I have mixed feelings about the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Admittedly, most of my reservations are purely selfish. First, my birthday falls around the holiday and occasionally on the day itself. You can imagine the joy I felt sharing my 21st birthday with a giant bird, a wild and crazy two glasses of wine with dinner, then a trip to the movies with my little brother to watch the Adam Sandler holiday classic, 8 Crazy Nights.
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Second, since I went away to the East Coast for college, I have only spent one Thanksgiving at my childhood home in California. Usually, I ingratiate myself to the families of my friends so that they welcome me into their homes for the big feast and so I don't end up spending the day eating ramen in a cold apartment by myself watching the It's a Wonderful Life marathon.
Third--and I hate to say it--I just really don't like most Thanksgiving food. I could do without cloying sweet potatoes, green beans topped with onions from a can, and hormone enhanced, gargantuan turkey breasts.
But all bitterness aside, I have to admit there are some redeeming qualities about the day. One, I love that it is a celebration of food and family and the joy that breeds when those two elements come together. Two, even though I live 3,000 miles away from my parents, I never really go without family on Thanksgiving. First there were my friends who were my extended family while we were in college. Then once my brother moved to the East Coast, we made a point of planning the holiday together. Sometimes it was dinner with friends; other times it would be a prix fixe menu out at a restaurant. Third, even with all the foods I don't like, I have developed a secret love for fresh stuffing (that means NOT out of a box), all green vegetable sides, and of course anything pumpkin. I have even found a way to make mashed potatoes fatty and flavorful enough that even I will eat them.
Something that has always astounded me, however, is the stress that often accompanies the planning and making of the dinner. Simple menus quickly turn into Byzantine outlines of recipes, grocery lists, and timing. Hosts struggle to integrate the various holiday traditions of all their guests in a way that will feasibly fit into the ovens and on the stove. I know from one particularly over-the-top pre-Thanksgiving party my roommates and I threw in college, trying to accommodate the likes of all of your thirty guests is a near impossibility.
Maybe it is from years of angst at having to share my birthday with a food I really don't like, but I have developed a healthy cynicism directed toward any holiday menu that looks to be overly complicated or generally over-the-top. Side dishes shouldn't take more than half an hour to prepare and they should be simple enough that you can work on several at a time.
As for your guests, if you are the host, they should accept what you are serving. It wouldn't be any different for any other party you might throw on any other day of the year. If Aunt Jane is upset you didn't do her caramel-honey sweet potato casserole with marshmallow and pecan topping (do you think that qualifies as a vegetable side?), too bad--she can be the hostess next year and then make it herself.
There are also a lot sides you make in advance. Take cranberry relish: forget that gelatinous glob that comes in a can. Instead, pulse together whole cranberries and a whole orange, a bit of orange juice and sugar to taste. Make that up to a week advance and just bring it to room temperature on Turkey Day.
If you are worried about how things might turn out, try a test run. Make smaller portions of the sides and serve them with sautéed turkey cutlets a couple of weeks before. If you must do multiple starches, just try and keep it down to the three basics: stuffing, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. Include a green so you can at least try and feel healthy. And whatever you end up cooking, remember to relax and enjoy yourself because what is really important is not what is on the table, but the people who surround it.
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