The Gathering to end all Gatherings is fast approaching. The menus are planned, grocery lists made, guest lists finalized, therapists consulted, vodka hidden. The time has come for Thanksgiving. The most wholesome of all family holidays. No gifts. No chocolate bunnies. No costumes. Just food. family, friends, football, and turkey handprints.
If you count a few years ago, when Nick and I had three Thanksgiving dinners in one day, I am averaging about 1.25 Thanksgiving dinners per year. I have not only been a guest at intense gatherings from Plaquemine, Lousiana (best food) to London, England (most drunk), to Upstate New York (largest gathering), but I have also hosted Thanksgiving more times than anyone in their right mind should have at my age. I have loads of notes and recipes and suggestions (and wine ideas) but I am a mere drop in the ocean of culinary advice and you can undoubtedly find more recipes than I could ever compile here, here and here. Therefore, instead of food, I thought I’d put some of my practical experience as a guest and host to address a few basic rights and wrongs on the big day. Thanksgiving has a tremendous amount of build-up and of course anything with this much build-up is bound to disappoint, but it really doesn’t have to. Read. Pay attention. Let the next faux pas be your sister’s again. Not yours.
Do: Invite new neighborhood residents and small families to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with you
Thanksgiving can be a very lonely time if you are new in town with no one to share common experiences. Think about the people who just bought a house down the street, or your single friend whose family lives in California. It is no time to leave those people out in the cold. Maybe they already have plans, but it is still a really nice gesture to make sure they are well taken care of during this holiday of family and sharing.
But don’t: Invite too many people
See above and note: It is very easy to go overboard. Think in advance about how many people you can seat at your dining table, or how many forks and knives you have. Don’t create an unnecessary headache for yourself by inviting too many people to be able to enjoy yourself. Give yourself a limit, confirm attendees and stick to it.
Do: Manage your guests’ expectations
Whether you are having a casual potluck or an all out spend-the-kids-tuition-money dinner, make sure to let your guests know. People are most comfortable if they know what they can expect because it helps them prepare, and it also helps them to decide what to wear, what to bring and what to cook.
But don’t: Be too dogmatic
Keep in mind that everyone has families, oven trouble, and cars that overheat in traffic. Don’t be so rigid in your planning that you wind up making everyone else miserable with your stress. This is all about food and fun. Remember that!
Do: Be a gracious hostess
Julia Child had a rule that she never critiqued her own cooking in front of guests. It’s a great rule to follow! If someone is loving your meatloaf and mashed potatoes what good does it do to point out the faults? Same goes if you are hosting: Welcome everyone warmly and appreciate their contribution and do not spend the evening apologizing for not having enough chairs, or fine china, or better wine or whatever. The most important part of being a gracious hostess is making people feel comfortable. No one feels good if you spend the whole afternoon criticizing your own set-up.
But don’t: Be a doormat
One year we had a big Thanksgiving Potluck and invited all of our family, and friends who had nowhere else to go, to join us for dinner. It was fun and rowdy … until it was time to clean up. People who had been happily eating and drinking to their hearts’ content just moments earlier, all of a sudden found themselves with places they “had to be”, leaving a small number of us to do all the washing up. That was very little fun. That was also the last time we hosted for about three years.
Do: Ask about food allergies
If you are inviting someone you don’t know well, just do a quick check. Severe anaphylaxis if they sniff a pecan? Better put those on the side of your spinach salad.
But don’t: Ask about food preferences
Okay, it’s Thanksgiving. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together is going to assume turkey, cranberry, some stuffing, some veggies and maybe some pie. If they don’t like any of those things then they can stay at home with frozen burritos. It’s not your job to come up with a replacement for the sweet potato casserole you’ve been imagining for two weeks because Doris just doesn’t like sweet potatoes.
