by Frances Edstrom
Approaching my twenty-third year of putting on the family Thanksgiving dinner, I feel a responsibility to pass on to those of you who may be newcomers to this important meal my hard-learned hints for the perfect dinner.
1. Before you include a dish in your menu, give it the "Why?' test. If you are going to prepare it for any of the following reasons, my advice is don't do it.
Your mother or mother-in-law always made it. This is a tricky one. Not all mothers are created equal, of course, but you run the risk of setting yourself up for trouble. If The Mother in question is going to be at the dinner, expect the unflattering comparison. For instance, she might say, "Did you let the milk come to a boil?" This is obviously a trick question, as you won't remember whether the recipe said that the milk should or shouldn't boil. "I don't remember" is not a good answer, either, as it will inevitably result in eye-rolling, voluntary or involuntary, from The Mother.
If The Mother will not be in attendance, you might want to ask yourself this question. Does anyone really eat it, or does it just get thrown away? (The annual cranberry relish of my own childhood comes to mind here.) If it gets thrown away, throw away the recipe card instead.
You are tired of the same old menu. Of course you are, that's what Thanksgiving is all about. Everyone expects the same old thing - looks forward to it, actually. Most people don't like culinary surprises at Thanksgiving. So resist the temptation to substitute the Phyllo-wrapped Chopped Brussels Sprout Packages with Wild Mushroom Sauce recipe that you tore out of the magazine in the doctor's waiting room for the green beans with mushroom soup and canned onion rings that your family has been eating for forty years.
2. If you think the hour at which dinner is served is up to the host, you'd better think again. Here are some of the things you are required to work around.
Football games. Of course you think that a time of family gathering should take precedence over NFL football. Get over it. Not only will they want to watch their own team's game, but as long as they are stuck at home, they'll want to watch all the other games as well. Then after the games, they'll have to get on the Internet or the phones to find out how they did in their Fantasy Football picks as well.
This leaves you with a very small window of opportunity to sit down as a family unit without the television on, or without the guests wearing headphones. Plan carefully.
In-laws. You want to have dinner at noon? So does your brother-in-law's mother, and some people will eat as many as four or five Thanksgiving dinners on Thursday so as not to offend anyone. Make sure you check out every possibile conflict of every guest. Don't start this process very far in advance, as schedules will change up to and including on Thanksgiving Day. If you actually find a time at which all of your guests are able to sit down without looking at their watches, you deserve an award (but won't actually get one).
Church youth workers, choir directors, sports coaches. Not all of these people will conspire to spoil Thanksgiving Day. Some will wait for Christmas. (Just kidding.) But seriously, there are a few people in these professions who see holidays not as family times, but as their times. They know how hard it is to turn them down when they ask you to drop everything for them, so they'll use it to their advantage. With some finesse you might be able to work around these folks without major life changes.
3. Great Expectations are the downfall of many a host. So right now get rid of the following foolish notions.
Everyone will be pleasant. Why should Thanksgiving Day be any different from a regular old day? Besides, family gatherings seem to bring out the worst in some people, who use the occasion to fulfill their need for a good fight, good cry, bad drunk. You get the picture. Just expect some sort of scene and hope you are disappointed.
Because you have organized everything down to the last crumb, things will go smoothly. No explanation needed as to why this is crazy thinking.
People will offer to help clean up. The only ones who offer to help are those you don't want to help because they always break something. They won't take no for an answer, either, so build the loss into your holiday budget.
Well, I hope this helped. I want you to feel prepared, galvanized, ready for battle! If you find, on the other hand, that this has made you quake at the prospect of the Dinner of all Dinners, here's some more advice: Go out to a restaurant.