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A Thanksgiving Departure

  • j

Thought it would be nice this year to skip the 72-hour Thanksgiving warmup, all-day cook-a-thon, and two-day cleanup by suggesting that we join together (both sets of in-laws) and eat at a great restaurant instead. We did Thanksgiving at our place last year, and, while it was fun and the food was pretty darn good, we definitely need a year (or two) off.

My parents loved the idea.

My wife's mother, on the other hand, called the idea "ridiculous" (her approach to dispute resolution will have to remain a topic for another day), "absurd" and said "no way." She said "every house should smell like turkey on Thanksgiving." My feeling is that it has smelled like turkey for many decades and will continue to do so ... next year ... and ... wouldn't this be a nice change, to be able to spend the time talking instead of trying to keep up with 16 guests in a house that fits 8? And wouldn't it be nice for my mother-in-law to see what moist turkey breasts and properly cooked vegetables taste like? (I didn't say that -- you caught me.)

I had already felt a little odd about it for another reason -- that there may be something a little unsavory about spending a holiday being waited on by strangers who probably want to eat at home themselves; and that a restaurant owner ought to do better by his or her people and give them the day off for God's sake. (Danny Meyer did this last New Year's Eve, I think.) But that's probably just the socialist in me crying out.

Sigh ... nothing is simple. I've greated "Turkeygate 2000" with the best intentions.

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  1. Hate to side with your mom-in-law; but I have had Thanksgiving dinners at both good and bad restaurants, and had both good and bad Thanksgiving dinners at home, and in the end I prefer the bad dinners at home to the good restaurants.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Jeremy Osner

      there are several things i would miss:

      -stuffing myself to the gills to the point that i have to recline and free my waistline of any remotely binding article of clothing

      -eating the crusty bits of stuffing that were protruding from or have fallen out of the bird and are soaked in fat and cooked to a chewy crisp


      would it BE thanksgiving without these things? somehow i think not.

      1. re: emily

        I'm with you, Emily. I almost prefer the leftovers to the meal itself. And, if like in my family, Thanksgiving exists so that we may have SPIRITED and VOCIFEROUS ( we can get a bit loud) discussions about politics over the dinner table--well, this wouldn't fly in a restaurant. I have had Thanksgiving dinner in restaurants (mostly after my mother died which sort of cast a pall as well) and while there have been perfectly nice meals in some very good places, I much prefer being at home. Oh, and after we're finished fighting about the elections, we play bocce in my cousin's yard (her husband sets up lights for the occasion). My sister said the other night, "I don't know if I'm any good at bocce because I've never played sober!" And I love leftover pumpkin pie for breakfast!

        1. re: Martha Gehan

          Since my family has thinned out and spread out and, as a consequence, we don't do a big Thanksgiving dinner anymore. My husband and I join a friend who has a big feast for about 20 of her friends who are in a similar position and it's always a lot of fun. Many of us contribute to the meal.

          But we've only had Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant when we've been traveling and it's (except for Commander's Palace in New Orleans) usually a big let-down.

          Our big family meals always seemed to be a huge amount of trouble and stress in the planning and execution, and a marvelous result that everyone, including the cooks, enjoyed. We finished every one of these get-togethers with an hour or two of blackjack and poker (for pennies) that always left us laughing.

          If you don't do the big feast at home, you'll probably end up being disappointed in the end. Yes, it's a hassle and a struggle and, yes, it's a huge amount of work. But, yes, it's absolutely worth it.

          1. re: Dena

            Chiming in a few days late, I know . . . John, I have had good and bad Thanksgivings both ways (home and out). Mostly good, fortunately.

            The choice depends mostly on how the participants feel about it, and if they are willing to give a shot at something new. If you're hosting, you're the only one who can decide. If 90% of us say our experiences at home were better, does that matter if you fall into the 10% who went to a restaurant and had a fabulous time?

          2. re: Martha Gehan

            This is a hallowed tradition in my family. So much so that my mother started baking an extra pumpkin pie each year, so that no matter how many people there were at dinner or how much they ate, there would be pumpkin pie enough for everyone's breakfast. And so much so that during the past few years, on the couple of occasions when my boyfriend and I (far from our families) haven't had the time or energy to make Thanksgiving dinner for ourselves and have gone out or skipped it in favor of a lavish Sunday brunch, we still make pumpkin pie to eat for breakfast!

          3. re: emily
            Rachel Perlow

            Previous poster stated a desire for leftovers...

            I happen to like what my husband's family has been doing for the past few years, which is going to a country club. There's a traditional dinner at his grandfathers CC on Long Island. If you're a big enough group (we're about 12-15) they give you a whole turkey which you can carve yourself and sides are served family style.

            When you're at a big table in a ballroom, you kind of get a sense of privacy in a crowd, as opposed to feeling like you have to be quiet as at a restaurant.

            Last time we went I was appointed turkey carver and got to take home the carcass (with plenty of meat still clinging to it) for my tradition, making turkey soup the next day.

        2. Could there be possibility of a compromise? Simplify the menu, think about what dishes you could get as takeout, or from a deli, or make in advance, and bake the lady her turkey. Use disposable serving pieces if you can stand it, to cut back on the clean up. Some restaurants will pack up a whole Thanksgiving dinner to serve at home.