Do: Accept offers of help
Thanksgiving is a day of, well, thanksgiving. So zip it and just THANKS and accept someone’s offer to help – set the table, load the dishwasher, do the dishes, sweep the floor, show up early, stay late … whatever. Take it! No need to be a hero.
But don’t: Count on someone else for the turkey
Only bad things will happen if you are expecting someone else to drive across town carrying a 16-pound carcass in their car, spilling juice all over the backseat and driving their dog nuts for the next 6 weeks. You are hosting. You make the turkey.
Do: Pay attention to details
Iron napkins, change lightbulbs, put on music, and get some extra toilet paper.
And don’t: Use paper plates
My stepmom was one of seven children, and her parents were of the opinion that with children and wives and grandchildren it was simply too much to do all that washing up, so they serve these large, incredible family dinners on paper plates. Fiddlesticks. I say all those people just mean more people to help clean up! This was a family of, literally, the best cooks you will ever come across. Any single dish of any one of theirs would be a family treasure for generations for anyone else. Put it on paper plates and inhale it? No way. Thanksgiving is a time to bust out the china (as is any other Thursday night, but let’s stick with Turkey Day here). As Nick said when David Cameron’s wife didn’t wear a hat to the Royal Wedding, “Really? What exactly is she saving it for?”
Do: Bring a hostess gift
Get creative. You can do better than wine. Your hosts have been planning this for weeks – the least you can do is take the time to pick up something special. Consider an antique cheese knife. Or clever notecards. Flowers (in a vase). A brand new cookbook that has just come out. Maybe a CD that you recently purchased and can’t get enough of. A planter for someone with outdoor space or an interesting bowl is always a great idea. A cocktail recipe book and a bottle of booze can also be really nice and much appreciated when all the guests leave.
But don’t: Bring a gift that requires lengthy explanation or that you want someone to fawn over
You may have wanted to bring your cousin the silver platter that you inherited from your great, great, great uncle Steve – but don’t do it now unless you are content to write a card and include it with your gift. Gifts are about the recipient, not the giver. The host does actually have other stuff going on, like freaking out about whether the turkey is done and what to do if the little poppy-outty thing melts. She is unlikely to be able to give your gift the attention it deserves at the moment.
Do: Arrive on time
One Thanksgiving I hosted a big dinner with a very clear start time and two guests showed up, literally, four-hours late. See, the host has things carefully timed, and even though he or she might totally blow the timing, that’s kind of his or her prerogative for having you over. Not yours.
But don’t: Arrive early
If call time is 11am and you are on schedule to arrive at 10:45 then go for a walk around the block. Find a coffee shop. Take the long way there. Don’t show up in the final 15 minutes of prepping, mopping, lighting, setting, cleaning, showering, drying … your host desperately needs that time to prepare for you.
Do: Bring a dish if asked
If asked to bring something, discuss what would best complement your hosts’ menu. Don’t expect them to choose it – but give them options, “Would you like me to bring something? Yes? Shall I bring roasted sweet potatoes? Quinoa Salad? Is there a vegetarian coming you’d like me to do something special for?”
But don’t: Show up with an unexpected dish that takes a ton of time or tremendous amount of effort
Considering making your own Turducken? Figure it out at home. Not on your hosts countertop dripping goo on the pecan pie and using all of her clean utensils.
Do: Write a thank you note
When you get home, draft a quick note, “Dear Jane and Andy, Thank you so much for having us over for Thanksgiving. Dinner was delicious and your home was so warm and inviting. I can’t imagine a better way to spend the afternoon. Love, Bob P.S. Sorry the Raiders beat the pants off the Cowboys”.
Expect praise for showing up on time, with food and helping to clean. The fact is that the afternoon will go by in a blur for your host who will have been standing for 48-hours prepping for this meal. She will greatly appreciate your contribution but she might, in the exhaustion that follows her putting away the last serving dish and roasting pan until next year, forget to thank you properly. That’s okay. You did the right thing.
Now – get out there people and eat some Turkey!