Giving or going to give a Thanksgiving dinner party? You'll give thanks for these tips from the pros.
A few weeks ago, the first Thanksgiving e-mail of 2006 went out from one of my friends: "What's everybody doing this year? Want to do our usual potluck?" The responses started flying, with most of the negative ones centering around family obligation: "I was pointedly told that my niece 'misses her aunt,' which I highly doubt, since she's only one year old, so I'll be at home, though I'd rather be here," wrote back one friend.
For the past 11 years, I and a group of friends — our ranks expanding and contracting from four to a few dozen — have held our own potluck because hauling turkeys, mashed potatoes, and pies back and forth via mass transit is actually easier and a lot more fun than schlepping across the country for an annual dose of crowded airports, clogged highways, and the worst kind of journey: the guilt trip. My gang's first New York potluck Thanksgiving came about because none of us new city transplants had enough money to go home. Plus, I had grown up going to an annual Thanksgiving potluck hosted by family friends, so the concept seemed normal; indeed, the holiday for me meant sampling the exotic handiwork of other people's parents, like hard-boiled eggs in the stuffing — a far cry from the oyster rice dressing my Southern Louisianan mother makes.
The first year away from the familiarity of home proved to be a little difficult for some — no matter how good your friend's herbed root-vegetable foam is, it doesn't fill the hole where Mom's green bean casserole should go. Still, by the time we were kicking back with our shoes off, our favorite music playing, and yet another glass of wine — hey, there were no parents making snide remarks about our level of alcohol consumption — even the sickest of the homesick were thinking this was the way to go every year.
For these annual parties, I have prepared vegan sides for vegans who didn't show up, and spent hours making vegetarian gravy only to watch the so-called vegetarians wolf down the giblet gravy. When I've hosted, I've received too much help or not enough. The battle for oven space has brought friends to near blows. Well-timed dishes have gotten cold, and I've become near faint and somewhat drunk while waiting for a blackened smoked turkey to make its way from one part of Brooklyn to another. And I've subjected others to the same woozy fate while basting, basting, basting before loading a questionably done turkey into the hatchback of a gracious friend's car. Seats for the feast have included the floor, at a card table, and a couch.
Disasters have been averted or happened, and yet every one of these Thanksgivings has turned out wonderfully in the end (plus, the wine has gotten better over the years). The tips offered in the subsequent sections of this story for hosts and guests, as well as the potluck-perfect menu suggestions, draw on my years of successes and mistakes. I also turned to several seasoned potluckers who have triumphed over all kinds of Turkey Day challenges, from cooking a full meal on hot plates and in a miniature "Easy Bake" oven, to having to serve tuna sandwiches instead of turkey because one of the kids thought the oven "seemed too hot" and turned it off while the turkey was inside. Though they have differing views on everything from decoration to delegation, they all agreed that the best potlucks are the ones where you relax, go with the flow, enjoy your guests and — sometimes — your tuna sandwiches. If you follow our advice, hopefully nary a bite of tuna will you encounter on the big day.
By Megan O. Steintrager