Tips From Mom: First Thanksgivings

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” —Melody Beattie

The watery sunlight barely slants through the kitchen windows as I take my first sip of coffee and look at that big naked turkey resting in the roaster, just waiting for me to truss, season, baste and roast. The oven is pre-heated and the butter and olive oil is warmed for basting, I have salted and peppered the bird inside and out, all that needs doing is to stuff the cavity with aromatic herbs, celery, lemon and onion quarters; add some of my homemade turkey stock to the vegetable-filled pan and heft that soon to be succulent bird into the stove.

This meal, with such humble distinctly American beginnings, is my very favorite holiday feast. It is simply about a gathering and coming together of food lovingly prepared, family, and if lucky, good friends to celebrate our freedoms, our ties to one another, and gratitude for that which we have been given. This unique tradition is uncluttered by Christmas stresses, colored eggs, burned hot dogs and brass bands—it is simply giving thanks.

As I offer my own small prayer of thankfulness and guidance for this day, I recall the significant “firsts” of my own Thanksgivings. My own first foray into preparing the feast for family and friends who couldn’t go home. I was fueled by equal parts terror, frenzy, and an ignorant confidence in my own culinary skills. How hard could this be? I’ve cooked turkey scores of times, right?

Well yes, but not with appetizers, a horn of plenty of side dishes, last minute gravy and rolls, various dinner drinks, four desserts and 10 people squeezed into my inadequate dining table. Timing, timing, timing! Suffice to say, the homemade cranberry sauce never made it to the table, the turkey was a little dry—thank God for gravy—and the blessed experienced helping hands of those who came before me. You never contemplate that your oven just doesn’t have room for a 20-lb. turkey, two pumpkin pies, huge casserole dishes of dressing, creamed corn and two baking pans of dinner rolls! Microwaves are a wonderful invention! As is that container of Cool Whip, since I forgot to put the beaters and bowl into the freezer so we could have homemade whipped cream!

As I pull out my freshly picked sage, rubbing my fingers across the nubby, slightly wooly leaves, releasing the woodsy, pungent fragrance, I remember carefully picking the best sprigs from my herb garden, painstakingly wrapping them in moistened towels and packaging them up to send to my darling oldest daughter in Oxford, England. She was making her own “first” Thanksgiving for her flatmates, all Americans, living in a country that not only didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but looked upon it as a silly, colonial Yank oddity. I of course sent her many other things, like small turkey salt and pepper shakers, a turkey embossed apron, a boxful of both the silly and useful, as well as recipes for favorite dishes, and all my hopes, wishes and love. Although we were separated for the first time on Thanksgiving, I woke at 2 a.m., to talk her through the beginning preparations of her First Thanksgiving. Saddened though I was not to be able to offer her my helping hands, I was grateful that I could share in a small way her own triumph of her first feast. I was fiercely proud and humbled by her desire and ability to give her friends a southern Thanksgiving in an ancient university town in England.

I have prepared this meal many, many times, in at least half a dozen different kitchens, some with cantankerous old ovens and battered cookware, some in my Viking range with all my favorite must-have pots, pans, and kitchen wizardries. I have prepared it alone, but most often with my daughters and occasionally my mom and sisters, as well as good friends who are family. No matter the setting or helpers it ultimately begins with a plan, and of course the bird, that gloriously crispy skinned, tender and juicy turkey! Every other side dish is just an exquisite, delicious addition!

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The Plan

About the battle plan: Start with your guest list, the number of people determines the size of the bird.  A good rule of thumb is about one-and-a-half pounds of turkey per person for a bird over 12 pounds, two pounds per person if under 12. Try to buy a fresh bird—that will negate all that uncertainty about how many hours of defrosting it needs. I usually pre-order mine from Williams and Sonoma—the Willie Bird is amazingly fresh-tasting, but these can be pricey. Talk to your local butcher at your grocery store—they can take your order, too!  Now that you have determined your guest list and know what size turkey to buy, you can concentrate on your accompanying dishes. Do you have a favorite side dish that you savored in childhood? Put it on the menu and call your relatives or dig through old family recipes to find it. If all else fails search the Web for a similar recipe. It may not be quite the same, but the basics will be there. Just a note of caution: If you haven’t made a pumpkin soufflé before, this meal is not the time to try it!

