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The Thanksgiving Story, or The Thanksgiving We Didn't Eat

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

And it wasn't for any of the reasons you might be guessing--we spent our day feeding the homeless, we were penniless, we were dieting, we were stuck in an airport, we were making a "statement," we just skipped it. Nope. Four years ago, we decided (oh, okay, BILL decided) that it would be fun to cater Thanksgiving dinner for a family we didn't know who had posted an ad on Craigslist. We had, I think, been watching way too much Food Network and thought: We can do that!

A young husband had posted an ad on Craigslist. Poor Mike had gotten sick of having to do all the cooking and serving every Thanksgiving, and never getting to relax and enjoy the day. He and his wife, a lawyer, had a nice, upscale home in the New Hampshire suburbs, two kids, and a family of 25 who descended on them every year for Thanksgiving. The only caveats were that his dad was lactose intolerant and Aunt Susan was going to bring her famous desserts. So we agreed, and the planning began.

Bill was in heaven! He started digging up recipes weeks in advance, so we printed out a menu for the family's approval and to put at everyone's place at the table. Every bit of it but the rolls was made from scratch. It looked like this, all decked out with fall leaves, ears of corn, and fancy fonts:

APPETIZERS
Crudités
Roasted red pepper & sun-dried tomato dipping sauce
Basil aioli dipping sauce
Mixed greens with Parmesan vinaigrette
Crab bisque or Cioppino
Dinner rolls
Southern dill-cheese bread

THANKSGIVING DINNER
Roast turkey
Fresh whole-cranberry sauce
Portobello mushroom gravy (one with & one without mushrooms)
Traditional sage dressing
Cornbread dressing
Garlic mashed potatoes
Southwest-style chipotle smashed sweet potatoes
Green bean casserole with panko-breaded onion topping
Oven-roasted stuffed onions
Oven-roasted carrots, squash, broccoli, & asparagus

Champagne sorbet (to cleanse the palate, of course)

DESSERT
Italian love cake, a rich ricotta delight
Granny Smith apple pie with caramel drizzle
Mike's own pumpkin pie
Aunt Susan's lemon cake
Aunt Susan's chocolate cake

The young family was delighted! Never before had they seen such a menu, let alone at their very own house for Thanksgiving, with caterers doing the service and cleanup!

We had no friggin’ idea what we had gotten ourselves into.

I spent the week before Thanksgiving nagging Bill to make sure he had everything organized. I made spreadsheets, timetables, strategies, as if we were planning an assault. He borrowed chafing dishes, pans, and three crock pots from our American Legion and friends. The food shopping took two hours and cost over $200. We spent 17 hours chopping, preparing, and precooking before Thanksgiving morning. The dog and cat ran around crazy. Friends came to watch us for a while and then left, shaking their heads. I never worked so hard in my life. We drank heavily. We came close to blows.

Then, on Thanksgiving morning, we loaded it all, most of it fully cooked, into every available inch of my little car and hit the road, praying that nothing would slide leeward and spill all over everything else. You know how everyone’s house smells at Thanksgiving? My car smelled like that for WEEKS afterward.

We pulled up and started unloading, carrying everything upstairs, from the garage to their kitchen. Mike helped, though he had his wine glass in hand and probably had for some time. Some of the guests were already there, extremely curious about us, and already getting under foot. We also discovered, very soon, that we were “the help.” (I didn't like that part one bit.) Anyway, we get all this stuff piled up on the counters, in an alien kitchen with, of all things, GAS burners, with which I have zero experience. Mike's wife seems to have no recollection of where any of her pots and pans are kept. Why should she, being a lawyer and all? Children are running around shrieking. This is all starting to look like a very bad Food Network Challenge that won't end well, and the worst part is, we're IN it!

Somehow, however, we manage to get everything sorted out and warming up on the stove or in the oven, and lay out the appetizers to keep the already-milling throng at bay. One old lady says, "What's low sodium here?" Instead of bursting into hysterical laughter, I consult the sheaf of recipes we've printed out for just such a situation. Well, NOTHING is really low sodium, but I'm able to fib to her that one of the dips and one of the soups aren't too, too bad. (Thank God there are no vegans here.) And we've made lactose-free versions of many things for Mike’s dad, which is partly why the menu is so vast.

Everyone is seated at a couple of big makeshift tables in the dining room, and this isn't a buffet. So we don our waitstaff hats and begin serving soups and plates of food to order. This is, of course, insanely hectic. I almost lose it when one woman comes into the kitchen and tells me that her husband needs a napkin. (The wish-I'd-said: "Let him get his own flippin' napkin, lady!! We've got a dinner to serve here!")

It all works, though, somehow perfectly. Everyone raves and applauds. The aunts get tiddly on the champagne sorbet. The wife angsts about whether the children should have any of it. I figure there's no danger since the kids are so high on sugar anyway that a little alcohol can only help. My favorite person of the whole day is a large adolescent lad who keeps exclaiming, "This is the best food I've ever had!!" And my second favorite person of the whole day is a five-year-old boy who insists on helping me clean up.

Did I mention that we signed up for cleanup, too? Picture a five-course dinner for 30, one small dishwasher, a tiny sink, a wife who has no idea where her storage containers are nor, once found, where their matching lids might be, and two exhausted chef-waiters-turned-dishwasher
s. At one point, I wasn't being none too neat about how I was shoving the leftovers into their fridge or washing their dishes. Lidless containers, bulging with moist ingredients and covered only with plastic wrap, teetered atop other lidless containers in the same condition. I just didn’t care any more.

At the end of the day, we made all of $150 profit. Mike was very good to us, considering that we WAY underestimated how much the whole thing would cost. Oh, and of course they kept all the leftovers, and the help got none, because the family had paid for it all.

The next year Mike begged us to come back and do it all over again.

We did NOT.

And every Thanksgiving since has seemed like a breeze in comparison.


Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!
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