For me, Thanksgiving is inevitably too much, too rich, too frenzied. Even when there were only four of us, my mother used to get up at 5:30 on Thanksgiving morning to start cooking, huffing and puffing all the way, 'til my father revved up his electric carving knife and dinner was served. We ate quickly, and just when I thought we could maybe relax and digest, maybe take a snooze, she'd clap her hands and command: Dishes!
That's maybe why as an adult I rebelled against the holiday, sometimes opting out entirely and staying in to read. Or time-shifting my idea of Thanksgiving to late summer. Then, with no one's expectations to consider but my own, I could cook dishes that actually went together, invite friends (not too many) who would be good company and drink beautiful wines I'd saved for the occasion. I thought I'd won — a lovely meal as opposed to a gargantuan extravaganza — but it was the wrong season and a Thanksgiving that didn't thank those who counted most.
So I came up with a new strategy. I have instituted the curated Thanksgiving. Goodbye, cacophony. Say hello to a Thanksgiving meal in which the elements go together, the wines work and everyone has a fine — and relaxed — time.
The menu is a little different each year, even the way I cook the turkey. It might be brined. It might be salt-rubbed. It might be deconstructed (parts roasted separately but put back together before serving so it creates the impression of one big, magnificent bird). I also make the stuffing and the gravy.
But I farm out the sides to the trusted cooks in the group. They can suggest ideas, but I don't give them free rein. If they propose something I don't think will work, I might suggest an alternative recipe or something else entirely, all in the service of a meal that makes some kind of sense together.
And you know what? It works.
One thing I insist on is not too many dishes. I hate all that mess in the kitchen of everybody squeezing past everybody else to heat up whatever they brought. And all the packing up of leftover food and containers, tools left behind, treasured platters lost.
Without someone taking charge, hysteria can take over the kitchen. Captive to tradition, cooks can go into meltdown. Somehow, they're expected to fit every remembered family dish into the jigsaw puzzle of the menu. For some family members, nothing can be changed. Aunt Kim inevitably has to bring her awful sweet potatoes with marshmallows, cousin Lucy the green beans cooked in canned mushroom soup. And Roger always manages to sneak in a can of the cranberry sauce he prefers to homemade.
When I cook Thanksgiving, my mother always asks whether I made the stuffing with Mrs. Cubbison's packaged mix, which I guess is part of our family's tradition (the one I'm not following, bad daughter that I am). I like cornbread stuffing with lots of celery and onion, a little pancetta or guanciale, and sage from the garden.
"No, Mama," I answer, "I did not."
"Just curious," she'll say.
And before she wonders, I'll tell her I also made the pumpkin pie with a real pumpkin instead of purée out of a can. These are my small rebellions.
I've tried bigger ones too — scrapping tradition entirely. Like the year I invited everyone to Berkeley for Thanksgiving and made a Moroccan feast — that everybody hated. Even the turkey molé fest I cooked for Thanksgiving strays in college went over much better. But then it was a very different crowd than my relatives, and I've learned — oh, how I've learned — that you only mess so much with tradition.
But I've also found that the well-edited Thanksgiving ends up winning over the skeptics. "Best Thanksgiving ever!" one of the most recalcitrant shouted out last year as he left (after that nap).
The dishes? They can wait for later. Much later.