Thanksgiving 2012: A Survival Guide
Well, we made it. I feel a bit as if I’ve just emerged from a food-coma-induced cloud, only to discover that someone filled my fridge with delicious leftovers.
Since this is my third annual Biggest Little Thanksgiving, I thought I had this down. I thought that making a ton of food was making a ton of food; because it is, isn’t it? I failed to take into account two important factors: 1) the size/quantity of the bird(s), and 2) people, and therefore time.
You may have noticed that this is the Longest Blog Post Ever Written, and you may even be wondering “Where is this survival guide she mentioned? I’m not sticking around to read all this!” Well, you know me. I like to tell a story. And this is a doozy, so I’m going to have at it. But before you abandon me, there really is a survival guide at the very end. It’ll make more sense if you read the whole story, and it’ll be much more fun, but if you’re in a hurry, hop on down.
The First Annual Biggest Little Thanksgiving took place in the world’s smallest kitchen, accompanied by Co-Chef Sister and Sous-Chef Tater (a Frenchie who was often “sous” the cooking process). Our audience, who came in once the majority of the process was complete, were two friends and their two rambunctious puppies – a crowd, but an enthusiastically uninvested one.
The Second Annual Biggest Little Thanksgiving was at home sweet home, again accompanied by Co-Chef Sister and Sous-Chef Tater, with audience Mom, and occasional guests who showed up in the leftovers phase. Needless to say, things were fairly casual.
I had big plans for this year. For once, there was no competition for Day Of, so I ate with the best of them at the in-laws on Thanksgiving proper, and thought I was so clever to have an extra two days to prepare for my own exalted Turkey Day. (Have I mentioned that I call it this ironically? I have never in my life cooked a Turkey, although I have eaten many.)
But there were downsides. Having our own day meant that other people could actually come to our Thanksgiving dinner this year, which is an up-side in that we had company and family around, but a downside in that 1) people wanted to know what time they should show up, which meant I had to be on a schedule, and 2) people expected bird, and lots of it. Year One involved two cornish hens, lovingly and painstakingly butterflied and panfried to serve four. Year Two was the Year of No Bird, because I said No, and when I say No, I mean No. Year Three became the Year of the Happy Chickens*.
I’m stressing myself out just writing about it. Hold tight while I pour some more tea.
I was prepared. I made lists. I shopped. I assigned things to other people (sort of). I collected recipes from last year that I loved. I found new recipes for things that weren’t so great last year. I asked people what they wanted to eat, and pretended to listen. I read reviews. I studied. I counted.
On Saturday, I made a spreadsheet of every recipe and listed every common ingredient and the quantities, then tallied them all to make sure I actually had enough. I was short one egg. I called my mother. She brought more eggs. I harnessed the power of relatives and conned Co-Chef Sister and Sous-Chef mom into the indentured servitude of chopping and prepping the easy ingredients (broccoli, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes, apples) while I made cornbread (for the stuffing), cranberry sauce, cinnamon ice cream (for apple pie) and rolls (for the ham rolls). I containerized them happily, believing we were firmly on top of things.
Saturday night, I tossed and turned all night, waking up ever 45 minutes with new fears about timing, about people, about space in the oven. We had decided that we needed 3 chickens, rather than just 2, for the 10 people we expected for dinner. How could I fit everything in? Could it even be done? Had I set myself up for failure?
I woke up at 2:15, 3:30, 4:30, 5:45, and 6:15. At 6:20 I fed the cats and convinced myself a few more hours of sleep would be good. I woke up at 7:30, 8:00, 8:30. At 8:45, I gave up and got up. I took all of my pans out of the cabinets, pulled out the chickens and put them in their roasting pans, and simulated a full oven. It would work, just barely, if I filled every shelf and arranged things perfectly.
I made tea and sat on the couch, trying not to panic, while I waited for a reasonable hour to wake up Co-Chef Sister and Sous-Chef Husband. The phone rang. It was Brother In Law ready to come visit for a bit on his way out of town. I made coffee, woke up the cohorts, and focused on family for a little while. The phone rang again. It was Dad, on his way with the booze, wondering if we needed anything. Coffee, I said. More coffee. Brother in Law walked out the door as Dad walked in. We started the hot cider, for rum purposes.
And so it began. The phone rang again. Mom, done with the apple pie, ready to come play. Bring it on. Then, disaster. Amy was sick; Ruth and Ben taking her to the doctor. Would Amy be okay? Would Ruth and Ben make it for dinner? What was the total attendee count, anyway?
I made another spreadsheet, this time of cooking times and temperatures. Everything was different; everything was particular. There was only one oven and one “warming” drawer. I decided dinner was at 3:30, and I counted back from there. I pushed temperatures on some things up, times down; I pushed temperatures on some things down, times up. I realized I’d forgotten resting times, and calculated it all again.
Then I looked at the clock. 12:30. S***. We’d had breakfast crepes, tea, coffee, friendly visits, concerned phone calls, some furniture rearranging, and a little bit of down time. We hadn’t started cooking. At all. Even a little bit.
