Thanksgiving: How to cook it good enough

by Jessie K on November 19, 2012

It’s hard to believe I’m this old yet this Thursday marks the first Thanksgiving I will actually host. Eight adults, one toddler and a winsome dog will be in attendance. And I’ve been resisting the urge to not freak about it. What if I torch the turkey? What if I don’t get everything to the table on time? What if I fall down drunk before the meal is actually served? What if I get in a fist fight with a beloved family member? Will we even have a turkey?

Jake is supposed to go kill a turkey tomorrow (file this under “Nothing in this life is easy.”). Dear Lord, let us pray there is a turkey for him to dispatch and that it weighs more than the rotisserie bird down at Walmart because that is what we will be eating if a fresh one doesn’t work out.

I am following the advice of my beloved mother-in-law Marmie by making as much of the meal in advance as I can.  Yesterday, I whipped up a quart of  vanilla ice cream for serving alongside Jake’s homemade pies. I made  a mountain of cream cheese mashed potatoes using spuds from our garden (see a similar recipe here) and stuck them in the freezer. I stayed up until 11 p.m. making homemade stock from one of our chickens to be used in the gravy and dressing, which I’ll start on tonight.

(I suppose I could make it a lot easier on myself by buying the ice cream, potato flakes and gravy paste but where’s the masochism in that?)

As I scurried about the kitchen, I listened to a podcast of my favorite NPR program On Point with Tom Ashbrook. In it, my radio boyfriend Mr. Ashbrook interviewed Sam Sifton, national editor of the New York Times and author of Thanksgiving — How to Cook it Well. It was the perfect thing for me to hear because it assuaged my fears (News Flash! Everyone who cooks a Thanksgiving feast feels same pressure to kill oneself at least once during this week) and codified some things about the big day I needed to absorb, neatly summed up in the very title.

It’s not called Cook it Perfectly or Cook it Right — it’s called, Cook it Well, which sounds to me like Cook it Good Enough.  Me can do that.

Some stand out tips:

1. Don’t overthink

“It’s a pretty simple meal when you really think about it,” Sifton said in an interview here. “You’re roasting a giant chicken. You’re mashing some potatoes. You’re mashing almost everything. It’s basically piles of mush on a plate with slices of big chicken.”

Best Thanksgiving Day quote ever.

2. The turkey goes in the oven perfectly dry 

Sifton strongly recommends patting the bird with lots of dry paper towels before roasting it. This results in faster cook time and crispier skin.

3. No appetizers

“You must not serve appetizers,” Sifton insisted. “The scent of the turkey is enough to stir your hunger, and I certainly am not going to spend all day roasting a turkey so that you can come into my home and eat two pounds of nuts and then refuse seconds. That’s just rude.”

4. No salad

“You must not serve a salad,” Sifton said. “This is not a place for health. This is Thanksgiving. So let us speak plainly about butter.” Marmie has been touting this maxim for years! Salad be damned on Thursday! YES!

5. Always set the table and give thanks. A pretty table can change the behavior of those sitting around it by reminding guests this is a really big event even — and especially if — the food is just so-so.

No pressure here.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Paula November 19, 2012 at 4:09 pm


It sounds like you have gotten a lot done already. A few more tips that work for me anytime I’m entertaining. LISTS! I always have a list of every little thing that needs to be done before guests arrive. (Check bathrooms, guest towels, fill ice bucket, etc., etc. Your list will be peculiar to you.) Keeps things from slipping your mind.

The night before, I decide exactly what serving dishes will be used for each food. Set them on the counter with a slip of paper on them with the name of the food. Add the proper serving utensil to each one. You’d be surprised how frantic it can be at the last minute if the dishes aren’t chosen and ready.

A list of the COMPLETE menu, to glance at as you take the food to the table prevents finding unserved food after the guests have gone.

Relish trays can be made up and covered with plastic wrap and stored in fridge ready to pull out at the last minute.

Good luck. You’ll do fine. And kudos to Jake. If my dear husband ever made pies, I’d drop dead from shock. My dad was a baker, but I guess you only get one baking man in your life. Happy Thanksgiving!

Leah November 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm


Thank the stars Jake can bake pies. That in itself is a BIG plus. Also thank the stars he is willing to help, so many men aren’t. They only eat! Don’t use potato flakes they are awful, only real for Thanksgiving. I always made my husband or son mash them. They were also very good at “dishing up”. Big hint, I got lazy after years of making stuffing the hard way. Buy a few boxes of Stove Top and add onions, celery, sausage, etc. I use chicken stock instead of water, lots of butter. I have gotten more raves off my “amended Stove Top” that I ever got off my “hard way” stuffing. Cut the corners where you can. But remember, always real potatoes and real gravy. That really shows up if not. Short of burning the turkey black, everyone is so busy eating and being thankful they didn’t have to cook that they will enjoy their dinner and eat way too much. I think I got off fairly easy because my husband was one of nine boys. When that gang sat down to the table they didn’t know what they were eating as long as there was plenty of it. Good luck, you can handle it.

