Holiday mishaps make for memories
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Have you thought about what you're going to be thankful for this Thanksgiving?
Well, if you're going to someone else's home instead of hosting, be thankful for that.
I, for some reason, invited my entire family to come from Ohio, over the Ohio River and through the West Virginia woods, to my house for dinner this year.
I've only hosted the holiday two other times.
The second time should have cured me.
After a lifetime of happily eating my Mom's Thanksgiving dinner, having to do no more work than, after I'd moved away, drive five hours twice to get there and back, I decided to cook for my parents and three siblings in 1999. I invited them back, with a nephew, in 2002.
The first time, my soon-to-be-wife and I wanted to show off the newly finished dining room, which we'd antique-store outfitted with a china set and all the accoutrements, right down to a glass turkey to hold the cranberry sauce.
The second time, I guess I just wanted to use that turkey again.
I knew hosting would be a lot of work, but I felt like I wanted to and was ready. And I had plenty of guidance: I had good recipes to work with, thanks to then food editor Suzanne Martinson. Food writer Arlene Burnett loaned me a huge Westinghouse electric roasting pan for the turkey, to free up my oven. And I wouldn't have to make everything: My wife would help, and my Mom would bring her signature sausage dressing. Even if something went wrong, we'd all be together.
Being together is the first thing that went wrong. We were too together -- too many people staying in my little house.
I'd cleverly scheduled dinner for Saturday evening, instead of Thursday, so we wouldn't have to stress over work schedules. I got rid of my guests that morning by sending them to the Strip District.
I didn't count on the fact that, while my wife and I frantically cooked for them, they'd be grazing at all the food purveyors and filling up.
Of course, there almost wasn't any dinner, as one of my sisters' hair dryers overloaded my old wiring and blew a fat fuse that we were very lucky to be able to replace on a holiday weekend (thanks, Rollier's Hardware).
More ominously, the antique roasting pan's battered cord sizzled and smoked as I tried to cook the turkey, which was slightly too big for the roaster, and so I had to lever the lid down using an old hockey stick. I prayed the whole rig wouldn't totally short-circuit or burst into flames until after the bird was almost done.
My anxiety escalated when everybody came back from the Strip and started drinking.
I tried to stay cool in the kitchen, but the setbacks mounted. Suzanne's famed Feather Yeast Rolls, I'd neglected to notice, needed two hours to rise, so I frantically placed trays of them on the radiators and cranked up the heat trying to speed them up.
Somehow we got a big and beautiful dinner on the table, even if for guests who'd had a bit more to eat and drink than I would have liked, and we had a lovely, if boisterous, meal.
It wasn't until the snow hit that things really got out of hand. My tipsy siblings started "sledding" on the steep street in front of my house, using beer boxes and old boards they found in my garage, and my brother wound up with a separated shoulder that -- after I unsuccessfully tried to reset it on the basement floor -- took us to the emergency room.
I was up most of the night washing dishes (before trying to sleep on the floor, as I gave my bed to my brother) and shaking my head: What a disaster.
Of course, now it's one of the family's favorite Thanksgivings. And while I hope this one doesn't send anyone to the hospital, I'm more ready this third time around to not want everything to turn out perfectly. I plan to keep it simpler, so I can spend less time in the kitchen and more -- well, drinking beer with my brothers-in-law.
I sure do appreciate all the times my Mom got stuck with all the work. Including the time the brown paper bag that the rolls were heating in caught fire and my best friend just kept eating.
Thanksgiving mishaps can happen to everyone, especially to first-timers, but even to the most veteran cooks.
"Mr. Thanksgiving" himself, Rick Rodgers, who's been writing and teaching and talking turkey for nearly two decades, says that last year, hosting dinner for 14 friends at his New Jersey home, he dropped the gravy all over the kitchen floor.
"I think I was suffering from Scotch poisoning," he says with a chuckle over the phone from California, where last month he was teaching a series of Thanksgiving classes.
Luckily, he happened to have in his freezer some gravy he'd brought home from a recent Thanksgiving cooking class, and so he quickly heated it up and saved the day.
"I can't say nobody knew the difference," he says, "especially when we were all cleaning the kitchen." They had to clean it again when he suggested a wanting-to-help guest start a pot of coffee, forgetting he'd already filled the coffee maker. One more spill to mop up.
"There's nobody who doesn't have those kinds of stories," says the author of more than 30 cookbooks. Thanksgiving brings with it a lot of pressure, even to the experienced, who still may have gone 364 days since they last cooked a turkey and might be trying to cook it a new way.
Thankfully, his classic 1998 book, "Thanksgiving 101," which he updated last year, gives you all the advice you need on planning and executing the meal, which, he'll be the first to tell you, "is not easy."
But he's generous in his advice, which he'll be dispensing during a most timely visit to Pittsburgh Sunday, when he'll present "Turkey 101" at Giant Eagle Market District stores -- from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Shadyside and 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Bethel Park.
He says, "I'll roast a turkey and make gravy, and as I go through, people will have plenty of opportunity to ask questions."
When he first started, the most questions tended to be about food safety, but he says that most people get that now, and the questions are more, well, creative.
"Now people are coming up to me and saying, 'Should I brine the turkey, or should I grill it?' It's amazing how the curve -- it's not even a curve, it's a trajectory!"
You can do so much more with turkeys now than just roast them, from deep frying to smoking.
"For the record, I hate brined birds," says Mr. Rodgers. "I think it gives the bird a funny taste." Just buy a frozen turkey, he says, since most are injected with salt water.
"If I'm buying a beautiful fresh bird, and especially if I have enough money for an organic or heritage one, I want to taste the turkey."
In his brand-new cookbook, "Autumn Gatherings: Casual Food to Enjoy with Family and Friends," William Morrow, $19.95, he offers a dry brined bird that is surface-salted and spiced and similar to his that appears on the cover of this month's Bon Appetit magazine.
"It's enhancing the flavor of the turkey, not smothering it, and that's my goal," says this traditionalist, who doesn't like rubs (because they burn), doesn't like putting things under the skin (you can only easily do the breast) and doesn't like glazes (they make your gravy too sweet).
"This is based on experience."
He advises newbies that they have to give themselves time to amass experience. "A first-timer should concentrate on the turkey, the stuffing and the gravy. ... Potluck everything else."
Don't be afraid to ask for help, and be specific -- don't say "Bring a side dish," but say, "Bring green bean casserole."
He rattles off more good advice: "Choose recipes that fit your level of skill as a cook and will fit into the size oven you have. Do a lot on top of the stove because you can't fit it all in the oven." As his "Thanksgiving 101" lays out, you need to make a game plan, far in advance, and you can make some dishes in advance too if they freeze well.
He believes this economy will mean more people cooking their first Thanksgiving, perhaps because they can't afford to travel to family and friends.
"More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is about nostalgia and about connecting with community -- it doesn't have to be family in particular."
I wonder if it's too late to disinvite mine? Of course I'm kidding. As long as it doesn't snow. Doing this third Thanksgiving might be the charm to cement a tradition of my own.
As Mr. Rodgers said, "Go one year at a time and before you know it you'll have your favorite pumpkin pie recipe, and you'll have your favorite cranberry sauce recipe, and it will all come together."
First Published November 20, 2008 12:00 am