The Dishes

My family and I have de rigueur dishes for Thanksgiving.  There must be rice and gravy, not mashed potatoes, although I have served both when my favorite almost-nephew is sitting down with us (he loves homemade mashed potatoes). In return he snaps five pounds of fresh green beans for me, which of course become “greasy beans,” another must have. I also cook up a mess of fresh, bitter sweet collard greens and kale seasoned with salty Virginia country ham broth and smoked turkey wings. I have made many avowed converts to this Southern staple. They also demand fresh cranberry sauce, very easy to make and I’ll include the recipe at the end of this essay. No canned jello sauce for us, but for some of you Thanksgiving may not be complete without that ubiquitous canned cranberry. Each to their own—no name calling. The most time-consuming side is, of course, the dressing or stuffing. Dressing is cooked outside of the turkey, stuffing inside the cavity and then scraped out. You can serve it both ways if you like but I gave up putting stuffing in my turkey years ago, it is very temperamental and alters your cooking time overall. I make buttermilk cornbread a few days in advance and let it dry out. This is the basis for my dressing, to which I add sage sausage, chopped pecans, cranberries, sweet chopped and sautéed onion and celery, plenty of fresh sage, thyme and rosemary from my garden, and stir in homemade turkey stock. This is quite a lot of whopping and chopping but well worth the effort.  Being a Southern East Coast woman, I always include a seafood dish, be it roasted oysters, oyster stew or shrimp and grits, or possibly pickled shrimp, which can be made in advance and only gets brinier and sweeter with a few days in the refrigerator.

Things To Know

Speaking of your second best appliance friend, the first being a good working range and oven, empty your refrigerator BEFORE you do your meal shopping, you need at least one shelf to store your bird. If you pull it out a day in advance, pull the internal organ pouch out, (very important, and you would be amazed by how many times it gets overlooked. It is just really gross to carve into your bird and find that hot, steaming congealed mess) put that aside to use later, then rinse well, paper towel dry and season inside and out; put it uncovered on a jelly pan back in the fridge to air-cure, and you will be guaranteed a delicious crispy skin. Or you can brine your bird, a relatively easy task, but space- and time-consuming. I typically do this when my other half decides to smoke a turkey breast to compliment my roasted one. This is a good idea for several reasons—it keeps the men outside and not underfoot opening the oven door to “check on the progress,” and it allows you the freedom of not cooking an elephant-sized bird if you are having many guests. Cooking an additional turkey breast increases the amount of white meat you can serve, which in my experience is what most people tend to want.

Cooking The Bird

A third must-have kitchen item is a good quality meat thermometer. While you can splurge and buy one of those fancy high-tech wizard gizmos that have buzzers, timers, LED lights and probably interfaces with your computer, I have found that a reliable instant-read digital meat thermometer works best for me. It allows me to check the internal temperatures of both the breast and dark meat legs. Please don’t rely on those pop-up plastic things that come in grocery store birds, as they are highly unreliable and can overcook breast meat while under cooking the drums. Just remember, an instant-read thermometer is not to be left in the bird!! I usually pull my turkey out when the thigh reads 165 degrees. This translates to approximately 12 to 15 minutes per pound for a fresh bird and around 20 minutes per for a defrosted one. Both these times are based on a 350 degree-roasting temperature. There are as many different ways to cook turkey as there are opinions; different temperatures, i.e., blasting it in a 450-degree oven for the first 30 minutes, or the last, covering it in foil until the last 45 minutes, basting it or not, but I think for your own confidence and sanity, cooking the bird all the way through at 350 degrees is a good choice for anyone, especially first-time cooks. Depending on the size of my bird I usually only baste when I check my temperature, and then only with my olive oil/unsalted butter mixture.

The Turkey—Part Two

The more the oven door is opened the longer it will take as the temperature has to come back up to the desired setting, and can cause a dry bird. About 45 minutes before you think it should be done, check your temperature at the thigh, baste once, and cover the breast with tinfoil,  your breast should be nicely golden brown by this point. Once out, tent the entire bird with foil, though not tightly; otherwise that beautiful crispy skin will steam like it’s in a sauna and become rubbery and chewy-tasting, which is not what you want for your Tom Turkey presentation! Allow the turkey to rest in all its glory for 25–30 minutes before carving. If it is too hot the meat won’t slice evenly and will instead tear, and the juices will then be all over your carving platter and not in the bird where they belong. Don’t worry if you need to let it rest longer due to browning those rolls, making gravy, or any and all last minutes tasks; it can probably rest for up to 45 minutes without losing too much heat. Just don’t touch it!! When you are in the last stretch and it is time to carve that bountiful bird, please, please make sure your carving knife has a nice new sharp edge on it, if not, it will become a butchered mutilated mess, and trust me, you won’t want to see those blasphemous pictures of your crowning achievement, and you will cry! Alton Brown is a proponent of using an electric carving knife to cut even, thin slices. I can’t say I have ever done that, but I know people who swear by them, and they are much cheaper than buying a Wusthof carving knife. If you don’t know how to carve a turkey, (it isn’t part of our DNA after all) and you haven’t invited anyone who has experience in cutting up a whole bird—not many people do, by the way–then head back to the Internet for a lesson in Turkey Carving 101.  You can even download it and watch it step by step as you carve your own bird! Just take your time and don’t get rushed or panicked, your guests can wait a little longer for you to put together a mouth watering, heaping platter of perfectly carved turkey! You will be rewarded with oohs and aahs and drooling!!! Don’t forget to take a picture of your magnificient culinary accomplishment and all your guests bowing to you in awe and appreciation, but do it before your feast looks like the remains of a grade school cafeteria lunch after the kids have left.

