to a rich Corinthian leather–brown. I sautéed onions, carrots, celery, and mushrooms in another pan until equally dark. I deglazed both pots with white wine, combined it all, added water to cover, and made what I was confident was the richest turkey gravy known to man. It was so earthy and lusty, The One and I could have chest-bumped each other, but my bloodied apron was no match for his oatmeal-colored cashmere sweater.
To round out the day, I whirred the crust for the pecan pie in the food processor, whipped up the maple–cream cheese frosting in the stand mixer, and measured out the dry ingredients for the pumpkin cake. After that, I fell onto the couch to watch TV and called out, “Wench! Bring me some mead.” To which The One glared at me over his reading glasses with half-lidded eyes and said, “There ain’t no wenches here. And if you want mead, I suggest I kick your ass back to the Middle Ages to get some.” A glass of milk and some store-bought pumpkin pie sufficed.
For the remaining four days, the kitchen ran more efficiently than a Japanese car factory in the ’80s. Sunday saw the gravy, both cranberry dishes, and soup made. Monday I crossed the mashed potatoes off the list. On Tuesday we were dancing around the island and shouting over the music, “We’re in incredible shape! This will be the best Thanksgiving ev-ah!” while I baked off the pumpkin cake layers and whipped up the lemon curd. That afternoon, the turkey hit the brine while The One hit his “jacuz” and I fell onto the bed for a nap. Ah, Lifestyles of the Organized and Pompous. On Wednesday we boasted and bragged to anyone who called about how perfectly everything was going. The One and I often stood in front of the filled fridges (plural, thank you very much) and exchanged glances that just screamed, “Can’t touch this!” MC Hammer–style.
Thanksgiving morning The One meted out his agenda. He’s a man fond of agendas, and I make believe to listen to and obey him because it’s my pseudo-spousal duty. “Today, let’s finish up the last few things by three,” he said, as he sat down on the couch with me to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “And I want us doing nothing but sipping Prosecco the hour before guests arrived.”
“Naturally,” I replied, the way those haughty, Valentino-swathed women with names like Sylviana or Theodora who starred in Fellini movies did. As if the idea of doing anything more would be absurd considering how everything is completely under control.
What followed was a master class in physics as we both watched in horror at the slow-motion trajectory of the proverbial shit hitting the fan with gale-force winds. Somehow the simple tasks of basting a turkey and making three simple side dishes eluded us, because by 3:00 p.m., our appointed bubbly time, we were both running around the kitchen in full-blown panic of the Top Chef kind.
“Where’s the [bleeping] broccoli?” The One screamed.
“How the hell do I know? It’s not on my agenda to make the gratin,” I snipped.
“You know, you don’t have to be so pissy,” he said, looking over those damn reading glasses and pointing a finger at me. I contemplated the 10-inch chef’s knife in my hand.
“Well, if a certain someone had started cooking five days before—like I did—perhaps we wouldn’t be in this position,” I slammed right back.
I watched his mouth form a perfect “O” of shock, and, with great delight, I waited for his next volley. I could handle it. After all, until an hour ago, I was Davidicus, the Champion of the Kitchen Arena. But instead he said, “Screw it. Forget the chestnuts, onions, and bacon!”
So, just because he’s buckling under the pressure, I thought, my nuts are the ones to get kicked, culinarily and metaphorically?
But I could see his logic. With fewer than 25 minutes left before guests started arriving, we both shoved pots—dirty and clean—into every available drawer, cabinet, and closet. (I’m still discovering crusted-over Le Creuset pots.)
He ran back to the kitchen and, panting, grabbed my arm. “Go, Love. Go and take a shower,” with that mano-a-mano tone of a brother-in-arms telling a fellow soldier to save himself.
“I can’t leave you,” I said. “You go, I can handle the guests.”
