I really do feel sympathy for those afflicted with acute Thanksgiving anxiety over issues such as gravy or the proper way to roast a turkey. Stuff it or not stuff it. There is an avalanche of information about preparing a Thanksgiving feast, easily obtainable on Google, and other sources. The food magazines start to ramp up anxiety over the holiday season in September when their first issues on Thanksgiving are on the newsstands. "Get Organized," they admonish. Make lists. Check your dishes, linens, flatware. Do you have enough chairs? How big a bird do you need? Make your turkey stock in October--freeze--and it's ready for you on Thanksgiving. Who is on your guest list and do they have food issues (nut allergies, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, organic-only)? All this stuff accumulates and is added to the family drama that's already been in place for years before everyone has assembled for this annual gathering of "family and friends." Julia Child used to take calls from anxious Thanksgiving cooks because her phone number was listed. She cheerfully answered their questions. Over the years, I've accumulated lots of calls from friends over Thanksgiving. So in the spirit of the holiday, I'm offering a few words of wisdom on how to avoid making your Thanksgiving an ordeal:
1) A Thanksgiving feast is a ton of work. Don't take it on unless you're prepared to work like a dog putting it on the table.
2) Make lists. There are too many items in a Thanksgiving menu and you don't want to discover you have no condensed milk for the pumpkin pie filling on Thanksgiving morning.
3) A frozen turkey will not thaw on Thanksgiving day. If you forgot to thaw the turkey, take everyone out or order in from your local supermarket. Thawing instructions usually come with the turkey. Or ask your butcher.
4) Try to minimize the amount of special-needs foods that you can. Don't worry if Aunt Sarah can't eat gluten. Instead of stuffing, she can have the mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes. Gluten-free stuffing is pretty awful. If you do have to make special dishes, okay, but send the person home with the leftovers. They will appreciate it, and you'll have one less thing dying in your fridge.
Read labels carefully so that you don't have any allergic surprises to ruin the big day.
5) Assess your talents as a cook realistically, and manage what you can. If you're having guests, ask them to bring something for the meal. There is nothing worse than eating a lousy meal that you've slaved over. That includes pies with uncooked bottom crusts, potatoes that have been
food-processed into a gluey mess, lumpy gravy, and overcooked white meat. It is no sin to buy canned cranberry sauce. You ate it as a kid, it is still edible.
6) If your white meat is dry as a bone, you over-roasted it.
7) I try not to offer too much in the way of noshes and nibbles in advance of the meal. If you're not known for your culinary skills, you might want to provide your guests with a nice spread of appetizers, just in case.
8) Foodies will tell you a recipe is a template for your creativity, and that is fine. But most Thanksgiving cooks need to stick to the recipe as closely as possible. There are fewer chances for disasters to occur if you follow this advice.
9) Set your table the night before. It provides you with the opportunity to fix any issues that arise in time. This means setting up your dessert dishes, plates, cups and saucers or mugs, and serving pieces such as a pie server, spoon for whipped cream, etc.
10) Make a time-line schedule of items that need to be cooked, baked, etc. by order. A turkey will need at least 30 minutes to rest before it is carved. That's the time when potato casseroles, gravies, stuffings (not inside the bird), rolls, etc., need to be addressed.
11) Every holiday meal my mother used to freak out, usually by the time she reached into the freezer for the frozen peas. There would be my brothers and her latest husband sitting in front of the TV set while she slaved in the kitchen. I would have to remind her that I was there in the kitchen with her. It didn't matter. Those four lumps in the living room were doing nothing and it added to her sense of martyrdom. Ask for help. You'll get better results by asking a woman. Men and football make for a selfish combination and no amount of nagging will get the job done.
12) Set up for clean-up. I usually have a deep bowl filled with soapy water to soak the silver/stainless flatware in. Make sure your dishwasher is empty. Ditto the sink and counter around the sink. There is nothing more defeating than the sight of a trashed kitchen. You can get organized while the coffee is brewing and before you serve dessert. This is the time to ask the men to help. Take out the trash. make sure the table is cleared of the dinner dishes and prepped for dessert. If there's time, begin to organize the leftovers (containers, plastic bags, etc.). Don't let leftovers hang out in the kitchen unattended for long periods of time.
13) If you can't do any of this, and you want to have a Thanksgiving feast and you can afford it, look to a local market, caterer, or restaurant that will make the meal complete for pick-up or delivery to your door. I was a guest at a friend's home for my first Christmas in Portland, Oregon. He is not a cook, but ordered in an entire meal for twelve. Was it the best Christmas feast of turkey with all the trimmings? Certainly not, but it was the right thing for him to do, and it was a very pleasant holiday meal.
Now put down the anxiety medication, step away from the counter and go make a plan!