Lois November 19, 2012 at 5:27 pm


Here’s hoping you get your turkey, if not maybe you will have an authentic Thanksgiving (meatless). Have a great holiday.

sweetiepetitti November 19, 2012 at 7:29 pm


My advice…brine the bird. It insures a moist and juicy bird, and then you’ll find yourself brining everything else like chops, short ribs, chickens…My last big Thanksgiving, I never got any turkey. I just missed the platter, and then I found the dog having relations with the carcass on the counter. Oh yea, there’s some advice, keep the dog away from the just cleared-off-table countertops!

bladerunner5 November 19, 2012 at 7:46 pm


Most people are smart enough to realize “if someone else is feeding you, don’t complain too loudly.” Okay, all bets are off when it’s family. But still.
Even if they do complain – thank them for volunteering to host next year. Or only invite people you want to have at your house next time. :)

GinnyN November 19, 2012 at 8:00 pm


my mother’s best trick – saute the onions with the ton of butter the day (or 2) before – for the stuffing

Jessie K November 20, 2012 at 10:20 am


The stuffing will be made tonight. I don’t plan to hold back on the butter.

Janelle November 19, 2012 at 10:53 pm


I remember just two years ago, my husband got some heritage turkeys in the spring or summer – I don’t recall. Suffice it to say, they looked huge in November but after slaughtering and plucking, we had barely the equivalent of a small chicken for Thanksgiving. We called them “churkeys.” I wasn’t amused.

Janelle November 19, 2012 at 10:54 pm


Oh, and good luck to you. Let us know how it goes.

Jessie K November 20, 2012 at 10:19 am


Yikes. We find out today whether we’ll be eating turkey or “churkey.” Ha!

deb November 20, 2012 at 6:17 am


Welcome to this brand new world! I think you’ve gotten lots of great advice here, especially from your mother in law. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, and you collapse into an exhausted heap (complete with brimming glass of wine)…..simply bask in the unadulterated joy of being with your wonderful family.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Sarina November 20, 2012 at 7:53 am


We always had relish plates too.. celery, olives, pickles and pickled veggies. that is just about the closest to “salad” we got!

The good thing about thanksgiving is that just about everything you serve is almost always better if prepared ahead of time.. maybe except for the turkey.

Our family did have some appetizers.. but they were steamed spiced shrimp.. served chilled (see.. made ahead) with cocktail sauce. My mom would also have a spiral sliced ham because not everyone (me) liked turkey.. plus ham is great for leftover uses and to freeze for hammy mac n chees at a later date! Also having a good yeasty roll to make ham biscuits.. and sop up that homeade gravy are a MUST. Worst case scenario with the bird.. you can always fill up on

When my parents lived in germany.. my mom cooked a turkey she bought at the commisary.. she carefully defrosted and cooked it to a lovely golden brown. However, when it came time to carve the bird.. it was GREEN on the inside.. apparently it had thawed during the cross atlantic shipping and refrozen. Not sure why she wouldn’t have noticed a funny smell.. but.. they ate rolls that

Jessie K November 20, 2012 at 10:17 am


Oh man, you’ve got me hankering for the relish plate. Maybe Sifton is wrong about not having appetizers. My mom always had a relish plate too. The tanginess of the pickles is a nice complement to all the rich and heavy foods. And about the green turkey: UGH! No wonder you don’t like turkey.

Paula November 20, 2012 at 11:01 am


Even the turkey can be made a day ahead if–like our family–you don’t care for the carcass on the dining table. Roast the turkey and slice it up the day before. Reheat sliced turkey in a foil sealed pan with a little broth a few minutes before serving. It will be moist and delicious, just as if it were cooked that morning. So much less stress.

Since our family has a long day trip to get together, we also have a holiday breakfast together. I perfectly fry up my sausage cakes the day before. The day of, they heat in a foil packet while the biscuits are baking. This beats the heck out of getting burned because the just arrived guests are distracting me, which happens if I’m trying to cook them at that time.

kirsten ufkin November 20, 2012 at 8:01 am


Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! You will do just fine!

Charlotte November 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm


It’s just dinner — a dinner party. Don’t get too stressed out about it — have fun, feed everyone, say some thanks. I cooked some great Thanksgivings in my 20s for my ski-bum friends (especially the year I won a turkey at turkey bingo!). A big bird, some sides, dessert — its all good and people are just happy to be together. That said, it’s sort of fun to plan, and get excited about it. And I’m with Paula — one trick I learned from my friends who do catering and/or cook in restaurants — a list is a huge help. You tick things off as they’re done and its very satisfying.

tab November 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm


I was actually sitting here stressing over what salad to make, because I accidentally used the ingredients for another meal and didn’t want to go back to the store. I am officially not making one. Thanks for that. I do plan on using butter though. Lots of butter.

Jessie K November 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm


YES! Another convert!

maggiewann November 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm


I have to laugh, after 45 years of cooking Thanksgiving dinner I still resist the urge to freak out–like right now. I do a LOT of pre-cooking. Happy Thanksgiving!

Martha November 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm


No Worries!!! You will do just fine. We have processed our own turkey before. I am not very tough so I now go the store bought route or Cargil brings me a turkey since we are producers for them.

And everything tastes so much better coming from your own garden. My potatoes, apples, country ham (first time doing a ham) etc will all be coming from my own farm, except the bird…

Happy Thanksgiving. : )

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