I assigned Co-Chef Sister and Sous-Chef Husband to Chicken Duty. Sister knew how; Husband could follow instructions. They would be fine. I turned my attention to the smorgasbord of side dishes and tried not to hyperventilate.
Half way through mashing the sweet potatoes, help arrived. The door opened – Ben and Ruth! Amy was fine, settled and drugged; she’d live, but she’d miss the party. Ruth set to work being social and entertaining and wonderful, and Ben became Sous-Chef Amazing Helper. Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. Supervised or unsupervised, he asked. Unsupervised! I responded. Here are your assignments! (The real irony here is that Sous-Chef Amazing Helper Ben actually helped make everything, waited until the last dish went in the oven, and then announced that he had to leave to drive back home. What a trooper – he did all the work and didn’t even get to eat any of it! Except ham rolls. He definitely got ham rolls.)
Co-Chef Sister and Sous-Chef Husband got the chickens ready. As the chickens were approaching their finishing touches, I suddenly remembered that we hadn’t preheated the oven. Shoot! Good thing it’s an amazing, super efficient, fast-heating-uping oven. The chickens were the time framers, so they went in first, and the temperature probe was attached, carefully and incorrectly. According to my chart, everything else waited for the chickens to get their groove on.
Between us all (other helpers stepped in over the course of the afternoon, as needed, remarkably – but when you realize that our kitchen is in our living room, they can’t really avoid knowing when there is a crisis), we got the sweet potatoes ready; the broccoli casserole (link added!) ready; the mac and cheese ready; the stuffing ready. There was a brief pan crisis, as I realized that we had 9×13 pans for everything, even though almost everything called for a 2 quart dish. The pan crisis was resolved using creative pan ransacking and faking it. As we finished prepping the side dishes, I covered them with tin foil and set them aside to await their turn.
It was shortly after I foiled the mac and cheese that I realized I had no idea what time we’d put the chickens in the oven. Commence hyperventilation. [Pause for more tea.] As I scrambled around the kitchen, each of us guessing how long the chickens had been cooking, where we were on my precious time table, Life Saver Michael stepped in.
“Did you take a picture before you put them in?” ”Yes…” ”Check the time stamp.” Never have I been so grateful that I’m an obsessive blog photographer, and that everyone knows it. Or that other people can think on their feet. I gave Michael my first hug in hours.
So the chickens had been in for 45 minutes, and it was time to shove off on the rest! Thus began the dance of the timers. The mac and cheese and corn pudding took the longest, so they went in the lower oven, and a timer was set. A little later, the stuffing went in, and a timer was set. Then the broccoli casserole went in, the temperature went down, and a timer was set.
At this point, I realized that I’d left the foil on everything I’d put in the oven, when only the mac and cheese actually said to bake covered. [Pause to breathe.] I frantically pulled foil off pans, trying not to upset anything (success), burn myself (failure), or let out too much of the heat (failure). I also realized that I could actually fit everything in the big oven, so I moved the mac and cheese, and Ben very. carefully. lifted the corn pudding out of the lower oven while I closed the drawer and opened the big oven trying very hard to be quick so he wouldn’t drop the whole precariously balanced thing on the floor. (We’ve had that adventure before. Not on my watch.)
The pans took up every available inch of the oven.
Then the chickens reached temperature (or so the probe said) and we pulled out one pan to check. They were still very pink. The probe keep beeping until I yanked it out, realizing as I did that probably that metal part was supposed to be all the way in the chicken, and probably it didn’t work right if it wasn’t, and definitely it’s not possible to stick that metal part all the way into a chicken without touching 1) bone, or 2) the pan. We put the chickens back in.
The sweet potato casserole hadn’t gone in yet – all it needed was to heat up and crisp the marshmallows, so I didn’t want to burn it.I jiggled some things. The corn pudding sloshed. The mac and cheese looked crispy. The broccoli casserole did not look crispy. The stuffing looked like stuffing. I took the mac and cheese back out of the big oven and stuck it in the little oven on warm instead of bake. I put the sweet potato casserole in on the top shelf, to crisp. I swapped the corn pudding for the broccoli casserole, so it could turn golden brown like it was supposed to. More timers were set, although by this time I didn’t have any idea what for. The time table was in a pile of recipes under a loaf of bread in the corner, rejected.
While we waited, Co-Chef Sister made mashed potatoes, and Sous-Chef Husband fed us all ham rolls. I made a vegetarian gravy. Dad made drinks. Ruth and Mom did dishes. Some interim arrivals realized that the kitchen was not a safe place to be, and relocated to the basement to play pool. I decreed that when the mashed potatoes were done, so would the chicken be. Even happy chickens have to be cooked in 2 hours.
The potatoes were done! Out came the chickens! Life Saver Michael stepped in yet again as Professional Chicken Carver while we yanked side dishes out of the oven. The corn pudding still sloshed. The mac and cheese was still crispy. Everything else looked perfect. We called 5 minute warning to the billiards teams and assembled the buffet table and chairs around the living room.
Above: Clockwise spiral from top left: hot cider, roasted vegetables (from the chicken), cranberry sauce, broccoli casserole, sweet potato casserole, mac and cheese, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, chicken, rolls.
