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.

The Tall Tree Tale

The first Christmas Bob and I spent together as a married couple was in 2004, when we were still recovering from our wedding and honeymoon two months prior. I remember being in a post-big-life-event fog during that holiday season. I definitely don’t remember decorating or putting up a tree. I know we didn’t have any vacation time left so I’m pretty sure we just worked our way through the holiday.

On December 25, 2005, we were five days away from welcoming Henry. I couldn’t even trim my own toenails let alone decorate for Christmas. My best friend and her husband tried to convert my bah humbug spirit by delivering Christmas to our doorstep. Bob and I watched her drive up to the front of our house in a pickup with her husband – dressed in full Santa suit – standing in the truck bed supporting a freshly cut tree. It was still there when we brought Henry home from the hospital and that memory, of the deep generosity of friends, is a favorite.

We spent Henry’s first Christmas, in 2006, in Louisville. The decorations were sparse since we were heading out of town. I do remember putting up a tiny Charlie Brown tree in our living room that we celebrated around before hitting the holiday road. There may have been a few colored lights strung on our front stoop but not much else.

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This required little effort.

As the 2007 holiday season approached, I decided it was time to commit to a grown-up tree. We were spending that Christmas at home and my mom had recently gifted me with a couple of boxes of ornaments that had adorned the trees I grew up with. I wanted to start a new tradition at our own home with our own tree. Plus, the approximately seventeen Care Bear ornaments my mom bequeathed to me deserved to be on display.

At around the same time I decided to find us a tree, Bob started working on a new project at the office; a conference that would fall directly after the Thanksgiving holiday. His working hours became brutal and I knew we would be lucky if he were home on Thanksgiving day at all. The whole event was very stressful and rushed and hush-hush, as those high-level things always are and more than anything, I just remember how unbelievably tired Bob was at the end of every day.

During one of the Saturdays Bob spent at the office during the month of November, Henry and I headed out to find a Christmas tree. I had hatched a plan to procure the tree, store it in my next door neighbor’s garage, set it up, light it up and surprise Bob with our first family Christmas tree as he arrived home the day after Thanksgiving.

“We can DO THIS,” I exclaimed to Henry as I plopped him in the shopping cart at Lowe’s.

Henry and I walked up and down the aisles of the holiday section marveling at all of the decorations and tree options and gasping a little bit at the prices. Then, as if set aside JUST for us, I spotted a couple of random boxes of pre-lit trees set on a pallet away from the others. They were the right size (7.5 feet), had white lights pre-strung (my favorite!) and were for some reason incredibly affordable (I think they were left over from the Christmas season prior). We had found our tree!

Some serious cart and car negotiations followed, trying to pay for and secure the oversized box in our little Subaru, but we made it home and safely stashed our awesome find at the house next door.

The day after Thanksgiving, during Henry’s nap time, I dragged that tree box back to our house and got to work. It was super easy to put together and I distinctly remember being so confident and smugly satisfied as I stepped on the foot pedal that would illuminate my triumph. So, it was appropriate then, that one entire section of the tree remained unlit when I flipped the switch.

The more life-experienced me of 2013 would laugh at the poor coping skills of 2007 me because, I’ll admit here, I panicked. And naturally, I burst into tears. That’s just what I do. Then, I composed myself enough to call the General Electric help line I found in the instructions and they expertly talked me down off the ledge. The fix was easy. I located the rogue bad bulb and the tree lit up with the shimmer of a thousand suns.

The surprise that evening was indeed a surprise! Bob rode up to our home on his bicycle well after dark and found the front window of our home all aglow with our first ever Christmas tree. It was perfect.

Well, maybe not 1,000 suns but pretty close.

Well, maybe not 1,000 suns but pretty close.

A new tradition was begun that year and every year since, we have decorated for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving. I haul that same huge box down from the attic and set up that same tree and decorate it with those same Care Bear ornaments. I love doing it and I love that tree.

And, each Christmas since 2007, the lights on that tree have worked with less and less reliability. It started with a few bulbs here and there but by 2011, a huge mid-section of our tree was dark as night. I spent a few days last year troubleshooting but, eventually, I finally conceded that my beloved tree was dying. No amount of plug tightening or bulb replacing or encouraging words could coax the lights back on.

