It all started with a pie crust.
After years of shuttling back and forth to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving through college and my first job, I had decided to stick close to home and start spending the holiday with my husband’s family. I had not yet become a food writer, but even then a store-bought crust on a Thanksgiving pie struck me as tragic. I felt compelled to make one from scratch to go with the pumpkin pie filling that my father-in-law would make, based on a recipe scribbled in a yellowed notebook.
Almost a decade later, the rest of the menu’s baton has mostly been passed.
Thanksgiving is such a loaded family tradition. That’s why it can be tricky for many of us 20- and 30-somethings when we express an interest in taking over the meal, whether our parents are ready to give it up or not.
Thankfully, my mother-in-law was more than eager to cede much of the cooking to me and my sister-in-law. But it helped that neither of us came in with chef’s knives and basters blazing. The transition was more of a natural progression than a hostile takeover.
After all, our parents have sometimes spent decades building their own traditions — ones that we grew up with, no less, and many of which they picked up from their parents.
Wherever possible, avoid stepping on toes. Take your time. You’re in it for the long haul. At least I plan to be.
That pie crust eventually led to introducing my family’s cranberry Jell-O mold, which paved the way for my mom’s sweet potato casserole, homemade stuffing instead of boxed and a cider-herb gravy instead of jarred. The upgraded pumpkin pie turned into a pumpkin-caramel tart that has become a new tradition itself.
Believing in yourself can go a long way. Blogger and cookbook author Gaby Dalkin went to culinary and pastry school after college and felt she had earned the right to spearhead Thanksgiving, especially since as a private chef she had been putting together Friendsgiving meals for clients.
“I knew how to cook better than anyone in my family,” Dalkin says. She admits to “steamroll” tendencies but wanted to show her extended family that there are different ways to do the holiday. She recalled one uncle loudly protesting Brussels sprouts. By the end of the meal, “He had three servings of them.”
Still, when you’re planning, you might as well keep the family — or at least the most agreeable relatives — involved. In our case, that means a simple spreadsheet laying out who does what. This way, the entire operation feels more collaborative than commanding.
Of course, there are dishes that can never go away. On our table, staples include a chocolate peanut butter pie, my mother-in-law’s Brussels sprouts and the yeasted rolls my husband’s grandmother made for years that she now supervises us making.
If asking to learn how to make your family’s Thanksgiving sounds like a sneaky way to wheedle your way into taking over, well, yeah, it kind of is, but in the best way possible.
It’s a strategy my college friend Maggie Bowden Buchanan gets. Knowing that she was close to getting engaged and setting up a home of her own, Buchanan asked her mom to gradually teach her how to prepare the traditional Thanksgiving meal, which doubled as a dry run for Christmas. “She taught it to me, and then I realized that I enjoyed making it,” Buchanan recalls.
And her mom? “She had some constructive feedback,” Buchanan says. “Overall, she appreciated the sentiment.” More importantly, “She appreciated getting to be Grandma” to Buchanan’s sister’s kids while someone else cooked.
Those lessons are especially treasured, because her mother, Katherine, died a few years later. As her family dealt with the grief and a holiday without her mother, Buchanan realized that making the same dishes would be a comfort to her father. Even before her mother died, though, she understood the benefits of continuity, namely keeping holidays at her parents’ (or aunt and uncle’s) house even if she was going to be cooking.
“I think my parents felt like they worked really hard to build this home,” Buchanan says, and they weren’t ready to give up hosting yet.
Everyone benefits in this arrangement at our Thanksgiving. I get a bigger kitchen, enough room to fit almost 20 people and help cleaning up. For my mother-in-law: Someone else cooks, and she can still pull out all her turkey-themed housewares.
What works for me, though, might not work for you and your family. The key is to talk, talk, talk, far in advance, even as you are making this year’s dinner.
Much like eating the meal itself, the road to Thanksgiving top-dog (turkey?) status is a marathon, not a sprint. Slow down. Enjoy your family and the food. And for better or worse, whether you take the reins or not, remember: It’s only one meal.
Here are a few of Dalkin’s tips if you’re ready to ease into a bigger family Thanksgiving role:
Practice, practice, practice. You want to feel confident in your ability to cook Thanksgiving, but you also want your relatives to trust you and learn to let go. So cook them a meal sometime, whether it’s Turkey Day fare or not. Or host an early Friendsgiving to make sure you’ve got everything down pat.
Keep it simple. “Nothing’s ever going to be too complicated,” Dalkin says of the dishes she prepares for Thanksgiving. That not only makes it easy on you and your workload, but it also will keep skeptical family members at bay.
Get everyone involved. In other words, let them feel like they have contributed. That could mean having people cook a few other things or asking them to chip in with different tasks, such as setting the table and even tasting a dish to make sure it’s right. Accept help when you can get it.
Prepare. Put together a schedule for the week and day of, and stick to it. The night before the holiday, Dalkin likes to take out all the equipment she needs. If you’re still cooking at your parents’ house, be sure they have everything you need, or arrange to get it there, ideally before Thursday.
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