How My Grandmother Trained Me to Become a Thanksgiving Whisperer
I'm the Thanksgiving 911 for my friends' cooking crises—and I love it.
Some are born to Thanksgiving, some achieve Thanksgiving, some have Thanksgiving thrust upon them. I was born to Thanksgiving. My grandmother Jonnie, raised by a terrible cook, became an amazing cook, and never did she shine more than at Thanksgiving. Jonnie is the reason I cook, the reason I gather loved ones around my table, the reason that when there are four for dinner, I make enough for eight because abundance rules and one can always do something interesting with the leftovers. Jonnie taught me Thanksgiving, in every permutation of that word and holiday and philosophy. And when I returned from college and moved into an apartment with a large dining room, just as she was downsizing into a condo with no dining room, it only made sense for her to pass the Thanksgiving torch to me.
They say that the human body completely renews all of its cells every seven years. Every seven years you essentially become a brand-new person. And while my family Thanksgiving has stayed effectively the same, my recipes have slowly shifted from the ones Jonnie taught me, little changes in technique or ingredients, so that now, while the meal is effectively the same, it has also become as much mine as hers. I no longer do her turkey with the buttered cheesecloth over the breast, and I don’t stuff the bird the way she did. My mashed potatoes now include sour cream and chives, the cranberries have port and ginger in them, and there is significantly less brown sugar in the sweet potatoes. I’ve given up the green bean casserole in favor of Southern-style collard greens for my Kentucky-bred husband, and I make milkbread rolls and popovers instead of her yeast rolls. The various parts of the whole remain the same; the traditions are there, deepened a bit, adjusted, but still full of memory and still honoring what came before.
This will be the 28th Thanksgiving meal I have cooked. It will be the third one that I will have to do without eleventy million phone calls to Jonnie over the weeks leading up, going over the menu, the plan. One of the things she taught me that I fully embraced, was to seriously plan ahead. Making menus, shopping lists, predetermining everything from serving pieces to plotting cleanup, and prepping for cooking with the leftovers. Since my family likes the same menu every year, with few alterations, I took this to the next level and wrote down all of the standard Thanksgiving recipes, past and present, and created a file in my computer, along with a shopping list for the whole menu.
Watch: Top Thanksgiving Dessert Recipes
Then I created a time and action plan. Sort of a battle plan, starting with which dishes to make ahead and freeze, which to make the week of and stash in the fridge, and no-joke, a plan for Thanksgiving week that breaks down into daily tasks from Monday through Wednesday, and my Thursday waking hours into fifteen and thirty minute increments so that I always know what comes next, and I get the meal on the table with everything hot and no drama. Every year I pull up last year’s shopping list, adjust based on the addition or subtraction of a dish or the addition or subtraction of guests. Then I tweak the time and action plan accordingly.
This level of intense planning might seem crazy. But at 2:40pm precisely on Thanksgiving Day, my time and action plan reminds me to take a nap till 3:20, which I do, and which keeps me from face-planting into the pumpkin soup later. My husband loves to mock the time and action plan, but he grudgingly acknowledges that it makes Thanksgiving ridiculously manageable.
An unexpected side-effect of all of this planning and documentation is that I have accidentally become what my friend Claire calls a Thanksgiving whisperrer, after I coached her practically hour by hour through her first hosting year. I have guided about a half dozen people through their first Thanksgiving dinners, and talked countless others through Thanksgiving dramas, potluck offerings, and I take enough calls Thanksgiving week that the Butterball Hotline should thank me for keeping the lines clear. Because when you are the person who is trying to achieve Thanksgiving, or has had Thanksgiving thrust upon them, you need someone to remind you to breathe, and to remember that the journey is part of the process, and that the end result will be fabulous and make you forget any pain that happened along the way so that in a year you will be able to do it again
If I send you the Thanksgiving file of recipes, the shopping list, and Time and Action Plan? You can singlehandedly put Thanksgiving for 12 on the table without having a meltdown. I helped my pal author Jen Lancaster flip the script on Thanksgiving, with hilarious results, the details of which she wrote about in her memoir The Tao of Martha. I saw Claire recently, and she is back on Thanksgiving and strongly considering a macaroni and cheese wild card, which means she is feeling her Thanksgiving oats, and I am super proud of her. And I will happily take her call if she needs me. Whether someone just needs a great recipe for one dish, or the whole menu, I’ve got their backs. And nothing makes me happier. Being a Tanksgiving whisperer isn't always easy, but it is always satisfying.