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Avoiding holiday cooking performance anxiety and neurosis

Remember Thanksgiving is about gratitude and every holiday has its reason for being. Food can just be a pleasant enhancement. What is a food disaster to you will probably not be remembered ... and if it is memorably disasterous ... well, that makes for a great story over the years ... most of the time, you'll look back and laugh . .. yes you will.

Some thoughts

1. Be clear about your expectations

2. Be respectful as a host or guest

3. Nobody cares as much as you

4. Chill out. Go with the flow

1, 2 and 3 For the first points, there is a current Chow story by a local reviewer I've come to respect over the years. He's not as fussy as it sounds from the story. He's done some great dive dining. However, reading the story about how much he resents people bringing stuff to his carefully planned dinner had me thinking he missed the point of the holiday.

When Did Thanksgiving Turn Into a Potluck?


Now I think he should have made it clear to his guests not to bring anything. However, as guests we should respect our hosts and clarify their expectations.

There's also a little of 4 in this. I'm sure the guest from hell who brought a mixer to make an unrequested dessert and cluttered the kitchen with utensils and mess didn't get the 'subtle' hint of the host "depositing each in the dish drainer with a clatter loud enough to raise Squanto from the dead."

I would bet the only thing remembered by that person was the thrill of contributing to the dinner. So if guestzilla shows up ... chill ... deal with it ... that person isn't the one getting upset

Also, as comments in that story point out, some behaviour is cultural. Some said that it is rude in the South not to bring along a dish. Some people have a family tradition of potlucks. Some might be new to the holiday and clueless. You are never going to change your elderly aunt and she will bring along almost alive, quivering jello salad.

One comment summed it up perfectly "give everyone the scoop on what's going down at your holiday event, and then you only have to deal with the really pushy people who just have to make their sweet potato mash with pecan-cranberry streusel. There will always be those if you want to have a big gathering,"

And in the end, so what if the steusel makes it to the table.

4. After doing my superiority dance about that article, I found myself stressing over roasting the turkey after a casual comment on Chowhound.

I had to bring myself to reality. Some people will like the food, others will be polite and occasionaly there will be that person who is brutally honest (usually in the elderly aunt or kid category). In the end it will just be about getting together.

I guess taking care of an elderly, ill mother for years loosened my view on the 'perfect' holiday. Things constantly went wrong and out of control.

There was the year at the fancy restaurant where she did a George Bush at the Chinese banquet. The holidays she missed because she got too ill just before.

There was the year I had a dinner for a dozen and was working out of the country and flying in ... to my brand new condo ... that is a recipe for disaster, right? I remember pushing one early guest into having to finish sweeping up and setting the table. Most of all I remember the gluey mashed Yukon gold potatoes I made ... damn you, Marta Stewart, for that recipe.

I also remember the joy in my mom's face as we sat around the table. Even more than a decade later, guests at that dinner compliment me on how wonderful it was. No one remembers the potatoes.

So ... I've calmed down about the turkey. If it doesn't work out ... everyone likes pizza and there are a few joints that are open. Maybe I'll make or buy a back up lasagna.

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  1. I totally agree. While yeah, it's great to have a delicious meal and hopefully have everything go well if not perfect while making it, I think sometimes people get so caught up in the moment of everything being perfect they forget it's truly about being with the people you care for. If having the chance to have one more Thanksgiving with all the people I love who are NOT around anymore meant that dinner was gonna be a bowl of cereal, then please pass the milk.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

    1. I <3 this rworange, thank you! I am one of those people who HAS to cook everything, because I've been planning the meal in its entirety for months. Anything additional would ruin the... well I guess theme does the trick. I do welcome wine (or other beverage) and desserts. I make a pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, and a pecan pie, but an apple pie or chocolate dessert would be very welcome.

      Oh, and the perfectionist in me has to say..... *Japanese banquet.

      1. Rworange, this is the perfect time for your post. It is too easy to get over focused and allow the inevitable mishaps to mar our experience.

