Drink Some Booze, Smoke a Joint and Relax: How to Have a Hedonistic Thanksgiving
This article was originally posted on Nerve.com.
If you haven't realized that yet, it's probably because you're doing it wrong. Maybe you're still stuck in the old family rut — dutifully flying home for a few days each November to eat turkey with mom, dad and great-aunt Mildred. And it's probably fine; the food is good, the conversation might be somewhat lively (especially if Mildred's had her schnapps), but you're still secretly counting down the minutes till everyone goes to bed and you can have a smoke and a proper-sized glass of wine. Or, maybe you're one of those Thanksgiving deniers who just pretends the whole thing isn't happening, staying at home and eating turkey lo mein with your cat.
Either way, you're missing out, and this year it's time to break the cycle. And it's not as hard as you think. Here are five ways to host your very own kick-ass, grown-up Thanksgiving dinner.
1. The Game Plan
Divide and conquer: for your first time, it's probably best to tackle Turkey Day with a friend or two. A roommate or a significant other are natural choices, but anyone you can work with will do. Start at least a few days in advance and divvy up the labor. If you don't know how to go about this, watch some reruns of Top Chef's "Restaurant Wars" — you need a front-of-house person, an executive chef, and, if you've got a third, a sous-chef. As my roommate and Thanksgiving co-host, Joanna, put it: "You be Tom, I'll be Padma."
For our first Thanksgiving, Jo and I didn't start planning until the Monday before. For us it was just right, but if you and your friends are grown-ups with busy lives, you might want more time. As far as guests go, don't bite off more than you can chew. Between six to eight guests is manageable, but fewer is better if you're unsure. If you're having trouble deciding on a number, count how many clean forks you currently have in your silverware drawer and subtract two.
Always confirm your guest list. You know how nice restaurants call you the day before your reservation? Do that. It doesn't have to be super-formal, but since it's considered poor form to turn people away at the door, it stops your friends from having to eat on the floor. I, on the other hand, checked in with my Padma about the guest list around 11:00 a.m. on the day of. She informed me, very nonchalantly, that both Kevin and Brett were bringing dates, and so we would be nine, not seven. I informed her, rather chalantly, that we only own seven chairs and she had failed in her duties. After a bit of shouting, we tried the nice folks across the hall, who luckily lent us a couple of folding chairs. But if you hate your neighbors, figure these things out in advance.
2. The Bird
Focus most of your energy on the turkey. Even if everything else goes wrong, your guests will still be happy if there's an edible bird. Which is why you should practice. Think of cooking a turkey as losing your virginity, and Thanksgiving as prom night. You can wait until the big day to give it your first shot, but the stakes are a lot higher and the disappointment will be much keener if you crash and burn. Or set off the building's fire alarm.
I did a dry-run the Tuesday before. I rejected the first few recipes I found online. They seemed full of oblique S&M references: pin it down, truss it up, stuff the cavity. I just wanted to roast my bird without having to agree on a safe word first. I finally found one that seemed pretty G-rated: preheat to 450 degrees, stick it on a baking sheet, "massage butter all over the breasts and legs" (okay, PG-13), and shove it in the oven.
Unless you have been to culinary school, buy a meat thermometer. Until my test run, "meat thermometer" sounded more like a bad high-school grunge band than anything I'd want in my kitchen. Your recipe will probably give you two ways of telling if the bird's done: subjective (the meat is soft and the leg bone twists easily) and objective one (when the thermometer reads 175 degrees). On my first shot, I assumed I could ignore the thermometer, just like I'd skipped the kneading my butter with fresh tarragon "several days in advance." After the recommended amount of time, I pulled the turkey out. I poked it: soft. I twisted its leg: easy. But when I cut into it, I discovered gross, translucent, pink meat. Back into the oven it went. By the time it was finally done, I'd made so many cuts I'd have been better off serving it as a seasonal bowl of turkey fried rice.
3. The Budget
Thanksgiving can be a costly affair, so try to set a budget. We asked all our guests to bring a side dish, while we provided the turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and wine. An eighteen-pound eco-friendly turkey is going to set you back around sixty dollars. The rest of the food and a cheap case of Trader Joe's wine can reach $250, easy. That's not cheap for the unemployed, the underemployed, and the majority of recent college graduates, so don't be afraid to ask for donations. Do some simple division and come up with a price-per-head. (You got that degree for a reason!) We opted for a sliding scale — $20 to $30 a piece — so it felt less demanding. Whatever you decide, let your guests know in advance so they can bring cash. Put a bowl or vase on the coffee table and let them deposit their contributions, like tipping at a coffee shop. That way, you won't have to ask for money while carving, and you get to have a lovely centerpiece of dolla billz.
4. The Booze
Keep this mantra in mind: you didn't buy enough wine. Think of the evening as a cocktail party that turns into a long dinner party that turns into a party-party that turns into a watching-TV-and-eating-cold-turkey-sandwiches-at-two-in-the-morning party. You're not buying booze for one event, you're buying it for four. In case you still underestimate your guests' ability to consume alcohol, acquaint yourself with twenty-four-hour convenience stores within walking distance of your house, and make sure that they're open on the big day. We ran out of wine around 11 p.m. Joanna agreed to set out in search of more; she returned red-cheeked and laden with cheap Mexican beer. There probably weren't too many cans of Tecate on that first Thanksgiving, but our friend Emily's idea of a seasonal side dish was enchiladas, and so it worked. Bonus: if you liked mixed drinks, hard alcohol doesn't take up cherished fridge space.
Try to relax as you pull it all together. Open more wine, turn on the Macy's parade, and put out some brown and orange paper so everyone can trace their hands and make finger-turkeys. At 4:45 p.m., there were eight people in my living room, it was fifteen minutes before I promised them dinner, and I was going down like Captain Ahab. My white whale of a turkey was slowly roasting away, internal temperature still far shy of the safety-zone. My potatoes were un-mashed, the table's wasn't set, and my partner-in-crime had chosen that moment to have a heated phone conversation with her parents in Polish. An eclectic array of side-dishes sat awkwardly on the table.
This is when you need to remember that, above all else, this night should be fun. Do your friends want to go smoke a joint before the turkey comes out? Does the chef sort of need them to because the motherfucking turkey still isn't done? It's all good. Don't freak out if you're off-schedule. Just focus on getting the food done and making sure your guests have full cups of wine. Eventually the turkey will be done, and then all that's left is to eat, drink, and be merry. At family celebrations, you might go around the table and say what you're thankful for — a ritual I always found interminable — but we decided to do it differently. Instead of providing a gem of spiritual piety, we took turns telling our favorite anecdote from the year. Joanna made the great suggestion that we do this while we were eating, not before, which suited our hungry selves very well. Remember, you're running this show: feel free to mess with tradition.
One final note: have extra pillows. If you did the night right, the combination of alcohol, tryptophan, and TV marathons should leave many of your friends in a state unfit for travel. Let them curl up on the couch and sleep it off. Then in the morning, they can help with the dishes.
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