Since few of us spend the early autumn months gathering the harvest, Thanksgiving has become rather a strange holiday -- a day given over to stuffing first a turkey and then ourselves. Sure, a few rebels eat ham or chicken instead, but by and large the idea seems to be demonstrating life's continuity: my parents ate turkey, I ate turkey and my kids are going to eat turkey, too. Frankly, the predictability of Thanksgiving dinner has always given me a headache, the more so because I have so often found myself stuck in a kitchen cooking or washing dishes while the sports fans watched football on television.
To show that times have changed, my husband prepared our first Thanksgiving meal entirely by himself, while I read a book. It was a perfectly delicious meal featuring a stuffing that cost slightly more than the turkey itself. Since then we have adopted a potluck approach that makes life easier for both of us and has restored some of the communal spirit to the holiday, which started out, after all, as a community affair in which all the village Pilgrims participated.
In a town like Washington, where so many of us are a long way from our families, making a family of our friends is important. And inviting friends to what you describe as a family affair is the nicest king of compliment. Start with good friends and you'll probably have a nice day no matter how the food gets on the table, but there's a lot to be said for asking everyone to contribute something. With everyone's finger in the pie, so to speak, the hosts can relax, the day becomes less of a production number, you get more good dishes for a minimum of work by everyone, and in our experience a more festive and warm-spirited dinner party as well.
Divvying up the work makes particular sense for Thanksgiving dinner, which unfortunately suffers the disadvantage of falling on the first day of Thanksgiving weekend. To the extent that one day of superhuman effort may be followed by three days sheer laxiness (fueled by leftovers), this can be seen as an advantage. But for anyone wo works all day Wednesday, the prospect of preparing a huge meal Thursday is often overwhelming.
Actually, the first potluck Thanksgiving we hosted was on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. We scheduled it that way to assure ourselves of the presence of our children, who were spending the official holiday with our ex-spouses (their other natural parents), and of close friends who planned to spend that Thursday with their own families. I can equally well imagine having the Thanksgiving dinner on the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving, to allow relatives or friends traveling some distance to arrive, settle in, and relax -- while the holiday meal is prepared at a more leisurely pace.
Last year we invited a dozen people for our Sunday Thanksgiving, asking each guest to bring a dish that would serve at least 12 people. We asked each of them to select a category of food to prepare (appetizer, green vegetable, potato, pie, etc.), leaving the specifics to them -- although they were to let us know roughly what their dish would be, so we could make a few quick phone calls if the menu seemed to be getting out of hand.
We provided the main course, an Esskay Silver Label ham from MacArthur Market (5100 MacArthur Blvd., NW, 363-3619, a scruffy-looking store that sells good ham). Ham is an excellent choice if your guests are having turkey later in the week; like turkey, it's not something people cook often in small batches.
We also provide fill-in items like bread and butter, coffee and tea, although with another group these could have been assigned. A friend addicted to greens brought the most beautiful salad I have ever seen, carrying the dressing in a mayonnaise jar and putting it on at the last minute. cA friend who cherishes the traditional brought staples like cranberry relish and candied sweet potatoes. A couple of friends, who love to cook for company brought more than one dish, and a friend who cooks only under duress brought wine.
We've found that when our children help prepare for a party they're more civilized at the dinner table, so we put the girls in charge of the table decorations. They spent an hour or more setting the table, arranging a centerpiece, selecting candles and candleholders, making name cards and folding napkins into elaborate shapes. They also put leftover trick-or-treat candy in a bowl as an extra dessert, in case our friend Jill didn't bring enough pie. (Never underestimate the attraction to grownups of candy corn and Tootsie Rolls). When a lot of children come, we set up a separate table in another room, with candles and other fancies, so the children can have their own party and we can enjoy the conversation of adults.
Our Thanksgiving meal last year, was a tour de force, each dish better than it normally would have been because it had one cook's total concentration. tNobody at the table suffered from the lack of appetite that cooks so often feel toward food they've just prepared themselves. If there was a single flaw in the day, it was this: People felt so mellow when they left that some didn't remember to take home the pots they brought food in. (We didn't ask people to help wish dishes because we didn't want to destroy the mood of the dinner, we wanted everyone to leave feeling pampered, and we felt that asking them to bring food was enough. However, on other occasions -- at our house and elsewhere -- potluck has meant joint cleanup, as well. Some of my best conversations have taken place at group dish-dryings).