        When I think back on past holiday meals the people and the warmth of the relationships are the strongest memories. The food is a bit hazier, perhaps because I still have it about my hips.

        The only Thanksgiving horror that I recall was my Mother cutting herself when she was removing the wrap from the turkey and requiring a trip to the emergency room for stitches. My Father and I (9 yrs. old) took on cooking the meal. The horror occurred when our cat appeared in the kitchen with a beheaded pet gerbil of mine. Dinner preparations were put on hold while we held a tearful funeral in the back yard and I had a good cry.

        Don't remember a thing about the food...nor do I recall the name of the gerbil (there were many of the suicidal buggers.)

        2 Replies
        1. re: meatn3

          That made me laugh. When I started to read "cat", I thougt "here's another cat chowing on an unwatched turkey" .... but a headless gerbil and a nine year old ... that is the worst tragedy I've ever heard.

          1. re: rworange

            My gerbil years were full of sorrow. I was at an age where the names were paired: nit & wit, spic & span, Romeo & Juliet, all I know is that they were determined to escape into the waiting jaws of the cats. We had a lot of back yard funerals. I occasionally wonder if anyone has happened upon all those rodent and feline bones in the back yard of that house. Next time I'm in in Fl. perhaps I'll knock on the door and ask!

        2. and if all else fails there's always Xanax (or its generic equivalent).

          9 Replies
          1. re: hill food

            Ha, that's exactly what I was going to say. Kava kava is non-prescription and used by Hawaiians to relax. Too much will cause liver damage but just a little really helps with letting go!

            1. re: hill food

              When my SIL hosted her first Christmas, Valium was the word of the day. It was her first Christmas with the family, as well as the "Introduction to the Family" ritual for me and a now-BIL, in a family of 7 kids with spouses and kids. Not much stress there!

              1. re: sunshine842

                "mother's little helper"

                within reason

                1. re: hill food

                  my now-MIL and I tucked her into bed about 4pm and finished the dinner....we collectively laugh ourselves breathless about it every year....but it was a tough day! (add the cranberry-sauce stain on the antique oak table, a non-potty-trained new puppy, and sweet-potato peelings clogging the garbage disposal in a tiny kitchen....)

                    1. re: hill food

                      Nah -- it all came out fine, and we laugh hysterically about it (and a few of us were chuckling on the day....)

                      Dinner was great, there were no arguments, and the house was still standing at the end of the day.

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        the best stories DO tend to come out of mishap

                        1. re: hill food

                          While unfortunate, that is true - of Thanksgiving, weddings, et al....

                          1. re: hill food

                            ...AND my SIL and I are really good friends, and all three of us who had our trial by fire that day are still married to our respective spouses...and everyone still gets along, even with nieces and nephews now adding spouses and THEIR kids to the mix.

                            All's well that ends well.

              2. These stories made me laugh and also remember a dinner at my house that all DH's family laugh about many years later. It wasn't a holiday, but all the cousins were in town at the same time for the first time in years. I was travelling for work an wouldn't be home until the night before their last day in town. I knew I couldn't manage a dinner, but invited the whole crew (about 20) for dessert and coffee. I had it all organized, some things made ahead, etc. Well, dear MIL decided we needed to serve everyone dinner and she offered to make a Mexican feast (her specialty), bring it to my house and we'd serve it.
                Well, she walked in, an hour late, with boxes full of ingredients and NOTHING made ahead, except a big ziplock back of braised beef for filling. I was STUNNED! Then, she dropped the ziplock bag and very saucy beef EXPLODED all over my kitchen. It was even on the ceiling! We managed to pull together a dinner of sorts and all the cousins still laugh about the look on my face and what a good sport I was about just dealing with it. Ah, family... you gotta love 'em!

                4 Replies
                1. re: onrushpam

                  Very funny.

