's Sites We Love Saveur Magazine has listed The Skinny Gourmet among its "Sites We Love"

I've been having a great time checking out Nashville's high end dining on the cheap thanks to Groupon. Have you tried it yet? Its awesome. I don't know why I ever hesitated.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The First Thanksgiving

There is something magical and terrifying about the first Thanksgiving. And no, I don't mean pilgrims in funny hats. I mean the first time you decide to take on the behemoth task of coordinating a full-on Thanksgiving dinner. It is madness and mistakes and laughing and memories. At least mine was. But it was also the birth of a beloved tradition that still continues. This post is for all my friends scattered far and wide who have been around to celebrate an Urban Family Thanksgiving with us.

"It's a fine line to walk between being responsibly prepared
and allowing preparation to be an endless excuse not to begin."

When I wrote those words above, I was chatting with a friend about the particularly paralyzing fear that can accompany the beginning of dissertation research. But I realized that they apply to most realms of life. There are a thousand versions of this saying, all of which add up to "carpe diem"--seize the day. The more I thought about this idea, the more I thought about it applying to food, cooking, and entertaining. Among our friends, my husband and I have something of a reputation as hosts. I believe that among our friends the most beloved of our hosting traditions are when we host holiday meals, and the highlight of the holiday hosting calendar at our home is "Urban Family Thanksgiving." I trace the history of one of our most beloved entertaining traditions from my first ever effort to put together a Thanksgiving dinner. I end with a closely held secret to good entertaining. One you probably won't ever get from Martha Stewart.

We host dinner parties large and small. By far our largest, and most beloved, dinner party is the one we host the Sunday before Thanksgiving. We host on the Sunday before Thanksgiving because we want to bring together our close friends--our "urban family"--even though some of them will be traveling elsewhere on Thanksgiving proper. This event becomes a chance to commemorate a wonderful support network and share the sense of fellowship with the "family" you choose. We have 25-30 folks over every November for an Urban Family Thanksgiving dinner. We prepare the turkey, mashed potatoes, and whatever else needs making, while our guests all bring a dish from their own favorite Thanksgiving tradition. We have had everything from Kentucky Derby Pie to North Carolina sweet potatoes, Texas cornbread stuffing, Nigerian goat stew, and Indian chana masala. Guests seat themselves around tables that are variously and creatively arranged in our living room. Before dessert we always come up with some complicated, crazy, or creative way to make guests change seats and get a chance to talk to someone new. Afterwards people take turns working in pairs to help clear dishes. Gatherings of these types are the very makings of family.

This tradition began my senior year in college, when my roommates and I boldly decided to have our friends over for a Thanksgiving style dinner. In retrospect, perhaps hubris is a better term than boldness. For the first time in our lives, we lived off-campus in our own apartment with our own kitchen, and we intended to make the most of it. It is, we reasoned, just cooking a very large chicken, right? And several of us were relatively accomplished cooks. Surely we couldn't be stymied by some mashed potatoes? Confidence in hand, invitations went out. We would have 25 people (including ourselves) crammed into our little apartment. Glorious!

College students that we were, we began by looking things up on the internet. Because once one gets over the hubris of inviting 20 folks over for Thanksgiving, one realizes all the pesky little details. How much turkey do you need for that many people? This investigation lead to an even greater realization: good grief, you have to buy it far enough in advance to thaw it! Hurry girls, to the store! At the store, we found ourselves staring silently into a large bin of frozen turkeys. A kind older man took pity on us and advised us to buy the largest turkey we could, rather than smaller ones, so we could maximize the amount of weight that was meat rather than bones. Excellent. I hew to this kind stranger's advice to this day.

We grabbed a few other essentials and headed for the checkout. Again in the checkout lane we were visited by the kindness of a stranger. This time an older African-American woman behind us in line, spying our youthful eagerness, patiently told us the secret of cooking a turkey. She described the herbs to use, how to apply them, and most importantly, the secret of roasting the bird...upside down. I do not know what her name is, but I have often wished I had asked. Years later I still cook the turkey precisely as she taught me.

We dutifully thawed the turkey in a fridge over several days. When the day came to prepare the turkey, we knew we had to be up at 6 AM to get it cooking. Our roommate Priya, an engineer, stayed on a nearby computer and relayed technical instructions into the kitchen. Evidently before we could follow our matronly angel's advice, we needed to "clean" the turkey. There were girlish squeals as we discovered the thawed and gooey package of "internals" (as my grandma would call them). There were some hijinks and giggling as we mistook the slightly frozen neck inside the body cavity for, well, another piece of anatomy. Finally the bird--now christened "Dirk Turkey"--was ready for the oven.

We were making corn, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and the turkey. Others were bringing cranberries sauce, green bean casseroles, stuffing, wines, milk, and, of course, pies.

There was at least one last minute rush to the grocery store for some forgotten element. But in the end, the turkey was moist and delicious. The mashed potatoes were buttery and delicious. Thanks to Molly's careful stewardship, the gravy was rich and lump-free. A triumph. Everything was edible. Our roommate Molly got a little over-eager at the end of the evening with a liquor soaked sponge cake that nearly inflamed our entire living room (en flambe to the extreme) and tasted unmistakably like solid Everclear. But nothing that we couldn't joyfully laugh our way through, even in front of 20 guests.

Ultimately this event has taught me the true secrets of entertaining. First, you will never be any more experienced than you are right now, unless you start trying. And the older you get, the more people will expect of you.

But the biggest secret of entertaining is to always retain the ability to laugh at yourself. And count yourself doubly blessed in that regard if you have friends who can laugh with you at your follies and mistakes, eating the pasty gnocchi, or turning the event into a memorable night of ordering Chinese take-out.

Thank you to all my wonderful friends. I am so sad to be far away from you. I hate missing our Urban Family Thanksgivings. But I am sending you Turkey thoughts from Africa!

1 comment:

Marta said...

Thanksgiving can be wonderful all the way in Ghana, away from family and comfort - it is you that taught me this ;)

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