In the harried countdown to one Thanksgiving feast, my younger son dubbed me The Frenzied Cook. Sad to say, I deserve the name.
Planning ahead is not my strength. I’m captive of the moment, slave to impulse. That brisk Thanksgiving morning, after a walk in the woods, I’d indulged in a nap by the fireplace. Once I moved into the kitchen, the frantic rattling of pots and pans that ensued could have made me songwriter Charles Calhoun’s inspiration for Shake, Rattle and Roll. Instead, I inspired my sobriquet.
Pots and pans are not the only thing shaken in stressed-out times like my preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. I also lose the quality literary wit Oscar Wilde dubbed “mine ancient wisdom and austere control.” I’ve loved that phrase since I first read it back in high school — though my family would likely say I loved what I lacked.
After my equanimity shatters, harmony falls too.
Thanksgiving in my family, and my mother’s family before me, have not always been the grateful, mellow gatherings we like to imagine on America’s own feast day.
At least we’ve never had a kitchen fire. Thanksgiving remains the leading day for cooking fires, with three times as many as on an average day, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
In more recent years, I’ve tried to put the ed on deserve, as in deserved the name. I’m trying to put The Frenzied Cook behind me. Grace under pressure is what I’m working toward.
Aren’t we all?
I hear my family is not unique in our celebration of disastrous Thanksgivings that evolve into legends. Friends recount their own tragic-comic stories, and Judd Apatow movies make much of the mayhem of family gatherings.
Heaven knows that’s a tough resolution. Ernest Hemingway, who made that phrase his definition of guts, killed himself when the going got too tough. (Notably, his death by shotgun nearly coincided with another all-American holiday, the Fourth of July, not Thanksgiving.)
Slowly but surely, I’m learning to plan ahead. That got easier last year, when I followed Julia Child’s suggestion to serve a boned turkey. The extravagance of that culinary trick made me prepare my turkey a day ahead.
On past Thanksgivings, I had not followed the early example of my good mother-in-law, who got up before dawn to start her turkey. No, I always waited to attack the bird until slightly after the time it needed to roast. Following Julia’s directions made me a happy early bird; with bones, neck and giblets at hand, I also made my stock early, simplifying dressing and gravy.
This year, I’ve taken early to heart: I’ve already crumbed bread (I hoard it in the freezer) for dressing and pureed persimmons for one guest’s beloved Thanksgiving dessert, persimmon pudding.
So seriously have I taken my new resolve that I’ve made myself a checklist of pre-Thanksgiving tasks:
1. Set the time and invite the guests.
2. Plan the seating, including table extensions and chairs.
3. Assemble the table setting: Find and iron linens, decide on plates, polish silverware, imagine and prepare serving dishes, gather flowers, secure candles in holders.
4. Plan the menu, order the turkey and assemble the provisions.
5. Work ahead. I’ll also do a pair of cranberry sauces early. Also, dessert. I’m hoping to make Rod ’n’ Reel’s Chocolate and Pumpkin Cheesecake with Pecans (see page 8).
6. Invite guests to bring their family’s favorite side dish or dessert. This is one of great compromises I’ve made (in my family, we did not ask for help) and one for which I’m deeply grateful. Side dishes and desserts are now perfect — not afterthoughts — and many cooks get to shine.
7. Confidently leave the drinks to my husband, who excels in that area as well as in making a welcoming setting. He longs to make appetizers, but on this holiday I won’t let him. Except maybe a tray of oysters.
8. Add pleasures beyond eating. Again this year, we’ll make a post-dinner visit to the Bay Gardener’s Upakrik Farm to cut our Christmas trees. After the fun and exercise, we have room for dessert.
9. Remember grace. I mean this in two ways. Keeping my own grace means my guests enter a state of grace in my home, and a space in time where we can feel, express and share our gratitude for bounty beyond imagining by most of the world, for most of the years of human time. Together we’ll say grace — and one by one enumerate our reasons for thankfulness.
10. Keep my list by my side, so I can add all the steps I’ve forgotten and host this feast in a state of grace — not pressure.