“But you’re the star,” he said. “You’re the one they’re expecting to have done great things, not me.” Well, who was I to argue with a desperate man? So I went up to the bathroom and took what was without a doubt the fastest shower and shave of my life. Then I flew downstairs, only to body-check The One into the wall on his way up. In the kitchen, I spun in place counting burbling pots on the stove and burping casseroles in the oven. My blanched and peeled pearl onions mocked me from a dripping colander on the counter. I opened the coat closet and chucked the colander among our winter coats.
Once again drenched in sweat, I ran out into the frigid backyard to cool down. “I WILL NEVER F%&KING DO THIS AGAIN! DO YOU HEAR ME, GOD? NEVER!!!” I screamed to the battleship gray sky. “NEVER!”
At 3:55 p.m. the doorbell rang. The One pulled me to him and whispered threateningly, “We will never let on to anyone, ever, that we had a problem. You hear me?” I nodded. “No one ever has to know.” And with that one simple request we went from being the victims to the perpetrators of the Great Thanksgiving Lie. So much for Honest Entertaining.
For several days now, I’ve been smelling a foul, rank odor in the basement. I began to wonder if Devil Cat had killed some defenseless creature and left its moldering carcass for me as an early Christmas present. Then this morning—December 16th, exactly 20 days after Thanksgiving—The One came trudging up the basement stairs with the roasting pan we borrowed from our friend Matty in hand.
“Remember the smell downstairs?” he asked. I nodded. “Well…” he said, holding out the pan accusingly. He whipped off the lid with a flourish, and something that smelled as if it came from the bowels of the earth wafted through the kitchen. I peeked inside and there sat a package of pork sausages that was so full of busily noshing bacteria that the square plastic package was the size and shape of a basketball. “You forgot these when we unpacked the groceries for Thanksgiving.” And with that he thrust the pan at me.
I blinked at him. “Really?” I asked. He nodded victoriously.
And then I remembered.
“Or was it when you ran around the kitchen like a madman, hiding everything in sight?” I asked.
I saw the realization ripple across his face.
“Yes, that’s right, my love,” I said. Those are the sausages I told you to put in the downstairs fridge.” Suddenly his puffed chest reduced a suit size or two, and he headed toward the trash.
“No one ever has to know about this!” I shouted after him. “Ever!”
Humor, the greatest mask for pain…your story is my story.
I too was saying, “Never, ever again!!” on New Years’ Eve after an 18-hour cooking-crunch-day culminated in a mad dash to buy Heath Bars 45 minutes prior to guests’ arrival. (Toffee for crumbling on cake, not yet frosted because just-sampled purchased toffee was stale). And yes, I had made certain to get the cake out of the way previous day, but, alas, that first cake had to be drop-kicked into the garbage disposal.
Massive prep work had seemed to assure NY’s lovely dinner would be a slam dunk. In fact, while cooking that day, I felt so on top of the game, I happily indulged in billowing our “Winter Wonderland,” (icy, shimmering Anne-created atmospheric decor in front entry hall) into other rooms.
As guests arrived, I was just disappearing up the stairs to get dressed. Not an ounce left in me for entertaining. But as the guests’ eyes lit up like children’s over food and decor, I started to recoup energy. Their delight meant something. Though lifelong dear friends, they are also classy folks, having dined at Bill Gates’ and such.
The next day, after our three overnight guests departed, still exclaiming, my husband’s and my “never-ever’s” started to morph into mutual congratulations. Tentative statements crept forth. “When we do this next year, we’ll add. . .”
But I really do need sane middle ground. Or an intervention? Can’t seem to put the lid on inspiration. Creative vision demands execution. Doesn’t it?
At the very least, I want to master that body check on the stairs.
synopticalle, thanks for the kind words. And knowing you I can image how gorgeous it all was.
Yes, we overachievers need a swift kick in the pork butt, if you ask me. Yet, I know despite it all, I’ll be standing at the stove next year saying, “THIS time will be different.” What’s that definition of insanity? Oh yeah, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Indeed. BTW, this is your Puerto Rico buddy, Anne Chalfant. FINALLY getting the website up in a week, thanks to your suggestion lo–how long ago was your pina colada “seminar in a bar?” Besides your good advice, I look at your site as a model site on the web. Clean, inviting, fonts et al reflect what it is.