Everyone who came to our last Thanksgiving spoke of it again and again during the year. One friend who knew nobody but us on arrival assumed the others had known each other for years because they all seemed so affectionate toward one another. It wasn't true, but we could see why she had that impression -- because something about the day evoked a feeling of closeness. As another friend explained later, "I think there's something about having everybody bring something that allows them to relax about the meal. You feel more like family than like guests."
Following are three of the most popular recipes I've picked up from potluck Thanksgivings over the years. ARLENEFRIEDMAN'S CAVIAR MOUSSE
There's not a soul in New York publishing circles who hasn't tasted this easy but delicious appetizer, which Arlene got from Leons Nevler who got it from someone at Knopf, and so on. It doesn't matter, everyone still loves it, and it's a great starter for a big meal. 6 hard-boiled eggs, chopped 1 medium onion, chopped 1/2 cup mayonnaise 1 envelope gelatin (plain) and 2 tablespoons water 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice Pepper 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 4 ounces lumpfish caviar (the orange kind), from a supermarket
Blend the eggs, onion and mayonnaise in a blender. Dissolve the gelatin in the water, add the lemon juice, pepper and Worcestershire sauce, and combine them with the mixture in the blender. Add the caviar by hand.
Arlene makes this a day ahead of time and puts it is a fish mold. I've never had any success unmolding it and don't think it's worth the effort, so I make it in a pretty bowl. Either way, serve it with a knife and bland crackers such as Carr's water biscuits. SPINACH GNOCCHI
These light, delicate dumplings are not nearly as exotic as they sound, and are very adaptable to potluck dinners because you prepare them ahead of time -- up to the point of dropping them in boiling water, and serving them with butter and Parmesan cheese. The recipe comes from a two-volume set I have never seen in a bookstore, one of my favorite sources of offbeat recipes: "The More or Less Cookbooks" edited by Maryellen Spencer, published originally in a special limited edition to promise Hammermill Paper among people in the publishing industry and reprinted commercially some years later by Regnery with little or no fanfare. If you see it, buy it. Meanwhile, I have never made enough of these gnocchi (pronounced nyok-key). Adults look surly when eight servings aren't enough for five people, and children who aren't spinach fans regularly ask for seconds. Low in calories, these are a light start to a heavy meal. 1 1/2 (10-ounce) packages of frozen chopped spinach, thawed 1 tablespoon butter (plus) 1 cup ricotta cheese Salt and pepper to taste (use lots of pepper) Dash of mace (nutmeg comes close) 2 eggs, slightly beaten 3 tablespoons flour 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (plus)
Drain thawed spinach well by pressing in strainer or between towels. Chop very fine. Combine with butter, ricotta, salt and pepper to taste, and mace. Cook 5 minutes in heavy pan over low heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat; stir in beaten eggs, flour and grated Parmesan. Cook and refrigerate 2 hours.
Form spinach, mixture into small balls or into cylinders about 1 1/2 inches long. Roll in flour. Bring water to a boil in large kettle (gnocchi should not touch during cooking) and add gnocchi. When gnocchi rise to surface, they are done; remove at once and drain. Serve with melted butter and additional Parmesan.
Note: If you don't drain the spinach well enough, you're likely to end up with something closer to a spinach casserole than gnocchi. If the mixture looks to soggy to hold together, add a little more flour. If the worst happens, and it all runs together, don't despair; it still tastes wonderful. SCOTTIE TWINES PUMPKIN CHIFFON PIE
Regular pumpkin pie has the texture of custard and the taste of pumpkin, and I love it. This pie is lighter, the pumpkin taste is more subdued, and even people who hate pumpkin pie like it -- but so do those of us who like the regular version. All I can say is that this adaptation from an old "Tollhouse Cookbook" recipe is relatively easy to make, and is invariably a big success -- even using frozen pie shells. 1 1/2 cups fresh pumpkin, cooked and pureed 3 egg yolks, beaten 1/2 cup sugar 1 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon ginger Scant 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon 2 tablespoons melted butter 2 tablespoons plain gelatin softened in 1/4 cup cold water 4 egg whites 1/4 cup sugar 9 inch pastry shell, baked
Cook pumpkin in top of double boiler, stirring occasionally. Combine egg yolks, sugar and milk and stir into pumpkin. Add salt, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and melted butter. Cook over low heat until it reaches the consistency of custard. Remove from heat. Add softened gelatin and stir until dissolved. Chill. Stifly beat egg whites, gradually adding sugar. Add to pumpkin mixture as it begins to congeal. Pour into pastry shell and chill.