Thanksgiving for People Who Don’t Cook So Good

A couple of years ago, I mentioned on Facebook that, instead of spending all of Thanksgiving day cooking, I was super tempted to just buy one of those complete turkey dinners at Whole Foods. The kind that has everything from the bird to the rolls to the potatoes to the dessert, all handily prepared for you and ready to re-heat. The kind where all of the work is done.

Facebook recoiled with horror at my suggestion. Like, I had personally affronted the institution of Thanksgiving by not spending hours making stuffing out of home baked bread and self-harvested chestnuts. “It’s so easy!” everyone told me, right before detailing their twelve-step process for brining the turkey with bouquets garnis. Facebook lies. Don’t ever forget that.

I actually really enjoy cooking. It’s one of my favorite activities, when I have the luxury of time to try a new recipe or experiment with different ingredients and flavor combinations. I find it a very relaxing and creative endeavor. We had friends over for dinner this past weekend and I sat in the kitchen drinking wine and chatting with our guests for over an hour while onions caramelized on the stove. That is my idea of a good time.

So, I am a cook. But, maybe more of a fair-weather cook. Because holiday cooking is just not my jam, man. I think it has something to do with the stress of bringing so many dishes, that I don’t prepare with frequency, to completion at the same time. If I made mashed potatoes or turkey or stuffing with regularity, maybe the whole day would be like second nature and I would move seamlessly around my kitchen with calm and purpose instead of just frantically worrying I’m burning the gravy or forgetting the rolls or over-mixing the potatoes.

Also, I’m usually just cooking this feast for a small number of people. Typically, just for Bob and I. We don’t host a large amount of family or friends for Thanksgiving and since my kids will only eat about one third of what’s found on a typical turkey day menu, it all just seems like such a huge amount of WORK and CLEAN-UP for a total of about seven minutes around the dining room table before someone spills a glass of water or asks for a granola bar.

My enthusiasm is low, you could say. But, I also love a good holiday, especially one as genuine as Thanksgiving. I’d love for my kids to have warm memories of such a special day; home and hearth and good smells emanating from the kitchen. As a result, I’ve spent the past couple of holidays dumbing down enough of my menu that I am no longer exhausted at the thought of preparing such a feast. Facebook was kind of right in that a holiday menu can be easy if you make it easy.

So! Thanksgiving dinner! Let’s do this! Here’s what I’m serving.

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1. Turkey – I’m not going to brine it or butter it or olive oil it or deep fry it or talk soothingly to it. I’m just going to follow the directions on the package and hope that I make enough gravy to smother the dryness out of this thing. Also, by only purchasing a small turkey breast, I don’t have to deal with that horrible packet of innards that comes in the cavity of a whole turkey.

2. Stove-Top Stuffing – Look, we could all pretend that out-of-the-box stuffing is too pedestrian an item for our Thanksgiving tables but, you and I both know that this crap is good. Like, really good. It has half of a stick of butter in it. With that kind of ratio, it can only be good. Two boxes because: MORE BUTTER.

3. Potatoes – This dish is probably the most complicated thing I’ll make for turkey day. But, I’ve also tried to uncomplicate it because I can remember my mom really slaving over the perfect, fluffy, no-lump mashed potatoes every holiday and that seems like a lot of work/stress. So, I’ll take these yummy red-skinned potatoes, cut them up, boil them and then mash in anything that I think will make them taste yummier: some sort of dairy, copious amounts of butter and salt, probably some cheese. You get the idea.

4. Carrots – This is pure tradition. My mom made carrots every major holiday and so do I. I don’t do anything fancy but they MUST have a sprinkle of dried parsley on top with butter (of course), just like I had growing up.

5. Gravy – I used to be super intimidated by gravy but my sister, Janet, wrote down her pan gravy recipe for me that uses the water from cooking the carrots combined with some butter (WHEE!) and a few other things and it’s all very easy and I no longer serve Bob gravy out of a jar, which, does kind of seem like an affront to Thanksgiving now that I’m thinking about it.

6. Cranberry sauce – Your cranberry sauce must come from a can. Like, it HAS to have the can marks on the side of it and be cut into perfect spheres. This is the only way to eat cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving. I think we can all agree on this.

7. Dinner rolls – The entirety of Henry’s Thanksgiving dinner is this package of rolls. So, I bought two.

8. Dessert – My cousin is spending Thanksgiving with us this year and since she has her own baking blog, I’m going to assume dessert is covered. She has to drive all of the way from Georgia though so if she doesn’t feel like baking, there is an organic market up the street that sells a pecan pie that is so delicious, I’ve considered divorcing Bob and marrying it instead.

See? Easy-peasy! Almost half of the ingredients come from a can or a box. Doesn’t get more American than that!

Happy Thanksgiving, family and friends! May your holiday table be full of delicious food, no matter the effort. Also, let’s all say a little prayer this season that the price of butter drops soon.

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I Never Read the Book

If the first rule of Fight Club is you do not ever talk about Fight Club, then, the first rule of Book Club is you do not ever talk about books at Book Club. Never. At least that’s how the book club I belong to operates.

Many years ago, when we lived in Alexandria, my neighbor invited me to join a new book club that her friend and co-worker was starting up. Her co-worker wanted a book club that actually read books. And, then talked about the books with critical thinking and big words and everything. The book club her co-worker was leaving had devolved into just wine drinking and discussions about kids (Attention! Foreshadowing!) and she was kind of in it for the books.