                  I just realized this thread is for me. Even though I am trying to be cool, the terror still keep welling in my chest.. The added pressure is that this is my stepchildren's first Thanksgiving dinner in the US. So if I blow it they will probably hate Thanksgiving forever. Ok, focus and chant ... pizzza ... pizza.

                  1. re: rworange

                    look on the bright side they probably won't hate thanksgiving, just you!

                    seriously, big breaths and squeeze that point on the palm between thumb and fore and middle finger for a bit of casual accu-pressure,

                    and it's just a meal, they may not like anything you ever cook so don't squander the chance to endear because of worrying about knocking out a killer meal. I mean it, don't accept the burden of feeling you need to be the North American representative for this tradition.

                    1. re: rworange

                      How could you possibly blow it? If it's their first, they have nothing to compare it to.

                      1. re: pdxgastro

                        I'm a bad cook ... gluey mashed potatoes, lumpy gravy, mushy green beans, raw and/or incinerated turkey. Everything else I buy so it is hard to screw that up other than sitting on the rolls or dropping the pie.Fortunately none of that happened.

                  2. A shot of tequila before the meal always seems to work for me.

                    1. 1. My husband lost his job this week and we are hiding it.
                      2. I have stolen the pie detail from my mom because we don't want to eat shortening and corn syrup.
                      3. Our refrigerator (only 7 years old) kicked the bucket today and we can't find a repairman before Wednesday.
                      4. Not sure of the menu yet.
                      5. Help.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: sandylc

                        help needed indeed. and I'm tempted to treat this seriously. and so in that case you and your husband should break all the bad news mid meal after he's more than half in the bag (and getting kinda messy), then a screaming match ensues about long-nursed grudges and well in my scenario, frankly, it just goes all to shit from there.

                        1. re: sandylc

                          Sandy, I am so sorry to read about your situation. I don't know the reasons for keeping the job loss a secret, but it may relieve a little stress to just come out with it. As far as the rest of the meal, can you enlist help from guests and make it more of a potluck? How about borrowing a little refrigerator space from a neighbor or if you live in a colder climate, just using the great outdoors or a cooler. I might suggest sitting down and trying to plan a basic menu and maybe things will fall into place once you see it in black and white.

                          I wish you and your family peace this holiday season.

                        2. Stop caring so desperately about what other people think and do, oh, and plenty of alcohol and xanax

                          15 Replies
                          1. re: beevod

                            Learned this from my husband. He says he had to undo some of the things my dad had engrained in me such as being a democrat, etc. : ) FYI...I was 21 when I got married & we just celebrated our 25th.

                            1. re: ceekskat

                              I hope you are still a democrat.

                              Anyway, I may not have to think about Thanksgiving after all. One, but one the family is coming down with the flu from hell. Maybe turkey soup instead of roast turkey.

                              1. re: rworange

                                Oh, geez.

                                Freeze what you can and have it for a late celebration (ours will be on Saturday) or keep it for Christmas!

                                Sending you virtual Pepto....

                                1. re: rworange

                                  Stay well!

                                  Catch the sales on turkeys after Thursday and have the meal later when everyone is well.
                                  Less pressure and (IMO) a turkey dinner is always wonderful!

                                  Maybe your new family tradition can include Shirley Temples (for the tummy). Could use turkey cookie cutters with jello and watch movies. If it's a stomach flu everyone will be starving once they feel well again - your celebratory meal will be remembered fondly.

                                  Most of all, enjoy - this is a nice year of firsts for your family!

                                  1. re: rworange

                                    So sorry to hear about the flu, but turkey soup is a great idea. Happy Thanksgiving & take care.

                                    1. re: ceekskat

                                      Well, the good news is it wasn't the flu. The bad news is it is something else which we found out after a trip to the hospital. The good news is it is fixable. So dinner is on. The good news is also, I'm too tired after that and running around shopping to have anxiety about dinner. Getting into the spirit ... now onto my date with the Mr. Turkey ... and most of us have been there.

