Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lessons from Thanksgiving

Martha Stewart has done many of us a great disservice. And to that list, allow me to add Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, and Southern Living magazine. Those on the list have given us the impression that it is possible to have a perfect holiday. The thirty minute lessons and the glossy color pages beckon us to attempt the impossible...if we are challenged in any way in one of the following departments. Just for kicks...let's start with the financial aspect of the "perfect Thanksgiving."

To entertain properly in the South, you not only have to have good food, you have to have enough of it to feed twice as many people as you expect to show up. That means that you can't just have one have to have at least two...or add a ham to the mix. Running out of an item means that you don't get to eat...because as the are at the back of the line...because if you aren't...that's just too tacky.

You will want your house to look somewhat festive, but probably do not have adequate storage space to launch a full decorating scheme for both Thanksgiving and you will make do with seasonal plates and napkins. You'll scour the clearance racks after Thanksgiving so that you have pretty items for the next year...and in the 364 days'll forget what you have actually acquired...and will repurchase everything. You'll try to add little touches like putting leaves and sprigs of cedar on the table. That's about as Martha Stewart as I can manage.

Never mind that Martha is on the television telling you how to make beautiful Thanksgiving centerpieces out of twigs from the yard, some deer antlers and how to weave a basket for your centerpiece from a bale of pine straw. She's only on there advising us on that because she is the only human being in existence who can actually pull that off. If you want an actual prepared to use your 40% off coupon at Michael's and then devote a closet of your home to storing it for the next twenty years. Your other option is to call a florist and be prepared to use a fair portion of your Christmas Club check to dazzle everyone for the twelve hours that those flowers will actually live. I devoted our "floral" budget to purchasing pine straw as it was quite obvious to me that the front of our house has been in a perpetual state of neglect since last Thanksgiving. I couldn't spare one of those bales for a basket...nor the 64 hours to attempt it...or the years of therapy that attempting such would have provoked.

In our family, different family members bring parts of the Thanksgiving meal so that the burden does not fall on the shoulders of the one having to clean her house and eradicate dust, dirty baseboards, cobwebs, and the like. That keeps the prep time and expense down considerably and is designed to give the hostess additional time to "visit" with everyone. The problem hour before the meal is supposed to hit the table, the hostess must go into production mode...which ironically coincides with the arrival of every single one of the guests. So, whether you are frantically putting dishes you put together yourself in the oven...or greeting people who are arriving with are not going to have time to talk to anyone except for the first people who arrive. The rest will be a blur.

I have what is referred to with my scrapbooking ladies as a "two butt" kitchen. That means that two people can be in there at any time without tripping over or silently cussing the other. Add a third person to my kitchen...and it is mayhem. In an open floor we is almost impossible to keep people out of the kitchen without resorting to holding them at gunpoint. I've had to actually kick people out or wait until someone moseyed along to get back to what needed to be done. This has resulted in a few hurt feelings over the years, but it is what it is.

Once everything is about ready to go, the order of the food on the buffet will be changed at least two times by whoever has been successful in fighting to get into the kitchen. All I know is that my original placement will never be what actually ends up happening. If I try to remember it next year...someone else will change the order entirely again. It is a losing battle...and one that I have just handed over to the people in our family who actually have a clue about what should be where. This year, I started it one way, and after two major modifications, we finally had liftoff.

Seating arrangements are also a nightmare. Looking at the pictures prominently displayed in Southern Living, it is obvious that the hostess is serving eight people. Multiply that by three, and you are getting closer to the seating arrangements from hell that are normally a part of pre-Thanksgiving planning. Nice touches like placecards make it easier for people to know what to do...especially if you have left handed people who need to sit in a certain place around the table. We have we fill in the seating around them.

This year, I checked and found that the temperature was going to be perfect for outside seating. This would have been great...except I didn't factor in the wind chill factor. Nothing like being a little breezy to completely throw the table seating into total disarray. This year, six of the eleven people who were to be seated outside braved the cold. The other five huddled around a 2'x4' coffee table in the living room. Paula Deen would have been mortified. I was as well.

I have decided that short of renting our space and catering the dinner, there is no way that I am ever going to pull off the perfect Thanksgiving. In my current state of sometimes involuntary insanity brought about by surges of hormones that are out to make me the Wicked Witch of Pike Road, I cannot manage disappointment. Unfortunately, when you are trying to make everything lovely for 24 people...disappointment is pretty much a given.

So, I am angry at Martha, Rachael, Paula, and Southern Living for making it look so effortless. I suppose I should realize that I am not a decorator, chef, gracious hostess, and logistical person at the level I would need to be to keep everyone happy. It isn't possible. I plug away at adding little touches to make people feel welcome...thanks in part to my friend Van...who threw me some pearls right before the big day. I cannot peel people off of the wall and make them feel comfortable enough to actually sit down in my home and want to be there. I never had that problem. I loved my husband's family and wanted to be a part of it. But everyone is not me. I also would be willing to bet that Martha would have found that situation a lot harder to manage than producing the perfect orange cranberry chutney.

Another sticky situation is how to involve guests. People that you would love to invite but cannot fit around the table. Or those who are there but do not know many of the people in the room. There are no easy answers to these dilemmas either.

So, despite my claims to the contrary, I will attempt this again next year. I will try to be gracious, but will also realize that I cannot be everything to everyone. I will have a table inside for the younger generation so that I am not embarrassed by their resourcefulness and so that my children are not disappointed by missing out on the precious minutes that they now have with the cousins that they grew up with who are marrying off and may eventually outgrow the trek to be with the family in favor of establishing holiday traditions of their own.

I've learned a few things this Thanksgiving that I hope I will remember next year. I've realized that it is possible to get the house ready if you take a couple of days off from work to do so...but that it would be far easier if it wasn't necessary to go into full attack mode in the cleaning realm. I also know that something is going to throw a curve ball...a turkey that won't cook right, the weather, or a blown seating chart. These don't have to deal the death blow to a perfect Thanksgiving...but if you are a perfectionist...they may deal a serious one. I'm thinking that medication might help...and if not, perhaps a pre-dinner cocktail instead despite my ban of alcoholic beverages until 2013 (when Brian turns 21.)

I hope that I have not offended people beyond repair, but it is possible that I have. Guess we'll know next year when some of them politely decline to attend. We shall see. For now...I am going out to look for some great bargains on Thanksgiving decor. Who knows? I might even make Martha look like an amateur (yeah...right.)

All in all, the day was successful. Other than my bad attitude, the delay of game from a turkey that was being uncooperative, a few people whose discomfort was obvious (family...not guests) and exhaustion, I think it was okay for many of the 24 who attended. I sincerely hope so.


  1. I was a guest this year, and it rocked! Take what you're given, sit where you're told and enjoy not having to do more than show up.

    And by the way, my route was through Pike Road. I wondered which of the several neighborhoods was yours, if you're even directly off Pike Road. It's a lovely area and I'm sure you enjoy it.

  2. Right off of Pike Road! Onto Old Pike Road and then about half a mile down is our neighborhood.