          9 Replies
          1. re: Betty

            Oh sure, there could be a compromise -- generally we give in just to avoid any bad feelings on her part. But I wasn't really looking for solutions, just interested in people's feelings on the matter. I think there's something to be said for a little variety now and then.

            1. re: John Tracey

              Okay, here are my "feelings on the matter": I think it's up to you and your wife to establish your *own* holiday traditions, and if that includes an occasional Thanksgiving at a nice restaurant, so be it. The traditional desserts could be ready and waiting at home where you all could relax with good conversation, without piles of waiting dirty dishes. I think your idea is terrific.

              1. re: pat hammond

                Thanks for your support ... I'm surprised at the way things are going here, pretty much 95 percent in favor of home vs. restaurant. I mean, of course I love having leftovers, but ... once every ten years, it might be nice to experience a pro's take on turkey.

                1. re: pat hammond

                  Last year, for the first time in 48 consecutive Thanksgivings, my dear old 96 year old Aunt, who was still driving, still writing, still coming into Manhattan for theater and art each week (by subway!) requested for the first time ever, that instead of her traditional Thanksgiving, we should all share a turkey--and have our usual fun--at a restaurant. She admitted she was "slowing down a bit," but absolutely didn't want anyone else to have to cook in her place.

                  We all responded with great enthusiasm to the idea of a Thanksgiving with all the usual love--but none of the usual KP duties. In fact, I asked the Chowhound list at that time for suggestions. Sadly (and ironically,) the exact afternoon my sister and I went over and booked the restaurant, then went home to phone my Aunt Sylvia, there was a message on the phone. She was in the hospital with a massive stroke--which she did not recover from. We had just lost my Mom six months earlier. It was a tough time.

                  My point to this story is: The WAY you celebrate a holiday--traditional or non--is not what's most important. What truly matters is having the family to share it with. In the end, when you've finished the leftovers from either YOUR tble--or the RESTAURANT'S table--what remains is the warmth of being with family and friends and the memories you savor.

                  Happy Thanksgiving, WHATEVER you do!

                  1. re: Lynn

                    Lynn: Perfect.

                    1. re: Lynn

                      I remember that post vividly, Lynn.

                      Cheers to Aunt Sylvia.

                    2. re: pat hammond

                      Hi Pat, John, and everyone else!

                      I agree with Pat that it is important to create your *own* traditions!

                      I've been here in Tokyo for the last two Thanksgivings. Two years ago, my friends and I started a new tradition that is turning out to be the best of all possible worlds. Since Thanksgiving in Japan is just another Thursday, we gather for dinner at a favorite restaurant that does a great job with their Turkey Day dinner. Then, the following weekend, we all gather at the large home of one of my friends, and everybody pitches in to create a homecooked Thanksgiving meal that, so far, has been out of this world. Along with the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and gravy, those amongst us who are so inclined also bring to the gathering their favorite dish from their own pre-Tokyo Thanksgiving tradition. Last year, we ended up with over 30 different dishes, from 4 different continents.

                      The most poignant dish brought last year was from a friend who is a recent immigrant from China. She brought a bowl filled with 10 cups of cooked white rice. This bowl of rice, it was explained, was what 75 percent of the world's population would be thankful to have for a week's sustinance.


                      1. re: Andy P.

                        Hi Andy, That's a tradition I would gladly adopt, given the opportunity. And how best to truly be thankful than to compare what we have to that which so many, many can barely imagine.

                        I just finished reading a delightful book called Confucious Lives Next Door, written by a columnist for the Washington Post. I'll get there one day, I hope.


                    3. re: John Tracey

                      I've enjoyed Thanksgivings at home and in restaurants and have like them equally. After my husband died a few years ago, I was scrambling to do something very different from what I was used to (a 'cooked-at-home' meal). I made plans with the man I was dating at that time to make a mini-vacation of it, and spend a night or two in New York, do the parade thing and then on to dinner at Arizona 206 (the old one). We loved it the first year, liked it a lot the second, but by the third years either the restaurant or the relationship was tarnishing.

                      The next year I did the holiday solo, and went out for dinner alone. It is the most difficult holiday to manage, actually, at least it is for me, but I managed to retrieve something of it--although I worked it hard, believe me. Still, I realistically inventoried the holiday as it was celebrated by my friends (a varied lot), and I dont think that mine held up too badly. I had some laughs and was spared the irksome in-law or sulky sister of time past.

                      Sometimes it is good to shake the dust off and try something different (I mean, look at Pat Hammond, dusting herself all the way off to Maine!), but it isnt always an easy sell. Hope you have a fine time, all, whatever your plans.

                  2. I don't understand...
                    Is your mother-in-law offering to cook at home for everyone, including your parents? If so, I would graciously accept and offer to bring a dish.

                    If she wants to be hosted by you, then she should graciously accept your hospitality at the location of your choosing -- be it at home or at a restaurant.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Val G

                      well said, indeed! tell her to cook the bird, at least...

