Jessie Raymond: A simple Thanksgiving? No thanks


I spent Sunday afternoon pressing the hems on the fabric squares I will be turning into cloth napkins for Thanksgiving dinner this year.

If you think that sounds like something unnecessary that is going to add only marginally to the ambience of the meal yet take up hours beforehand that could be devoted to prepping food, congratulations: You get me.

We’re hosting Thanksgiving for the first time in four years, and I’m a little bit too excited about it. I especially love the planning stage, where I figure out what I can do to make the next few days as overwhelming as possible.

Lately, my mind is consumed with what ingredients I will need and what dishes I can make beyond the dozen or so standards like stuffing and pumpkin pie. No matter what I appear to be doing on the outside, inside I’m going over my mental shopping list.

“Cornstarch!” I shout while showering. “Celery!” I blurt out during a work meeting. 

This is my brain on Thanksgiving, and it’s my favorite mental state.

I have long insisted that Thanksgiving is, dish for dish, a pretty easy meal. If you can stick a bird in the oven for several hours and mash a pot of potatoes, you’re halfway there.

Because the menu is largely traditional, the challenge isn’t the recipes; it’s scaling up portions for the number of people you’re serving — 15, in our case — and then working backward from Thursday’s meal time to figure out when to cook or bake each dish. My spreadsheets and diagrams would make NASA scientists coo in admiration.

The timing, however, can get tense. Figuring out how to coordinate the preparation of each menu item within the limitations of my oven, my refrigerator’s cubic footage and the number of pots, pans and serving dishes I own is a challenge that can drive me from adrenalin-fueled holiday euphoria to tearful panic in an instant. Despite the likelihood of meltdowns, however, riding that line between culinary success and disaster makes me feel alive.

It doesn’t have to be this difficult. In fact, our guests are all bringing a dish or two, so I don’t have to work that hard. But my nature is to turn even a simple dinner into a whole production. Thanksgiving is, obviously, the showstopper of the year.

The problem with doing it well — as I found out four years ago — is that if my scheduling works out perfectly, I find myself on Thanksgiving morning with everything peeled, boiled, mashed, baked, stuffed, seasoned and ready to go. Last time, I had several hours of calm, uneventful downtime before our guests started arriving.

I can’t let that happen again.

The only way to prevent such a lull is to add more to-dos. That’s why I’m sewing cloth napkins — as well as a bread cloth in which to swaddle my homemade dinner rolls. 

If you’re wondering whether I really need to make my own dinner rolls, I guess I was mistaken: Maybe you don’t get me after all. If I don’t spend the next three days and nights preparing everything from scratch, how will we all enjoy the seven to 10 minutes it takes for us to wolf down our meal? 

My compulsion to turn this holiday into a test of my cooking and planning skills means that, even though the menu has long been decided, I continue to flip through old cookbooks and browse the web looking for new recipes I can squeeze in before Thursday.

I found one this morning: pecan pie bites. These are single-serve “pies” made in mini-cupcake tins, meaning that preparing them requires more work than just rolling out a pie crust.

That’s my kind of recipe.

I was texting with a friend Monday morning and learned that she too would be feeding 15 people. A Thanksgiving overachiever like me, she shared her meal plan for the holiday, and it was as needlessly ambitious as mine. And then she said she was making up the bed in the spare room for relatives who would be arriving from out of town.

Suddenly, it hit me: What’s the best way — other than undertaking a nonessential and time-consuming last-minute sewing project — to add more fun and stress to a holiday gathering? Have houseguests, of course. 

I’m totally doing that next year.

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