This all sounded like fun to me. Henry was just a baby at the time so I was game to join anything that would get me out of the house on a regular basis, even if the only person I knew in the group was my neighbor. The first few times we gathered, I can recall we definitely discussed that month’s literary selection. There was, of course, small talk and excellent wine and food but the main focus of our get togethers was always to chat about the book.

I think this lasted for about a year or less. Then, one by one, as members started having children, our monthly literary roundtable became more about eating and drinking and discussing babies and careers and husbands and daycares. Book club became more of a night out and a brief escape from our regular responsibilities. We still picked a book each month to read but it was mostly a ceremonial selection since no one was really expected to read it. One of us would inevitably ask casually, “Did anyone read the book this month?” which was almost always quickly followed by “Hey, please pass that dish with the things covered in prosciutto.”

Our focus shifted from book discussions to life discussions. The hours we spent together each month offered an opportunity to catch up with one another; to chat, to laugh, to decompress.

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Don’t read the first book in this stack. It’s… not good.

Approximately seven years and countless titles procured but never read later, the women I met through book club remain some of my dearest friends. Our membership has certainly ebbed and flowed over time but there has always been about eight or nine of us that have met regularly since the beginning (or close to the beginning) of the club. Even during the two years I lived in Richmond, I would still drive up for the occasional book club meeting in the summer or holiday party each December.

One of the treats of moving back to the area was getting to participate in book club regularly again. Except now, we all say “book club” with accompanying air quotes. (Especially Bob.) We no longer meet at each other’s homes. These days, we pick a new restaurant each month and anyone that can join us does. We are all a little bit older now and a bit more weary and our conversations have switched from sharing hilarious tales of labor and delivery and life with nursing newborns to discussions that revolve more around work situations, school choices and how awful homework is. We’ve talked about just renaming our monthly get together, “Dinner Club,” but the name hasn’t stuck.

I’m so pleased our little club keeps chugging along. Even though, for many of us, work responsibilities are bigger, family life is more hectic and having dinner reservations for 7:30 at night means less time spent in pajama pants in front of the TV. But, I absolutely cherish the time I get with these ladies and I hope to be drinking wine by their side for many, many more years to come.

Even if we never discuss another book again.

The Great Outdoors

There are times when I can totally tell that Bob maybe wishes that he had married someone that was possibly a wee bit more outdoorsy. This usually becomes apparent when we try to do something out of doors or adventurous and I’m not a team player or something goes terribly wrong or a bug lands in my hair. Bob’s frustration is typically indicated by a deep, deep sigh of resignation. Like, he’s just profoundly disappointed in his wife’s inability to use a compass. Or, willingness to swim in a mossy lake. Or, dig a latrine. That kind of stuff.

Knowing our shaky history of activities that take place outside, I still agreed to a family hike yesterday. While Bob frequently takes the kids on hikes, I just as frequently defer participation because: alone time. But, we were having such a nice weekend and the weather was just lovely and the kids were being not that annoying and I was all caffeinated so I thought, this is a Good Idea. I can do this! We will have fun! The first freeze has probably killed off the worst of the bugs by now anyway!

With this shrill enthusiasm, we set out for our afternoon adventure.

I was in charge of navigating us to a state park in West Virginia that we had never been to before, while Bob drove. (A park that I had selected from the map with no more robust research than a simple exclamation of, “That looks neat!”) I’m actually very good with directions but I had trusted my phone’s GPS to get us there and since our destination was off the beaten path, we not only didn’t arrive where we thought we would arrive, we ended up on the wrong side of the Shenandoah River from the park. And, we know this because a burly man in a giant truck towing a horse trailer honked his horn at us intimidatingly. Turns out, we were in his driveway.

DEEP SIGH.

After navigating to the right side of the river, we found the park, unloaded some now sleepy and completely unenthused kids, grabbed zero supplies and headed down to explore the water.

Bob had dressed Charlie that morning while I had dressed Millie. Apparently, the same outfit one wears to church may not be the best outfit to hike a rock and stick-riddled trail in. Granted, Millie does appear to be a bit cold but, whatever, Bob, tulle can work for many occasions.

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DEEP SIGH.

We consulted with some other hikers that were heading back to their car about the trail and how far it extended and they were super helpful and pointed us in the right direction so off we went down the path! Hiking! As a family! All outdoorsy and stuff! Also, “why were those people wearing such bright orange hats?” we asked ourselves right as Millie bit it on the trail and shed many tears and was left with many leaves in her tulle.

We pressed on because the scenery was so beautiful and I was having a pretty good time and thinking to myself how we should definitely do this more often, this being outside amongst the outdoors. And, wow, the woods are so magical and peaceful and the river is so calm and look! There are some kids your own age, Henry! But… Wait… What are they… They’re… They’re carrying guns.

Oooooooooh, just BB guns. False alarm! That’s a relief!

But, um, well then, where is this guy going?

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Shortly thereafter, we realized the unfortunately named “Wildlife Preserve” we were hiking in was also a popular hunting spot this time of year. It was open season, we learned, on deer and bear (!).

DEEP SIGH.

After passing many hunter-type men, we retreated rather carefully to our car since Bob, helpfully, pointed out that Charlie was dressed entirely in fur.

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DEEPEST SIGH.

I think the lesson here is really two-fold. One, Millie needs hiking shoes and two, West Virginia does NOT mess around.

See you on the trails! (Just kidding. I totally won’t see you on the trails. I’m never going hiking again.)