Everyone served themselves and settled in. The corn pudding still sloshed; I gave it 20 more minutes and sat down to eat with my family. Everything was delicious; the mac and cheese needed more cheese and less crisp, but wasn’t bad; the vegetarian gravy needed tweaking, but was better than expected and surprisingly like real gravy; everything else was awesome.
We all ate immense quantities (read: one plate). Most of us collapsed in our chairs and contemplated naps; several brave souls pursued seconds, then collapsed in their chairs and contemplated naps. After a long, conversational and sigh-filled lull, some certifiably insane people turned to dessert: mom’s now-famous apple pie, and my home-made cinnamon ice cream (or, for the less adventurous or the less informed, Breyers vanilla).
I have to confess that I wasn’t ready to eat dessert until about 4 hours later, just before bedtime, but when I did, I was able to confirm the murmurs I’d been hearing – absolutely amazing pie, as usual, and the ice cream was perfecto. Unexpectedly, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been, the ice cream tasted exactly like Mom’s cinnamon whipped cream that she makes with my birthday angel food cake. It was truly awesome; I savored a tiny, delicate bite before scarfing the rest of the plate in mere moments.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Just before the desserters, Mom decided she wanted to try the corn pudding, which I’d finally given up on and pulled out of the oven, and which she was very excited about (usually it’s fabulous). It still sloshed, which is not, I repeat NOT, how it’s supposed to be after 1 1/2 hours in the oven (the recipe calls for 45 minutes). Mom took a big spoonful, ate it, and thought for a minute.
“Well, it tastes good, but… Did you add the eggs?”
The clock ticked once, twice, thrice. I burst into maniacal laughter. I had not added the eggs. I had meticulously doubled the recipe in my head as I was adding ingredients to the food processor, but when I counted eggs, I was counting them for the stuffing Ben was working on at the same time. My brain said “Yes, eggs accomplished! Check!” The recipe said “Nope, this needs four eggs once it’s doubled, and you just scrambled two and gave them to Ben. Uncheck.” But the recipe can’t speak out loud, and I didn’t hear it until I watched Mom try that one bite.
In the end, the meal (other than the corn pudding) was a success. Every new recipe we made was delicious; every old recipe (except the corn pudding – human error – and the mac and cheese, which needs adapting) was still excellent; nothing burned; no one died; no one was strangled; no one got food poisoning; everyone had a good time, ate food, and went home happy.
I’ll be posting about the new recipes I tried over the next few days/weeks, but for now, isn’t it time that I got to the point?
- Do a practice run. Two cornish hens on stovetop do not three chickens in an oven make. And besides, as Sous-Chef Husband pointed out, who would ever turn down Thanksgiving for dinner? You don’t have to make everything all at once, but make everything at least once, and take notes.
- Make more ahead of time. Quite a few of these side dishes could have been fully assembled a day or two in advance. I did some of this, but not enough to ease the pressures day-of.
- Kick everyone out of the kitchen unless they’re actively helping (and you want them actively helping). Helping hands are company; good intentions and well wishes are a crowd.
- Drink more. And I don’t mean the soda I chugged in half a minute at around 12:00. Have a few rum and ciders, and maybe a glass of wine. If you’re feeling adventurous and you like them, start the morning with a Bloody Mary. Assign someone the job of keeping a drink at your fingertips at all times; if you’ve made enough ahead of time per item 2, you’ll even have time to take large sips on a regular basis.
- Assign one of your onlookers to the time table, and have them give reminders. You will not remember in the heat of the moment, and it may be your undoing. They can even play pool while they perform this function; they just have to run upstairs every so often and yell “chickens!” or “casserole!” Everyone loves this kind of job.
- Definitely have someone on dishes duty. There is nothing worse than finishing the cooking only to discover that your sink is overflowing with every dish in your house, and you not only don’t have any dessert plates because you used them all already, but you’re going to be stuck washing everything later. People are much easier to rope into tasks before you’ve fattened them up.
- Don’t take any of it too seriously. If you’ve invited the right people to the party, nobody will be judging, and everyone will be appreciating that you’re doing all the work. If things go wrong, just laugh, scrape the lasagna off the rug, and carry on, perhaps with another glass of wine.
- Count your eggs. If your ingredient spreadsheet said you need 18 eggs, you acquire 20 eggs, and after cooking everything you still have 5 eggs left, something is very, very wrong.
* A note about happy chickens: Did you know that there are stages of chicken happiness, as evaluated for eating-by-people purposes? Two of our chickens were “stage 5″ which apparently means they lived an organic, animal-centered, free-range, super-duper happy life before they were packaged, purchased, and cooked by me. The third chicken was “stage 2″, which as I recall just means organic and free-range. (Whole Foods ran out of “stage 5″ chickens by the time I decided we needed a third.) I have no way of confirming any of this – the internet is coming up short, and I may have imagined all of this – so all I can say is go to Whole Foods and check out their whole chickens. I have no idea what happened to Stage 1, Stage 3 or Stage 4, but there are definitely 2s and 5s, and apparently 5 is the happiest.