As the holidays heat up, so does our stress. This time of year is not necessarily a Norman Rockwell portrait or even a Lifetime Movie moment. Both depict Thanksgiving as a time of symbiosis to revel and rejoice. In fact, it can trigger quite the opposite response.
Part of the stress overload may have less to do with food prep or whether it’s your turkey recipe for deep fat frying versus your cousin’s for brining. We have found that too often the peace can be undermined by those pesky nosey questions. Then all Thanksgiving hell can break loose.
We have solutions for many we’ve experienced firsthand. Perhaps, start the meal by telling guests to focus on the best in each other. Acknowledge and share everyone’s good qualities. And when those annoying questions arise, be prepared. Here are some that might pop up. Knowing them and how to field a response might minimize clashes and avoid a Thanksgiving recipe for disaster. Humor is always the best ingredient.
- What if someone asks when your daughter is going to get engaged or have a child? What’s a nice response that respects your daughter’s boundaries and doesn’t come across as rude?
Response: “Thanks for asking. I don’t feel comfortable talking about it. But you’ll be among the first to know if I know.”
- What if a child or grandchild is of dating age and someone asks the teen if they are dating and who and what gender?
Response: Warn your kids of all the possibilities. You might suggest they practice saying this, “I’ve just started dating and am more focused on school at this point in my life. I’ll get back to you when the situation changes.” (And when they say to you, Mom, how could you be friendly with that person, just shrug.)
- What if a grandchild is trying to get into a good private high school or college? Do you ask if they got in or wait for them to bring it up?
Response: You can say, “We are waiting for you to share your happy news. We don’t want to stress you out, but you know how anxious we are.” If you do, be prepared that it’s not about you. Better not to bring anything up.
- What if there’s gossip about a newly divorced good friend (Susie), a very private person who just started dating someone you all know? How do you stop the gossip in its tracks?
Response: “Susie is not here to speak for herself and I know she’d prefer we not discuss.” Then, quickly change the topic of conversation to something neutral like where to buy the best rain boots or how to make a Christmas ham for your kosher daughter’s new Christian boyfriend. That might start tongues wagging!
- What if certain people start asking what’s in the stuffing or the pecan pie and if vegan? Or if they ask to bring their nonmeat or gluten free substitute food for their main course? Do you ask them to bring it or make it for them?
Response: You might send out a list to all guests of what you’re making and what they might make. Here’s the script. “We’re asking for all to list ingredients for those who need to know.” You might add, “We respect your dietary needs which is why I am making two or three vegetarian dishes and two are gluten free. If you are more comfortable with your own dishes, feel free to bring them. There will be room on the buffet.”
- What if a fight breaks out between two family members who never agree on anything? How do you diffuse the anger?
Response: Deflect. Start focusing on something positive like: “Did you see the new wallpaper in your grandmother’s bedroom? It looks great. Where did you find it? Is there anyone else at the table who would like to share any decorating changes they’re making to their homes?”
- What if someone is the only one who never gets up to help or offers to clean the dishes and didn’t bring anything? Can you make a joke or say anything?
Response: Just assign everyone a task beforehand. Say, “Betty will set the table. Bill will carve the turkey. Jane will help clear the glasses off the table.” Or you could put a cute note at each place setting with everyone’s Thanksgiving assignments. And if the person sits there like a slug, say sweetly and with a smile: “Hey, Jane, it’s time for you to clear the glasses from the table. Thanks so much. We knew you’d be great at doing it.”
- Do you get to control the playlist, or do you have to be open to others’ suggestions, even if you hate heavy metal music?
Response: Compromise. Agree to play the heavy metal when the guests arrive and are munching on hors d’oeuvres and then shift to something more subtle during the meal. Give a choice too. Ask at the beginning when guests mingle, “Would anyone prefer a certain type of music such as jazz or classical?”
- What about serving that cheap bottle of red wine that someone brought for the main course?
Response: “Thanks so much for bringing the wine. We already opened a red wine so we’re going to save your wine for another happy occasion, hopefully you’ll be with us to help consume it.”
- You want to alter the recipe list? Do you have to get approval from all the guests in advance when they expect this or that?
Response: You might send out another email to everyone. “Hi, gang, we’re gathering recipes and we’re planning on experimenting with our traditional sweet potatoes. It’s going to be a big great surprise!” If there’s a revolt in cyberhell, stick to the old recipe and avoid a not-so-sweet potato imbroglio. Make them another time when it’s not a holiday. Or go ahead and wait for the consequences.
- If someone asks if they can bring someone, but you’re tight on space, what do you say?
Response: It depends on who asks and who the person is for your level of hospitality to rise to the top, but our bottom line and rule is that it’s not OK for anyone to spend this holiday or any holiday alone. So, be gracious and say, meaning it, “Of course.” Then either set up another table, squish everyone in at the main table, or send some guests, perhaps the kids, to a space in the kitchen. If you really dislike the person, just have an extra glass of wine before guests arrive.