                    2. In defense of the going out idea -- I've never been able to go home for Thanksgiving, because I'm here in New York and my family lives in Utah. So one year, when I was a student, my then boyfriend and I went out to Chinatown and had Peking Duck for Thanksgiving. And then we went to a movie -- some violent blockbuster of some sort. And you know what? It was fun. I think it's worth doing once or twice in your life, especially if you don't try to replicate a traditional meal. I figured a bird of any sort was close enough.

                      Also, you could spend Thanksgiving volunteering at a soup kitchen. My, what a warm, special feeling you'd get. I've never done it myself, actually. Too selfish.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: adriana

                        I have no problem with that--I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving in an Indian restaurant in London (with someone I was falling hard for, and who is not American, both factors which helped me forget the holiday). But I still think that it's hard to beat the family and/or friends thing, IF it's do-able from a logistics standpoint. And I don't know about the rest of you, but most family gatherings of my clan require differing amounts of compromise and tolerance. But I don't think there's anything WRONG with going out, if that's what you want to do.

                      2. I truly understand. And I think that your MIL is a little unyeilding...BUT, I can't imagine not spending a holiday meal at a home, not out at a restaurant. I don't really enjoy the personality of most of my husband's relatives (some are just different from what I'm used to, others are certifiably insane), but I would rather be there than a restaurant! Sorry!

                        1. My mother is a caterer and Thanksgiving is probably her busiest day. I imagine that it's a nice combination - you don't have to cook but you're in the comfort of your own home, and you get to keep the left overs.

                          Of course for us the experience is very different. Members of my family and our close friends are drafted into helping in the store -- getting there at 6AM to pack up orders, making deliveries, lading out quart after quart of gravy and hoping that the containers don't leak, explaining for the millionth time how to re-heat the stuffing to a frantic customer, running to the supermarket to try to scrounge up sweet potatoes or cranberries or some other crucial ingredient when we realize we've run short of something ...

                          And when the last order is finally out, and we've showered the smell of turkey from our hair, and we've set out the hodgepodge of dishes in the aluminum take-out tins because we can't be bothered with dragging out the good serving platters, we sit down, exhausted, to eat at 7 or 8 o'clock, and we laugh as we think about how nice and calm and pleasant all the customers' meals probably were.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: Lisa Z

                            This seems like it could be a good alternative to restaurant dining - as I recall it, in past years, many restaurants, including Cucina in Park Slope have sold a complete Thanksgiving dinner, including the bird on a takeout or delivery basis. The price seemed very reasonable, so catered options might work out well for John, too.

                            1. re: Lisa Z

                              Coming from a family in which my mother often had to work on Thanksgiving, I read your post and wondered how your family felt about having to work so hard to make everyone else's Thanksgiving so perfect.

                              1. re: rjka

                                Hey, don't feel THAT badly for the Z. family!

                                Given my lifetime as a musician, I've never attended a New Year's Eve party as a guest. Media people often have to work on holidays, waiters work weekends. We all do what we can to fill our little niches in the economy, and there are pluses/minuses to every job.

                                1. re: Jim Leff

                                  Point well taken, but I was trying to point out (and was genuinely curious about Lisa Z's perspective), that amid all the recent discussion here over spending Thanksgiving at a restaurant, country club or having it catered that we should think for a moment about all those people who give up a very family centered holiday to make Thanksgiving more convenient for others.

                                  1. re: rjka

                                    As you'll see from my reply, given that my mother's job requires that she work on the holidays, the only way for holidays to remain family affairs is for us all to work along with her.

                                    I think I've just truly realized this in answering your original question. While I've always sort of thought of it as that I "have" to work, it's obviously a choice (to some extent!).

                                2. re: rjka

                                  Interesting question. Last year was the first year that I didn't help out in the store. After working countless Thanksgivings, Rosh Hashanas, and Passovers, I decided that I'd had it, and left the country to spend Thanksgiving with my sister. (Being a five hour plane ride away was the only excuse I could think of that would get me out of working.) I think taking that one holiday off provided me with a little perspective.

                                  Families are pretty amazing things, and there are things that you just do as a member of one. You don't think too much about it, you just do it. For us, working on the big holidays was one of those things. There is simply too much to do and too little time (and too little profit margin!) to hire people, so we'd have my brother the college professor making deliveries, my 82 year old grandmother arriving with a car load of sponge cakes she'd baked in her apartment and diligently instructing my grandfather on how to make them the next year when she was too sick to do it herself, our closest friends carefully totalling up orders and checking and double checking to make sure every item goes into a customer's bag.

                                  It's frustrating, annoying, tiring, difficult work, and invariably something goes horribly wrong, like year that the walk-in refrigerator died or the time that soup containers leaked or when we had to make deliveries in the pouring rain ... But it is also a bonding experience for us, and there is something about knowing that without each of our efforts, things wouldn't be done quite as well or as quickly ("They almost forgot the Greenberg's crudite platter but I saw it on the shelf!" "We had to meet that woman in the hospital parking lot to get her her gravy!"). The near-disasters, heroic saves and memorable incidents become part of the family lore that keep us tied together. And I can't imagine what we'd talk about around the dinner table otherwise.