Anne, don’t you think I know who you are? Fatty Daddy knows all! And, yes, it was two years ago that we had out fateful piña colada meeting! Best of luck with your site.
Great story David! My worst Thanksgiving was the year I had to work half a day and came home to help Mom cook and my two teenage daughters started fighting and Mom ran in the kitchen to help break it up and tripped and we all went to the emergency room to get her checked out (she was okay) and stopped at Denny’s to eat on the way home. We cooked the next day.
Um, remind me never to go to your home for Thanksgiving–unless I bring a first-aid kit.
I can so relate. I start cooking/prepping DAYS before. I set my table three days in advance. I have all my serving dishes washed and placed on the table with small tags with the dish’s name written. My family knows to leave me alone and to stay far away from the kitchen the whole week before Thanksgiving. I tape my recipes all over my kitchen cabinets (along with a master checklist). I make almost everything 2 ways (My family insists on 2 broccoli faves, 3 green bean dishes, etc.) and I have two diabetics for whom I have to change sugar content. I pride myself in cleaning up after myself as I go along and all is orderly. Until an hour before dinner is to be presented. Then everything goes to the dogs and as I start setting my dishes out, I start losing my calm demeanor. Pots and pans get thrown everywhere and the sink piles up and explodes. The kitchen looks like a bomb hit. Then I slip out and grab a hamburger. (FYI – my children and their spouses clean up for me.) Happy New Year!
JC, word. I hear you. And I know I am not the only food writer to get into this situation. Hell, I’ve been with some writers who when planning a meal toss up their hands and we go our for dinner. I think Thanksgiving would be great if it weren’t for guests….
Here’s the crazy part – I love cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I love everything about a Thanksgiving meal. The banter and the laughter, and yes the food. But, after tasting all this food for days, I crave anti-turkey food. Did I mention that I usually make 2 turkeys a ham, a prime rib roast and sometimes a goose? So this is my yearly norm. Next year I will share some photos. Wishing great things for you in 2014!
Wow, JC, I think your initials are apt, if you know what I mean. That could feed a small country. What I crave after Thanksgiving? A cheese hamburger. Thick, juicy, with ketchup and mayo.
Our undoing with Thanksgiving hosting happened a few years ago. Our parents were meeting for the first time as we were hosting Thanksgiving (on my birthday) in our 700 square foot city condo. I may have told you this story when we met. We moved the couch and stole a few chairs from the office and unfolded our drop-leaf dining room table, while screaming and crying and fighting like our lives depended on this one stupid dinner. The food went off without a hitch, thanks to prep, but the days leading up to Thanksgiving were awful. We stashed dog bowls, shoes and laptops instead of pearl onions and pans, and I got a “look” but it wasn’t over gold-rimmed glasses. But like you, when the doorbell rang–wait, we don’t have a doorbell–when the knocking of our first guest was heard, we hugged each other, smiled, and vowed to never tell them about our aggravations. So, I can say I completely understand the hilarity of the situation, only in the completely opposite way! Happy Holidays, David!
Kristel, we’re comrade-in-arms, I’d say. I admire your pluck and calmness. Maybe we could trade a bit. Whaddya think?
I’d be more than happy to take you up on that in 2014.
You’ve got it, Kristel!
I must be part Portuguese. 😉 There is a sink in the garage, and an additional fridge, freezers, food dehydrator, FoodSaver…let me think…the giant microwave is going out there, too. LOL! The current kitchen has a stovetop, one of those glass ones. When I redo, I’m probably going to go for a stove instead. You can bet the stovetop is going to be installed along with the cabinets. I’m getting one of those weird plastic strips things that hang from the ceiling to cordon off the food area, like they have in places that store food, and an exhaust fan, too. It helps that the cars aren’t allowed in the garage. 😉 Now if I could just find room for a merchandiser, life, at least food storage-wise, would be perfect.
Yup, you’re Portuguese at heart then!