I'm a holiday orphan. As much as I want to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter with my family, I can only manage a yearly Christmas visit.
This year I decided to host a "potluck family" Thanksgiving dinner with other orphans. To find out how best to organize such a feast, I called several people for suggestions. Here's their advice, which, of course, applies to any holiday:
Draw up a guest list. How many you invite, however, is up for grabs. "It's fun to have everyone at one table, so 16 is a reasonable, outside number to invite," says Justin Frank, clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University.
Cookbook author and cooking instructor Mimmetta LoMonte from Sicily believes "six can talk comfortably, creating a bond." Sarah Chase, another cookbook author, suggests having an even dozen. "It's a family holiday so assume Thanksgiving won't be an intimate dinner for two or four."
Prepare a list of everything you will need, everything that must be done, and who will do and bring what when. For hostesses with the least-equipped kitchens, arrangements can be made to rent or borrow an oven or hot plates. Ridgewell's Caterers (301-652-1515) rents gas and electric mini-stoves with one or two burners for under $25 a day. B&B Catering Service (202-829-8640) rents warmers that can double as ovens for about $75 a day.
Do you have enough plates and chairs? "It's never possible to have plates all matching. I mix them from the start," says Washington psychologist-painter Micheline Frank.
Because turkey doesn't travel well, the host should cook it. If none of the guests wants to or knows how to carve, do as freelance writer Judy Rosenfeld does -- bone it.
"It takes one half-hour," says Rosenfeld. "I do it because it's easier to serve and my husband is the world's most inept turkey carver."
As your friends RSVP, ask what they want to bring. "Push for main courses," advises Joan Nathan, author of five cookbooks.
You may want to ask your guests to bring a dish they remember from childhood. This guarantees they'll have something they like.
For those unsure of their culinary ability or too busy to cook, Rosenfeld suggests asking them to "run to a gourmet shop for some pate' or crudites, or they can bring fruit juices for the kids or wine. And usually you end up with one vegetarian, so you must think of accompaniments so you won't leave him starving."
Fall vegetables travel well. Among the "musts" are any of the season's root vegetables -- turnips, parsnips and squash. Guests can cook them at home until crisp -- underdone -- so they can be reheated without losing their taste.
Guests should arrive with cooked food ready for serving. "It's not a help if someone comes over and peels carrots for crudites," says Rosenfeld. "They're just making a mess."
An organized hostess will direct guests upon arrival to place their food in specific locations -- the main courses in the dining room, appetizers in another room, for example. To lure guests out of the kitchen, a popular gathering place, Frank suggests building a fire in the living room fireplace. There they can munch on food such as shrimp, stir-fried with chopped garlic or chives, served on toothpicks.
The Thanksgiving feast should be a sit-down meal, experienced hosts contend. "It's a special festive occasion, so eat at the dining table," Micheline Frank says.
Rosenfeld says children belong at afternoon Thanksgiving meals, not evening ones, "unless they can be tucked away someplace."
LoMonte would put them "at separate tables... . They're happier because they can be freer to eat any way they want with no one checking up on them, saying, 'You haven't eaten this or that.' It's for everyone's peace of mind."
One or two people can clear the table. "It's chaotic if everyone jumps up," Frank says. If no one volunteers, appoint someone. "People are flattered to be asked."
While the clearing is going on, Frank heats a big pot of coffee and puts it in a thermos jug on the sideboard.
Try to keep the dinner hour at the usual time. "People think after a big midday meal that they won't eat later in the day but at 10 p.m. they will have low blood sugar and will be hungry," LoMonte says.
"Guests shouldn't hang around until the hostess is practically dead because they've eaten so much," LoMonte continues. "And they shouldn't leave behind a revolution. Wash the dishes little by little instead of piling them up with the idea of dealing with them later."
As guests prepare to leave, they may swap leftovers. Usually everyone gets the chance to take home something someone else cooked. Another bonus is having a long weekend to indulge in leftovers.