- How do you keep the conversation civil in this age of strong political opinions, including who the Democrats should select? Are there topics off limits?
Response: Say in advance of the meal, “Politics is off the table tonight folks,” if someone starts in, remind them sweetly. We’ve decided to talk about nothing since climate control and the weather are also controversial. Eating in silence is great practice for the new trendy vacations at monasteries.
- If someone is a terrible cook and offers to bring a new recipe, do you permit? What if they say they have a great bakery in their hood but you’re a family of bakers? What do you say?
Response: If these are your guests, be gracious. It’s one meal and why hurt someone’s feelings. Then encourage whomever made the unappetizing dish to take it home. When you eat leftovers the next day, you can serve something you cooked, baked or bought at the neighborhood bakery.
- How do you tell someone they cannot bring their dog, even if well behaved?
Response: “I love your dog, but there will be so many people here and so much commotion, I’d appreciate it if you could leave Rover home.” Or use the allergy excuse: “My grandson Mark is allergic to dogs.” And remind Mark, even if he’s not. Some white lies are OK.
- What about if you decide not to invite someone who’s always been included because nobody likes that person?
Response: “We’re going out of town this year, so we’re sorry.” Then darken your house or hightail it out of town for a change. Thanksgiving in the Caribbean, Paris or Portugal where everyone we know is going sounds divine.
Keep your energy and focus on being joyful and thankful. Replace defensive behavior with listen and feel. The memories you make at holiday time have more to do with spirit than substance. And speaking of memories, here are four of our mothers’ retro go-to Thanksgiving recipes. We share them in homage to Margaret’s late mother, Bea, and to Barbara’s mother, Gammy, who just turned 100.
Retro Thanksgiving Recipes
Bea’s Blueberry Mold
2 packages cherry Jello
1 package strawberry Jello
2 cups hot water
1 can blueberry pie filling
1 can crushed pineapple drained
2 mashed bananas
1 pint of sour cream
1 squirt of lemon
Mix all together, pour into a buttered mold and refrigerate
Bea’s Green Bean Casserole
3 pkgs frozen French-cut green beans
½ pound of Kraft Old English Cheese/chopped
1 medium onion
1 stick of butter
½ cup flour
2 four-ounce cans of sliced mushrooms
1 ½ cups milk or combination using the mushroom liquid
1 can water chestnuts/sliced
1/4th teaspoon black pepper
1/8th teaspoon Tabasco
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Accent (a spice) use when cooking the beans
Melt butter, add chopped onion and sauté in a pan. Add flour and milk slowly, then cheese, soy sauce, pepper, Tabasco, mushrooms, and water chestnuts. Sauce should be thick. Add cooked beans drained. Put in a casserole dish and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.
Dishes Prepared by Barbara's Mother
Barbara's mom, 100, couldn’t remember her recipes for these two favorites, so she tried out many and adjusted seasonings and ingredients. That’s why we need to share recipes with our loved ones while alive!
Spiced dried apricots
1pound dried apricots, Turkish or Californian
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tablespoon cloves
1 cup sugar
4 cups water
Half juice of lemon
2 Tablespoons cider vinegar
Boil water, sugar, cider vinegar, lemon juice until rolling boil
Turn down to simmer
Put in apricots and cinnamon stick and cook until tender, test; mine took about 20 minutes. Remove apricots, boil liquid again without stick for another 20 minutes. Cool, pour over apricots and stick in container with lid in refrigerator. Taste the next day and adjust any spices. Serve cold with your Thanksgiving turkey or almost anything.
These are based on Ina Garten’s from her wonderful book, Barefoot Contessa Parties! since my mom can’t remember hers, which had a cream cheese dough too; these taste awfully close with some tweaks.
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2-pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus 6 tablespoons for later
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 Tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ cups pecans, finely chopped
½ to 3/4 cup raspberry preserves or any flavor you like!
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash
- Cream the cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and creamy. Add 1/4 cup granulated sugar, the salt, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour and mix until just combined. Dump the dough out onto a well-floured board and roll it into a ball. Cut the ball in quarters, wrap each piece in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
- To make the filling, combine 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar, the brown sugar, 1 Tablespoon cinnamon and pecans for the filling. On a well-floured board, roll each ball of dough into a 9-inch circle. Spread the dough with a small teaspoon of preserves and sprinkle with another small spoonful of the filling. Press the filling lightly into the dough. Cut the circle into 12 equal wedges by cutting the whole circle in quarters, then each quarter into halves. Starting with the wide edge, roll up each wedge. Place the cookies, points tucked under, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Note: Since I rarely make them by measuring exactly, I sometimes need more filling or jam to finish up the wedges.
- Brush each cookie with the egg wash. Combine the remaining granulated sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle on the cookies. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove to a wire rack and let cool. These freeze wonderfully if you don’t eat them all!
Estelle’s Spiced Apricots