The Dos And Don’ts Of A Thanksgiving That’s Actually Fun

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It’s that time of year again, Thanksgiving. This can be a tough day for many of us, as holidays bring up a lot of stressors. Not to mention traumatic memories. Like the very fact that Thanksgiving exists, for instance.

I still remember the day my mother had “the talk” with me.

“Allison,” she said, patting my bed, “it’s time for you to know the truth about something that has plagued our family for decades.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked, eyes full of innocence, perhaps holding a doll by its stitched-on arm.

“Thanksgiving. It’s a curse,” she said. “And it will haunt you.”

“But –”

“Every year, you’ll be expected to cook a gigantic meal that is a ton of work,” she continued. “But no one will ever really thank you. Turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes…” Her voice cracked before she could get to cranberry sauce.

“But the food is so delicious,” I said. “It can’t be all bad.”

She laughed bitterly. “It is delicious. But you’ll have to eat it with a horde of people — some you barely know and others you can barely tolerate. They show up, they always show up. Knocking, coughing, sticking used tissues from some deadly flu strain into the couch cushions, asking for a single glass of Moscato. They’ll say they’re your relatives but…”

She trailed off.

“Mama?” I whispered.

“Some will be racist and weird,” she said, unable to meet my gaze. “And all day long, you’ll have to talk about your college major and the one thing they remember about you, which is that you really liked the Wizard of Oz when you were eight. No matter how long ago it was. Long after you’ve graduated college. They’ll never remember your job or your sexual orientation. But they’ll know how much you liked the Wizard of Oz for six months one year. They’ll never forget that, sweetheart. Never. They’ll want to bring it up. And you’ll have to… talk about how fun the songs are. They might ask you to sing one.”

“I can’t –”

“They’ll bring gifts. Always a nutcracker of unknown origin. And darling, that’s exactly what they gave you last year. And they’ll want to see it displayed. There will be dozens of them.” She paused, her attention drifting inward. I shifted on the bed. “It’s the eyes,” she finally said. “There will definitely be something wrong with the nutcracker’s eyes — because they bought it on sale at a Marshall Field’s in 1992.”

I was no longer a child. I believed her. And I was terrified.

“The worst part,” she said, batting back tears. “That trip you were saving up for, two weeks with your friends partying on a beach in Thailand. You won’t be able to go. Because all your money will go to flying home for four days to help me cook and watch dog shows with your father while he and I pretend we don’t sleep in separate bedrooms.”

“Why couldn’t I do both?” I asked, mustering my last sliver of hope.

“Oh sweetie,” she whispered, patting my head. “Your plane ticket for the weekend. It will be $2000 dollars.”

“To get to Des Moines?” I asked.

She nodded, threw her arms around me, and we wept together.

***

Anyway, that’s pretty much the same story all of us were told, give or take a few details. Maybe in your town the great 1992 nutcracker sale was at a Macy’s. Regional stuff you know?

Point being, Thanksgiving can swallow you up if you let it. But you can take control of the holiday this year, and make it one that everyone will actually enjoy. Even you. Here are the Dos and Don’ts to your best Thanksgiving ever.

DON’T feel like you have to go home.

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Thanksgiving is so close to other huge holidays —Christmas, Hanukkah, my birthday (it’s December 15th if you want to get me a present and/or use that information to hack into my medical records) — that it’s okay to opt the eff out of the family thing this year. And hey, there are a lot of excuses you can use to do that. Plane tickets are soooooo expensive. Or I have to work. Or ghosts!* But really, you don’t need a reason. This is a holiday you can ultimately get away with skipping.

*Why would ghosts keep you from going to Thanksgiving? That’s on you. Get creative.

But if you do go home DO practice self-care, if your family is stressful.

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LOLOLOL. Just kidding with the “if.” All families are a little stressful. Dynamics can be complicated and it’s super easy to fall into old patterns. Your older sister bosses you around, your dad loves the dog just a little more than you, and says things like, “No, I love you and the dog equally.” And, for some reason, you lose all your manners and begin whining that you’re hungry every morning until your mom offers to make you pancakes. Then, instead of saying, “No, I’m a grown person you don’t have to make me personal pancakes!” You say, “Okay. I’ll be watching TV until my pancakes are ready. Warm the syrup please.”

And look, you all love each other, but before you begin breaking out like a teenager and sneaking sips of your parents’ 27-year-old musty liquor, just should remember that you’re an adult now. You do not need to sit on the couch all day doing family stuff. You can take a walk. You can borrow the car and meet a friend out for a totally legal drink. You can say, “Hey, fam, I have to catch up on some e-mail upstairs, work is crazy, right? I’m a high-powered business lady now so….”And once there, you can totally put some headphones in and watch the sequel to the Christmas Prince on Netflix.

