All About Food: Tales of the Thanksgiving rush

RecipesRestaurantsThanksgivingRestaurant and Catering IndustryDining and DrinkingPersonal ServiceErma Bombeck

"The funny thing about Thanksgiving, or any huge meal, is that you spend 12 hours shopping for it and then chopping and cooking and braising and blanching. Then it takes 20 minutes to eat it and everybody sort of sits around in a food coma, and then it takes four hours to clean it up."

 

— Ted Allen

 

We all know that it's difficult enough to put Thanksgiving dinner together for 10 or 20 people, but imagine if you were cooking for 500.

That's what we did every year for 18 years when we owned A La Carte in Laguna Beach, a small gourmet take-out restaurant and catering business. No matter how many times we did it, it never got any easier.

For Thanksgiving we offered a complete dinner for 10 (or the parts thereof), and what made it so good was that everything was made from scratch: no shortcuts, no cans, no powdered mashed potatoes, no gravy mixes, no pre-made commercial pie crusts. The quantity of food that we had to make was enormous and incredibly labor-intensive.

For example, we made hundreds of quarts of gravy. All year we froze the juices from the turkey breasts that we cooked for sandwiches in anticipation of the big day. We made fruit nut stuffing, sausage mushroom stuffing, fresh cranberry orange relish, garlic mashed potatoes and Grand Marnier-souffleed sweet potatoes.

Yes, we hand-peeled all those, too, and you had to do it while they were hot!

We always offered two kinds of pie: pumpkin, of course, and for the second, cranberry apple almond streusel.

We cooked the fresh turkeys the day before, having figured out the way to prepare them so that people could briefly reheat them the next day and they would still taste juicy and just cooked, while giving off that wonderful holiday aroma.

After the exhausting task of getting all that food ready came the equally exhausting and infinitely more complicated job of distributing the right orders to the right people. This involved counting and recounting the orders, endless master lists, final counts, and then final-final counts. No matter what we did or what system we used, there were always mistakes (and sometimes disasters that we somehow managed to remedy).

Most of the problems involved shortages, because people were given the wrong items, or the wrong quantity when picking up their orders. In the final nightmarish hour, we were able to count what we had left in the shop and compare it to what we had left on order.

Invariably, they did not tally. Then, there was the last minute scrambling to eke out another quart of gravy or mashed potatoes.

The most frustrating discovery was to be short a turkey or to have mistakenly given a large turkey to someone who had ordered a small one, or vice versa. This meant driving around Orange County, switching turkeys from one household to another or even cooking an extra one on Thanksgiving morning and delivering it.

We got more accurate each year, but we never got it exactly right. In the frenetic atmosphere our staff would sometimes forget to mark off what had already been sold. We had to resist the pleas of people who professed that one more pint of this or one more quart of that would save their lives.

Inevitably, people forgot to pick up their orders or didn't arrive in time, even though we called each and every customer to remind them to be there by closing time. When people didn't arrive, we had to wait, albeit completely exhausted, because we could not deny people their Thanksgiving.

Enjoy yours, though!

As Erma Bombeck said, "What we're really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets. I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?"

By the way, feel free to email us for our streusel pie recipe at m_markowitz@cox.net.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years.

Terry and Elle's Thanksgiving Dining Picks

•The Californian, at The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa, 21500 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach. (714) 845-4776 or http://www.huntingtonbeach.hyatt.com

•Old World German Restaurant, 7561 Center Ave. # 49, Huntington Beach. (714) 895-8020 or http://www.oldworld.ws

•The Longboard Restaurant & Pub, 217 Main St., Huntington Beach. (714) 960-1896 or http://www.longboardpub.com

•Black Angus Steakhouse, 17920 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. (714) 968-4477 or http://www.blackangus.com

•Sandy's Beach Grill, 315 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach. (714) 374-7273 or http://www.sandysbeachgrill.com

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