I am thinking about Thanksgiving in September. When the very first leaf turns yellow when I see the first turtleneck sweater of the season: it is Thanksgiving. Halloween just interrupts the Thanksgiving spirit. I have to stop myself from purchasing every Thanksgiving-themed food magazine. Instead, I just read them in while the shop owner stares me down. Every meal leading up to the holiday is just an inspiration for how to reinvent a side dish or classic dessert. It is my Olympics, my marathon, what I prepare for all year long–and I mourn when it is all over. My personal favorite year was 2013 when the delights from my Jewish half’s Hanukkah dinner could cross into my father’s Catholic family traditions, a merging of all the best foods. Instead of apple pie, we had apple cake, and the latkes were eaten as quickly as they could be fried. I have been chasing that perfect Thanksgiving since.
My planning starts two and a half months in advance, normal people begin on November 2. I am always overeager for the holiday.
When November finally comes around, it is time to order the turkey–preferably raw to cook yourself. After that, you have a few days off from thinking about seeing in-laws or cousins. A week or so later it may be time to start doing some research, hours of scrolling on NYT Cooking, Bon Appetit, Pinterest, cooking blogs, and even Youtube. Diving into magazines looking for a new recipe to replace a family classic–maybe this is the year the Brussels sprouts won’t be overcooked. The two weeks prior to Thanksgiving is when the planning has to start officially or it will be too late. The final menu is cultivated, and dishes are passed around to family members to confirm who is bringing what–especially who is bringing the wine and desserts. In my family, my brother and I are always proposing a new dish that never had a place at the Thanksgiving table before. Texts and calls between family are at an all-time high.
The weekend before is the preliminary grocery trip. The food and drink items that last in a home for nearly a week. If there was ever a time to take more than one trip to bring the groceries inside, it will likely be this trip, bags filled with canned goods, heavy potatoes, and squashes. Fruits and vegetables are washed, and peppers and onions are diced. Pie crusts are made and popped into the freezer, waiting to be rolled out into ceramic pie dishes. Counters are wiped down and sharp knives are washed. Thanksgiving preparations are on pause. The three days before is when the panic sets in, the fear that not everything will get done–it will get done, it always does. Children are instructed to carefully peel carrots and apples, the teenagers can chop them. Give the kids the stuffing ingredients, they will not mind mixing with their hands. Then it is time for grocery store trip two, but not the final one yet. Lettuce and flowers can be bought today, and probably more wine. Maybe a can of cranberries in case the homemade one is not very good, again. The day before, the pie crusts can be removed from the freezer and fillings can be made–personally, I will always blind bake the crusts to keep them from becoming soggy, no matter the filling. If you ordered your desserts, today is a great day to go pick those up! Find all your serving dishes and silverware, set your tables, and give the kids some paper and gel pens to make place cards for everyone.
Then it is the day, push the dinner back to five o’clock at the earliest, no one wants to eat dinner at two in the afternoon, plus the extra time is always helpful. The potatoes are started, salad dressings are made, turkey is in the oven. Try to clean up a bit, they are family but guests are still coming over. The rest of the night is a blur, toasts are made, loved ones are hugged, and everyone is done eating within 20 minutes. Two weeks of hard work and preparations are packed into bellies and to-go containers. It was worth it.
While the food and the preparations are fun, it is far more important to be grateful for time spent with loved ones and thankful for your traditions. My tradition since I was 10 years old is to bake desserts. Over the years, I have tested out countless pumpkin pies, apple pies, one apple pear pie, and a cinnamon-spiced chocolate cake. When I had too much time on my hands, I butchered an entire pumpkin for a pie, I roasted and pureed it. After staining my hands and countertops orange I learned that Libby’s pumpkin puree does the job just as well. Through my family test subjects, I have been told that streusel topping is tastier for apple pies but meticulous lattices are rewarding and beautiful. A granny smith or a Honeycrisp are my personal favorites for baking, both bake perfectly every time. In my one-time experience of adding raw pears into an Apple Pear pie, the pears got soggy while the pre-cooked apples maintained their shape. Unable to accept a failure, I may have to try again. I can promise that all pies should be accompanied by fresh whipped cream speckled with vanilla beans.
Those who are not baking this season and are picking up bakeries–even better if it is a Bakes for Breast Cancer partner–be patient and kind. Professional chefs, cookies, and bakers are taking time away from their loved ones to guarantee your favorite festive foods are available. Be sure to thank all service and hospitality workers this holiday season. And be grateful to those that are providing your holiday experience, until it is time to plan the next one.