First an admission: I am at the Ritz-Carlton's Thanksgiving 101 class, but I believe I might be better suited to the Holiday Inn.
The class is being offered for newlyweds, domestic partners and guilt-stricken mortals who feel they can no longer duck the holiday-hosting duties.
So, on this dreary -- perhaps fowl -- Saturday a few weeks before T-Day, my husband and I have driven from our home in Baltimore City to Pentagon City for a four-hour workshop.
First, some background: I adore Thanksgiving. I'm a newlywed. And a new homeowner. All of which puts me at the top of the list for future feasts. I no longer have the one-bedroom apartment/singlehood excuse to hide behind. (Not that a single person can't host a holiday -- but the china from my wedding registry certainly helps.)
Also, my husband Ron loves to cook, and is a great cook. I love entertaining. If you combine my occasional baking and Ron's knack for party music, why, we could vie for the title of our generation's Ward and June Cleaver.
So, that's why we've come to the class -- for a little inspiration and a big nudge. The group of 15 includes some other newlyweds but some "oldweds" as well, along with family members taking the class together and some mother-daughter teams.
Before I get into the particulars, a few notes I scribbled on the Ritz-Carlton cream-colored stationery:
1. Ron, at first, seemed more interested in the Green Bay Packers who were hovering around the lobby. I had to remind him why we were here.
2. My Thanksgiving will never be mistaken for one at the Ritz-Carlton. And that's okay.
3. I'm a sucker for stuffing.
So what did I learn?
Lesson One: Turkey comes in all shapes and sizes.
Traditional turkey can be a yawn -- and I'm not just talking the tryptophan. There are many options beyond the usual stuff and bake. For starters, brine the turkey -- a simple solution of salt, brown sugar and spices soaks into the thawed bird and helps make it plump and juicy.
Executive Chef Matthew Morrison swears by a deboned turkey and makes the cutting look easy ("You're not cutting the meat," says Morrison. "You're cutting in between it" -- sorry!). He takes his boning knife and swiftly cuts through the turkey's tendons while talking a mile a minute.
I think Thanksgiving spent in the emergency room isn't that much fun; I'd have to lock everyone out of the kitchen and concentrate big time.
Then to get Father Thanksgiving really spinning in his grave, Morrison grinds the dark meat in a mini food processor, uses a pastry bag to squeeze it under the skin of the breast and then sears the breast. He tells us the first time he deboned and seared his family's turkey, "My parents about flipped.' " Don't worry, it tastes good, he says.
Lesson Two: Decorate with vegetables.
Yes, the produce aisle of Safeway can provide a multitude of embellishments. "Go to the grocery store," says Terry Smith, the Ritz's floral guru. "There's a wealth of decor." Dump yellow onions, oranges and brown eggs in a cylindrical vase and you've got yourself a centerpiece. Or use gourds instead of glass stones at the bottom of a vast vase. Smith, using a paring knife, turns a baby pumpkin into a candle holder for us.
A small artichoke can also do the trick: Open its leaves, watch for thorns, remove the choke and drop in a candle. ("If you smell baked artichoke you know you're on borrowed time," says Smith.) Use a larger version for flowers. Instead of the candle, stuff in floral foam -- and jab in pretty, seasonal blooms.
Lesson Three: Everything and anything can be rented . . .
. . . even friends.
But you can rent tables, chairs, chargers, laser-cut velvet overlay, napkins and on and on. Smith says just to remember your surroundings when picking colors: "Have it look like it belongs in your residence." But also don't be stuck on traditional fall colors -- the combination of black and white is super-elegant and citrusy colors like orange and lime can be quite contemporary.
Lesson Four: Cranberry sauce should not be in the shape of a tin can.
Fellow class-goer Alison Aragona, a charming British person, tells me that canned cranberry sauce is her husband's piece de resistance. The trick is to remove both ends of the can, says her husband John. Then it "makes that nice sound when it comes out: Wooossshhhhhttt."
Morrison tells a different story. His candied cranberries and kumquats dish is more of a chutney -- chunky, not firm. And an added bonus: The recipe's black cherry preserves, added at the end, have been swimming in port.
Lesson Five: Raid your closet.
This really is a class for newlyweds. Many of the napkins on the practice tables were made of Dupioni -- a raw silk that my nine bridesmaids wore. Why not turn an unused bridesmaid dress into service for 12?
Lesson Six: Go for white wine.
There is so much flavor with the Big Dinner that Chardonnay is a happy medium for a meal full of lots of flavors, according to Ritz-Carlton banquet director Xavier Pougnard, who paired a Jordan 2002 Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley with our lunch. Personally, I love red wine, but the Chardonnay worked really well with the meal. And there would be no need for Oxyclean when someone spills it on the ottoman.
Our class ends with a traditional Thanksgiving meal -- and by traditional, I mean we never got this in my house. Chef-prepared butternut squash soup with an apple walnut compote, micro greens salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, Vermont goat cheese and cider balsamic dressing, the brined turkey, a savory bread pudding, garlic whipped potatoes, cranberry and kumquat chutney and a port wine truffle gravy. For dessert, apple cider creme brulee served in baby pumpkins.
Lesson Seven: You can go home again.
No reason to panic yet -- my first Thanksgiving won't be for at least a year. My parents are hosting Thanksgiving this year -- snaking tables through the dining and living room and serving 18.
But I think I'm ready for Thanksgiving 102.
Janelle Erlichman Diamond last wrote for Food about a cupcake bakery in Baltimore.
At left and right: Baby pumpkins are scooped out, filled with apple cider creme brulee and finished off in the classic style.Workshopper John Aragona consults his recipe handouts during Thanksgiving 101's first course: butternut squash soup with apple walnut compote.