Leading up to this year’s post-Thanksgiving Christmas decorating day, Bob and I debated what to do with our tree. He was in favor of scrapping it and purchasing something new. But, I have a penchant for sentimentality and therefore his idea made me super sad. This tree was a special tree, from a special time in our lives, when we lived in a special place. I was having trouble letting go.

So, I hatched a new plan. A plan to, essentially, save Christmas. We would take the tree out of storage a couple of days before Thanksgiving and de-string the lights.  What a great idea! This would be easy! See how much sense this makes, BOB? We could keep the tree that I love and just re-string it with new lights! His enthusiasm for this approach was… questionable.

When the day was upon us and we were staring at the tree and its hundreds upon hundreds of lights and wires, it seemed like a less good idea. Apparently, pre-lit trees tend to have those lights pretty much soldered on. They run them up and down the branches with clips and wires and everything else needed for maximum light concentration so they can, I guess, successfully burn your retinas when plugged in.

Knowing it would require some patience didn’t quite prepare us for the two days of two-person work with two wire cutters that was required to remove all of those pre-strung lights. I walked into the family room on Thanksgiving Day, after getting the turkey in the oven, to find Bob and my father, with hunched-over backs and cramping hands, among piles and piles of cut wire and burned out bulbs. But, once they had committed, they COMMITTED. They refused to give up or give in and they ultimately persevered.

Smiles not representative of real life.

Smile not representative of real life.

So, our family Christmas tree lives to shed fake needles another day. I re-strung it with white lights and began hanging ornaments with the kids. It wasn’t until Millie promptly broke, like, three glass globes that I realized decorating the tree with the kids was an even worse idea than de-stringing it. And, when Henry and I finally got the ornaments up after the little ones went to bed, nary an old bulb or wire could be found.

A Poor Substitute

My parents were in town for a visit over the Thanksgiving holiday and they stayed for almost a week. Because we live so far from so much of our family, having them here was great fun. Especially for the kids, whose attraction to their beloved grandparents could only be described as… slightly aggressive. My mom and dad handled all of the attention-seeking and chaos with aplomb.

Since my parents’ departure yesterday morning, my three children have made it abundantly clear that I come in a very, very distant second to the pure joy and sunshine and rainbows that apparently radiate from their grandparents. The kids have been giving me a hard time since real life with mom is so much more boring than the holiday-no-homework-chocolate-for-dinner-finger-paint life with Grandma and Grandpa. I made Henry go to bed on time tonight and I thought his eyes were going to roll all the way back in his head. See, I am no FUN!

Grandparents play Monopoly with you. They read you books upon request. They take you on joyrides in their fun pickup truck. They don’t make you eat things that are green. They take the time to actually decipher what in the world you’re trying to say, Millie. In summary, grandparents make mommy feel guilty that the television is always on.

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At one point, toward the latter part of their visit, we decided that actually leaving the house was in order. We headed to the Museum of the Confederacy in downtown Richmond. The museum is adjacent to the house Jefferson Davis called home when he served as president of the southern states. It’s an interesting place with an incredible collection of Civil War artifacts. And, while I was surprised to find it avoided all discussion of the root cause of the war, it did have a gift shop that sold actual swords and Virginia wine. So, that’s commendable.

Also, for $9.95, one could purchase a sack of union and confederate toy soldiers. My mother bought them for the boys (because, of course) and I think it is the best money ever spent in the history of children’s toys everywhere. I could not care less if I’m promoting warmongering. I only care that Saturday night, I got to sit with my husband and my parents, eat a delicious dinner and have great conversation that lasted for hours (plural!). Quiet, occupied hours. On and on those boys played with those soldiers. It was amazing. I have no idea where Millie spent that time but I can only assume she was starting a fire upstairs. Minimal damage, for sure.

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Later that night, when checking on my sleeping kids, I had to pry one of the soldiers from Charlie’s grip, lest he bayonet himself in the eye while he slept. All this to say, the holidays are approaching. Toy soldiers. Just in case your quota of cheap plastic toys, manufactured in far away lands, that you will inevitably and painfully step upon hasn’t been met for the year. You’re welcome.