We know you love your family, but we all need to take a break sometimes. Give yourself some you time so you don’t Lizzie Borden the lot of them.

DO jazz up store-bought items.

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It’s fine to bring something store-bought to Thanksgiving. Sure, it would be nice if all of us were amazing professional cooks, or had a professional cook within our services or even simply employed some sort of common street rat that took some classes and makes a great soufflé.

Anyway, the point is, it’s okay to bring a store-bought pie.* Suggestion though: Put a little bit more effort into this than usual. Make a simple but snazzy praline sauce to drizzle over it. Use a mixer to whip your own cream. This is a day to make it clear that, to the best of your abilities, you tried.

*The biggest rule of store brought items: Don’t bring those weird soft grocery sugar cookies with icing. You might as well have brought nothing at all. Literally, there is no bigger F.U. than those cookies. Everyone knows they’re orange because they were made for Halloween. Don’t do it.

DON’T be scared to offer to bring dishes you’re good at making.

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We all want to be polite. “What should I bring?” we all say. And when the host says, “Oh what about Brussels sprouts or some sort of dip, or a vat of acid big enough for a large man, don’t ask why,” suddenly we’re stuck googling recipes for something that will end up being just mediocre. No one wants mediocre murder acid. It’s fine for a normal gathering, but on Thanksgiving, it’s a great idea to throw in suggestions of something you’re kick-ass at.

That said, DO tell your host what you’re bringing ahead of time if you’re bringing a food item. Five people all bringing green beans is going to be dumb and you’ll end up with Karen feeling bad that no one wants to try her weird green beans. Unless it’s a top chef situation, that could be fun for everyone. Well, except for Karen. She’s gonna get dragged.

DO respect the traditions of the household you’re in.

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Holidays are filled with sometimes justified (but also sometimes weird) nostalgia. For the most part, we’re going to prefer whatever our families did. I, for one, think Betty Crocker scalloped potatoes are a gourmet Thanksgiving staple. But if you’re going to someone else’s house, you should never complain or point out that it’s different.

“Oh, that’s how you do your gravy? Interesting. My family crushes LSD into our gravy and then we go on a gravy adventure in gravy land. But like, yours, made just out of meat drippings looks fine, too… I guess.”

It’s rude. It makes people feel bad. And during no other dinner would you point out that the way someone is preparing food doesn’t sit well with you. Because it’s just…not nice. And Thanksgiving is a super huge, stressful meal to plan. So “oooo and ahhh” and tell them how delicious everything is. Constantly. Until the end of time. When your friend is on their deathbed at 90, I want you to lean in, brush your lips against his or her forehead and say, “Those 2018 mashed potatoes were the best I ever had.”

DON’T cook like a fancy asshole.

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That being said. If you’re cooking, now is not the time to experiment with foie gras that you’ve shaped into a turkey covered in carmelized snails that you sous vide for 17 hours. It’s Thanksgiving. And while a couple of different dishes are often welcome, people expect stuffing and they expect turkey with gravy (if you’re hosting a vegetarian or vegan Thanksgiving, we support you, but you should make that clear in the invitation).

What we’re saying is. Give the people what they want today and save your fancy shit for Top Chef.

DO be careful of using allergens in your food contribution.

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For those of us with say, nut allergies, we’re used to checking with people to see what’s in everything, but in a big event like Thanksgiving, it can be a huge pain to individually track down everyone who made every dish and get an ingredient list. So if you make what looks like a cheesy bean dip and you used cashew cheese, put a label or note or….maybe don’t make foods in which a nut or seafood would be totally unexpected. Any time there will be a huge group gathering, it’s a safety issue. Unless you’re cool standing next to the apps, ringing a bell and screaming, “Cashew cheese, Getcha cashew cheese here, folks, Read all about it. It’s cashew cheese, govnah!”

I mean, that would give you a reason to avoid small talk, so maybe it’s a win?

DON’T bring something that will take up a lot of oven space.

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Or that you have to cook on the stove top or will need to be spread out on the counter for thirty minutes. Everything should be precut, in its dishes, etc. If you want to precook an item but pop it in the oven for ten minutes to warm (rolls, a casserole dish, etc.), talk to the host ahead of time and ask if that would be cool. It’s super awkward for both of you if they didn’t realize you were going to need oven space and they’re now like playing Tetris with the food just to accommodate you when they could be greeting others or drinking.

Or just bring your own oven. And install it in the middle of the kitchen while they’re trying to cook — just like move the fridge into the yard if need be. That would probs be fine.

DON’T only offer booze.

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It’s always a good idea to be stocked up on non-alcoholic options at any party. Water bottles will go like crazy (always, whether or not people are drinking). Have some fizzy, flavored water, iced tea, Coke! Both kinds, ideally. But for the sure the brown kind that dissolves teeth in middle school science projects.

