Hosting Your First Thanksgiving? Start Now.

by Kerry Dougherty

So, you think you’re all grown up just because you’ve graduated from the children’s table?


Truth is, you’re not really an adult until you’ve hosted Thanksgiving dinner. In your own house or apartment, for at least 10 people, with everything made from scratch. Except the rolls, that is. You may buy them.

What’s that? You thought turning 21 was your passport to adulthood? Getting married? Buying a house?

Sorry, until you prepare your first Thanksgiving meal, you’re still a culinary kid.

Nothing – not even childbirth – prepares you for the rising panic that comes with the knowledge that you’ve invited a dozen people, who may not even like one another, for a feast consisting of a perfectly roasted turkey and at least a dozen sides. And pies. Can’t forget the pies.

Expectations are high, and so are the risks.

Burn the green-bean casserole, accidentally slosh Scotch into the mashed potatoes, or undercook the bird, and you’re the butt of family jokes for years.

Thanksgiving: the deceptively difficult holiday.

Chances are, your grandmother or some family matriarch prepared the feast when you were a child. She made it look easy.

At her funeral, you may have noticed the worry etched onto the faces of the surviving women. They knew the Thanksgiving task and the culinary choreography was about to fall to one of them.

With the passing of each relative, you are inching closer to that terrifying fourth Thursday in November when you’ll wake up shaking with the realization that it’s Thanksgiving – and you’re the cook.

“Where do I start?”

You could do what I do and start with a bloody Mary. Today. It’s never too early to steel yourself.

Yet my teetotaling grandmother never needed any fortification. I remember how she cheerfully prepared a fabulous feast for a houseful of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. She never broke a sweat – or hit the sauce.

Instead, my father’s mother calmly rose before dawn, made the stuffing, stuck the turkey in the oven and then baked the pies. By the time we sat down to eat in late afternoon, her house was infused with an intoxicating aroma, and every steaming vegetable dish seemed to arrive on the table at the exact same moment.

To this day, I have never eaten a slice of pumpkin pie as rich as my grandmother’s, nor stuffing as savory. Best of all, Nana’s Thanksgiving table was enveloped in a happy cacophony of storytelling fueled by nothing stronger than her sweet tea.

It would be 40 years after her death before it was my turn to cook, and my first attempt was a disaster.

By the time I’d managed to make something that resembled gravy and someone carved the turkey, all my side dishes had cooled and congealed. Worse, when one of my nephews innocently asked to please pass the rolls, I realized that they were still in the freezer.

Since that first forgettable feast, I’ve resorted to books that offer tips on Thanksgiving preparations. My favorite is this: Start early. Like today.

Set the table ahead of time so you can cleverly arrange plates and glasses in a way that covers last year’s cranberry stains.

Cornbread dressing is messy and requires stale bread. Plan well ahead.

Head to the liquor store and stock up. Pour yourself a drink. Now.

Oh, yeah, and to all the first-time Thanksgiving chefs: Welcome to adulthood.

This column has been republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed & Unedited.