The Rest

See Also
woman in hoodie jacket holding a bowl of fruits

You have the hard and scary part behind you, so now is the time to turn all those wonderful pan juices into a savory, lump free gravy. I know, horror of horrors, calling to mind the gelatinous, lumpy, floury concoctions of Thanksgivings past, you know, it plopped out onto your plate instead of pouring silkily from the gravy boat. Gravy is so very easy. Forget all that measuring the fat, pouring it off, making a roux. You have the fat from the turkey, your vegetables that you roasted it on top of, and your own mix of olive oil and butter that you started with. Here is your go-to. Roll that juicy lemon and cut it in half. Find that left over bottle of really good white wine, and about one half stick of salted butter, add in salt and pepper, and if you have a bent for spice, grab your favorite. This is it. Add about a cup of cold water to your flour, use a fork or whisk to incorporate the solid into the liquid and set it aside. This is your mise en place. The magic is you. The trick  is to stir and stir and again. I usually make the tallest people stir, but that is just me. I will take any help I can, but tall people with long arms that I can convince to stand in front of a six-burner range and add my combined mixture of flour, water, and turkey fat and juices, well, they are the best. This is the time that you need the most help. Ask. Delegate. But don’t forget, those wonderful helpers, they need you to come back and add the magic; a dash of lemon juice, a daub of butter, a cup or so of white wine and for me a few (a lot) liberal shakes of Crystal. Add salt and pepper to taste, simmer, stir, pour and serve. It really is that easy. Oh, if at the end of gravy making, some nice person is carving your turkey and there are juices on the carving platter, pour them into your concoction—the more turkey taste, the better.

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Now the table is groaning, laden with abundant, hopefully scrumptious dishes, prepared by you. Each dish is filled with your love and gratitude; for this day, for each of these people seated at your table, for the opportunity to share a meal, a grace and blessing. Look at each of them and know that you will remember them and this day—your First Thanksgiving. It matters not if some of you are sitting in plastic picnic chairs, nor that your dishes don’t match, or that your kitchen is an utter disaster, (of course it is, you are not that smooth and efficient yet, neither am I) what matters is the simple happiness that settles around you that you have been able to offer them this quintessentially American celebration. Now, pass that silky smooth gravy and enjoy yourself, the kitchen will wait!!

“As we express our gratitude,  we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” —John F. Kennedy

As promised here, is my recipe for cranberry sauce:

  • 2 1-lb. bags of fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted
  • 1/2-cup of brown sugar
  • 1/2-cup of white sugar
  • 2 cups of freshly squeezed orange juice, usually about two large navel oranges
  • Juice of one large lemon
  • Zest of both oranges and lemon
  • 3/4 of a cup of finely chopped pecans (skip this if any of your guests have nut allergies)
  • 1 teaspoon or more of ground cinnamon
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1/2-teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 or 2 green cardamon pods

Pulse together sugars and zests in a blender or food processor until finely incorporated. In a sauce pan, combine berries, lemon and orange juices, sugar-zest combination, cinnamon and nutmeg. Throw in two sticks of cinnamon, the star anise, cardamon pods and chopped pecans. Turn the heat onto medium, and stir to blend all ingredients. Simmer slowly, stirring to prevent sticking. The cranberries will begin to burst, lower heat and skim off the white foam. Simmer until thickened. It will have a preserve type texture. Remove cinnamon sticks, pods, and star anise, stir and refrigerate. Just remember to put it into a pretty serving dish and onto the table. Enjoy!!

                Happy Thanksgiving Darlings!

                          Love, Mom

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About Cyndi

momMother of Katie Hope, Cyndi learned how to cook through necessity and by watching others burn everything they touched. She’s spent her life fattening up her kids, husband, horses, dogs, cats, fish, and yes even gerbils at one point. She’s a traditional Southern lady with a healthy dose of mermaid tendencies and tree hugging dirt worshiping. At a solid 5 feet tall, Cyndi’s spent her whole life with a big opinions, big trucks, and big dogs, and yes, maybe she has a Napoleon complex, but it’s ok, she’s passed it on to her daughters. She never met a critter she didn’t love, a child she didn’t spoil, or a meal she didn’t want to make. 

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