Fact: People like having a drink in hand at a party, like an adult security blanket. If they can’t drink or they shouldn’t have more drinks because they, say, have to drive, a can of La Croix is super welcome and a reminder to take a break from the hard stuff.

But also have lots of booze. All of it. It’s Thanksgiving.

DO respond to politics at the dinner table.

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Okay, this is going to be a bit controversial. And I don’t think you should purposely bait anybody into it. But fuck all the advice of, “The number one rule is no politics at the dinner table.” The whole thing of smiling and saying, that’s interesting/changing the subject if your drunk uncle says something racist. Should you be civil in someone else’s house? Absolutely. But at some point, staying silent when people are saying horrible things because you don’t want to “cause conflict” makes you complicit in their racism, misogyny, xenophobia, etc.

Look, this is tricky. I get it. And I’m not saying you need to argue. A simple “that really troubles me, because it’s been proven utterly untrue and just because the president tweeted it doesn’t mean anything significant” will usually be enough to turn everything awkward while you cheerily reward yourself for fighting the good fight by taking another helping of stuffing.

“The way you’re lightly talking about deportation makes me uncomfortable. I’d like you to stop.”

Does it come with the risk that your cousin might be annoyed or mad at you, sure. But there’s a lot of privilege in being able to ignore social issues in order to “have a pleasant holiday” — a lot of people don’t get to do that. If you can’t speak up for people and issues you believe in when there are stakes for you, you don’t care as much as you think you do.

DON’T ask only super general questions.

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The most stressful thing about big, extended family gatherings is often how to answer the dreaded question, “So what have you been up to? Tell me what’s new!”

When you haven’t seen someone in a year or two, it’s just, no one wants to cheerfully stumble through, “Work is like fine! And um, I’ve been you know, um, hanging out with friends. I uh, saw that new Avengers movie last week. What’s…new with you?”

The “what’s new?” question is so vague when you haven’t seen someone in a while, and truly, it rarely illuminates new fascinating things that your mother didn’t leave in a rambling voicemail or you didn’t see on Facebook.

Social media means we know a lot about each other. Embrace that to have a more interesting convo.

“So good to see you! I saw you went to South Africa this summer. I have always wanted to go there. You have to tell me all about that trip.”

And if you truly have no idea what’s going on in someone’s life at least ask specific questions.

“I know you majored in criminology, but I don’t know what you ended up doing after graduation. What’s your job these days?”

Then ask specific follow-up questions, listen. It will save you from a question that leads someone to say, “Not much,” and stare back at you with a placid smile until one of you remembers you need to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom.

DO have a game or activity ready.

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Thanksgiving can be a long day. Unlike other holidays, there aren’t any presents to open to take up time. No fireworks, and in many places it’s too cold to spend a significant amount of time outside. And people generally come early and leave later, with a 4pm dinner in the middle. 6-8 hours with the same people can get tiring — even if they’re the most fun people in the world.

Having an after-dinner activity is always appreciated. Touch football, card games, a murder mystery that everyone can join in on, only to later discover that you really did murder someone and it wasn’t a paid actor. Point being, having a fun activity to all partake in will bond you together and get you past that “too full, need nap” feeling.

Although… if the fun activity is a group nap, we wouldn’t, like, be mad.

DON’T ask for leftovers if they aren’t offered.

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Thanksgiving leftovers are truly the best thing that has ever existed in this universe and after hosting 27 people in their home, your hosts gets full dominion over their own leftover kingdom in which they are king and cranberry sauce and rolls are their subjects. If you ask for leftovers, your host will feel obligated to give you stuff and YOU ARE NOT THEIR HEIR IN THIS THANKSGIVING FOOD MONARCHY. YOU ARE NOT NEXT IN LINE, THE DOG IS AND SO IT SHALL ALWAYS BE.

If your host, doesn’t want the leftovers, believe me, they’ll offer. Otherwise, no leftovers for you.

DO make sure you have enough Tupperware containers

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As you try to figure out where to put 300 pounds of Karen’s leftover weird green beans, you don’t want to suddenly realize you have 400 containers and no lids, scrambling to find things to put stuffing in.

“Yeah, um, we’ll just put tin foil over that bowl, lets um, put that one in a ziplock? And…. sure just dump the plant out and we’ll put the turkey in the pot. JUST DUMP IT ON THE FLOOR WE DON’T HAVE TIME TO ARGUE. THERE’S SO MUCH FOOD TO PUT AWAY. KILL THE PLANT. DUMP THE DIRT, CAPICHE?”

If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, make sure the fridge is cleaned out of literally everything you no longer want, so you have to do less shuffling around and you have plenty of storage thingies. You’re going to need all of that room for the leftovers that will comprise the 17 thanksgiving sandwiches that you’ll eat the minute everyone leaves before waddling into your bed and collapsing at 9pm to watch reruns of 30 Rock until you pass out.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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