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You are here: Home Section Table Good Work Thanksgiving: It's Not About the Show
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Thanksgiving: It's Not About the Show

Thanksgiving(This was contributed by Scarsdale's Laura Halligan) What’s the “perfect Thanksgiving anyway?” Is it the Norman Rockwell painting? Something straight out of a Food Network special? Or, is it Butterball turkey, canned cranberry sauce, and over-cooked dinner rolls served on paper plates, punctuated by squabbling over the dark meat? Well, wherever yours falls, it’s not about the show. It’s about simply being there.

We moved to Scarsdale 10 years ago, one week before Thanksgiving. My family had just returned to New York after four years in the Midwest, and was thrilled to be reunited with our loved ones in time for the holidays. It was then that I learned not to focus on what or when, but rather, to stick to the why.

Just nine days prior to turkey day, I stood in my new, yet old, living room in a neglected Dutch colonial, surrounded by moving boxes and walls in desperate need of paint. My mother stood beside me and asked, “So, you think you’ll be able to get the china and crystal out for Thanksgiving?” First incredulous and then confident, I chuckled, “If we do Boston Market on paper plates, you’ll be happy.” A few hours later, my sister called to make sure. “You’re doing Thanksgiving, right?” Of course I would be... and I wasn’t going to sweat it either. Prior to moving away, I had hosted every Thanksgiving for 12 years. It was time to start a new streak.

Thanksgiving has always been a favorite of mine and I don’t like seeing it get squeezed a little more each year. No, you can’t simply skip over it to get to Christmas. Santa is supposed to wait until the end of the parade. Oh, I long for the days when the Rock Center tree was lit in December and the Hallmark Channel didn’t exist. We’re speeding through days, events, and experiences to do more, see more, and acquire more. Thanksgiving still matters, doesn’t it?

I digress. At the risk of sounding preachy, giving thanks for what we have, no matter how little or how much, is worth celebrating. Go ahead, take out your turkey embossed platters, orange candles, and leaf-patterned tablecloths. But remember that this day is more than “the process.” There’s a saying about how being truly wealthy is being content with what you have. I think sharing what you have and giving of yourself is far more fulfilling. And it starts in your home.

The Giving Thing
Full disclosure: I like having people over and am an expert in improvisation. Entertaining is hard work when you do it all yourself, but good work for me. No, it’s not for everyone. You may not like crowds in your house, you may think you can’t cook, or you might not know where to start. It’s OK. But know that it should begin with people who are there for you; everything else is extra. If someone comes to your home looking for a performance, he or she doesn’t belong there. So don’t tell me you’re intimidated because I entertain all the time. Invite me over for some takeout and I’ll be grateful.

Back to the giving thing. Hospitality is not defined by Williams Sonoma. It’s simply welcoming people with open arms. It’s offering others your time, your effort, and your attention. And, it’s just as much for you as it is for them. There’s no room in Thanksgiving for judgment. It’s about sharing what you can.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hype surrounding America’s “biggest food day. ”The Must-Have Thanksgiving Cocktail,” “How to Wow Your Thanksgiving Crowd,” “Thanksgiving Wreaths That Graciously Welcome Guests to Your Home,” “Host a Seasonal Cider Tasting,” blah, blah, blah.

Décor, ambiance, menu, seating plans, activities...if you’re not Martha Stewart (and her merry band of stylists), the expectations can be exhausting. Why get tired before you start? I must confess I was sucked into the madness years ago – before kids – carefully planning the event based on the latest holiday trends. Should I use chargers this year? Is the classic Italian fruit and nut centerpiece too pedestrian? Will people prefer Eli’s cranberry walnut bread or Italian semolina from up the corner? What about deep-fried turkey?

Fast forward to A.K. (after kids), and the joys of clarity and simplicity. Never mind fretting over nuts in the stuffing or crisp, ironed linens, I was lucky to get any dishes out and shower before guests arrived. Cooking, cleaning, keeping the kids out of trouble, cleaning again, and saying, “Don’t touch that” countless times before noon was sheer madness. Even though I eliminated the frills, Thanksgiving (and every holiday) was reduced to a “to do” list, a chore. Only when I faced with dozens of boxes and 16 anxious relatives 10 years ago did I realize the value of just winging it.

The Game Plan
Before I start, know that I’m not here to rain on your parade. If you want to pull out all the stops this year, by all means do it. But do it for you. Do it because it gives you joy. In the end, your happiness, as the host, is most important. You can’t spread cheer if you aren’t cheerful. But, don’t get mad if your guests don’t share your enthusiasm for the pumpkin-shaped butter pats you carefully crafted Wednesday night. They just want butter for their bread.

OK, rule number one: accept that things will go wrong. I’ve forgotten courses, cooked the giblets in the turkey, dropped a half-frozen cheesecake on the floor (and served it), run short of chairs, broken dishes, used sugar instead of salt, and had to resort to the dreaded premade gravy. Everyone survived and no one was the wiser. Go with the flow.

Two: be practical. How much time can you fret over offering an “unexpected” dessert, deciding the best wine pairings, arranging the right table scape, or sourcing turkey-themed anything. Really? If I’ve learned just one lesson during the past 25 years, it’s that if you have it, plate it, and pass it, it will be eaten.

Spatchcocking the bird or Hasselbacking the potatoes is not necessary. Stay in your lane and get the meal on the table. Traditions are important, if you have them. It isn’t Thanksgiving around here without my mom’s mashed potatoes with melted mozzarella. If you can’t or won’t cook… then buy it. But whatever you do, go easy with the side dishes. You know about the sides that die in the refrigerator days later because there was too much of each in the first place? There are only so many string beans you can eat in a given week.

Three, do a buffet – it’s so much easier than setting a table. Ask your guests to help get the food out (they should be offering to help anyway), make sure everyone has a full plate, then put up your feet, and enjoy your corner of the world, preferably with a glass of wine. Too bad I usually can’t look at the food at this point; I’ve been picking at it all morning. Get the conversation started and, for the love of all that’s holy – AVOID POLITICS!

Which leads me to the big one and number four, navigate family drama. I’m Sicilian. I’ve been there. My advice? Suck it up. Be a peacemaker. Declare a ceasefire for the day. Humor your know-it-all cousin; he just wants attention. Give your hypercritical aunt something to occupy her time. And, take it from me – nothing quiets a meddling, yet well meaning, mother like a stiff drink.

No matter how frustrating, your family is yours. Focus on what’s special about the loud one, the cheap one, the slob, the pest, the loving one, the selfless one, and the one who’s just trying to get through the day. Own your near and dear, with all their faults. They make you who you are and you’ll miss them when they’re gone. I’d give anything to hear my mom complain about too little salt or hear my dad assure people that it’s OK to eat with their hands just once more.

On that note, which really isn’t as melancholy as it sounds, I wish you a day of savoring the smell of turkey (or whatever you’re making) roasting in the oven, the music of marching bands on TV, the anticipation of guests arriving with smiles and goodies, the craziness of your people, and the abbondanza of it all. Appreciate and share with those around your table, and marvel at how they make your life what it is. And, remember it’s not what you offer that matters, it’s that you share. It’s not what they bring, it’s that they give to you. It’s not about gaining praise; it’s about serving others. It’s not where you gather; it just has to be together.

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