                                      Happy Thanksgiving.

                                        1. re: pdxgastro

                                          Great. Only two anxiety moments and remembering the Chow aricle and this post got me past that.

                                          I got up later than planned and the thought of people squeezing into the barely two person wide u-shaped kitchen ... wasn't going to work. So I set out a breakfast buffet on the kitchen table with disposable cups, plates and napkins.

                                          OF COURSE, they decided they wanted to add fresh fruit salad with that and pulled out the chopping board and bowls and knives. So I had a little sympathy for the Chow writer who got his nose out of joint with others in his kitchen. Food karma for telling him to chill out. So I remembered that, didn't want to be like that and chilled out.

                                          Then I wasn't quite sure if the turkey was done. Didn't have the meat thermometer. Fortunately it was perfect. I had already decided If not, I'd cut the outer cooked part and make turkey soup with the rest.

                                          It was gorgeous though. The prettiest turkey I've ever seen anywhere. It got major oooohhhhs. My stepkids who tolerate my photo taking started snapping away photos on their phones. Seriously, this paste I got from a Chow post will produce an amazing golden, copper, bronze color


                                          As to people who are not familiar with the holiday ... I've hosted dinners with international guests before so I pretty much knew what would be popular or not.

                                          Sure enough, pumpkin pie wasn't popular, but the princess cake was a smashing success.

                                          Only traditional for me is Polish mushrooms and onions mixed with sour cream. Polish food can be unlikable and when this dish always goes over, It always surprises me. So when peope said mmmm ... champinons ... with wonder and amazement ... it again surprised me.

                                          Also, I don't like sweet potato casseroles and just bake the sweet potatoes and cut them in half and serve. Like in the past, this beyond simple prep always gets raves like at this dinner.

                                          As to the dreaded cranberry sauce ... almost universally hated by non US people in my experience ... yep ... no seconds there.

                                          My group are NOT adventerous eaters to the extreme. It is difficult to get them to even take a taste of something they don't know. I let them snub the breqd and butter pickles ... however I said that not having a taste of cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving is bad luck and they would die before Christmas ... I'm not sure if sarcasm translates. While no one had seconds, they had more than the required one taste, it disappeared on the plates and didn't remain on some plates like the green bean casserole.

                                          1. re: rworange

                                            the stepkids were snapping pics of the turkey to share? score. major score.

                                            any linky for tips to the Polish mushroom dish? sounds good to me.

                                            1. re: hill food

                                              Pretty simple ... melt some butter, saute sliced onions until translucent, add sliced mushrooms, cpver until mushrooms are cooked. If there is ots of liquid, uncover and put on high until liquid is reduced. Add in sour cream. Sorry, no measuments as it depends on how many mushrooms. Usually the onions cover the bottom of the pan and then I put in as many sliced mushrooms that will fit.

                                              Just something my mother did which her mother taught her. A little black pepper can be nice.

                                              When I'm craving the mushrooms and want to be healthy I'll use olive oil instead of butter and skip the sour cream. However, I see no reason to eat healthy on a holiday.

                                              When I was staying with some Mexican friends earlier this year, they made a similar dish ... onion, sliced fresh poblano peppers and crema. It has a spicy kick but was sooo good.

                                              1. re: rworange

                                                I'm glad it went over well. No, foreigners really don't like the Cran. Check out Marcella Hazan's reaction to it in her autobiography some time.

                                                1. re: pdxgastro

                                                  my cranberry sauce started to disappear when someone found out how good it is with Brie.

                                                2. re: rworange

                                                  cool I was only looking for process tips anyway not a recipe. will do this soon.

                                              2. re: rworange

                                                I also just bake the sweet potatoes and cut and half and serve. as did my mother. wouldn't have it any other way!

                                                1. re: rworange

                                                  I'm so happy I took the time to type up that Petrini recipe ... it's served me well for many years. I'm really thrilled it worked out so well for you!!

                                    2. enjoyed your story rworange