Grub Street’s Very Simple Tips for Thanksgiving Dinner

You're gonna need a bigger gravy boat, kid.
You’re gonna need a bigger gravy boat, kid. Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is a holiday so fraught with the potential for disaster and disappointment that it’s a wonder we even celebrate it at all. That is the only logical conclusion to draw about a day that commands an unfathomable number of “survival guides” and how-to manuals. Sure, there are helpful Thanksgiving primers (ahem, like a list of places that will sell you amazing food so you don’t have to cook, for example, or a recipe for Paul Liebrandt’s black-truffle turkey), but home cooks who are simply looking to make a good traditional holiday dinner are inundated with advice. “Dear lord,” people all over the country must think as they weigh the merits of wet-brining or dry-brining their turkeys, “I’d much rather be at work today than worrying about this nonsense.” But don’t let all the advice givers make it seem so complicated! There are a mere twelve things that home cooks need to keep in mind in order to have the best, no-stress, no-mess, sure-to-please-a-crowd, whatever-other-positive-adjectives-you-can-think-of Thanksgiving.

1. Don’t do anything until the week of.
No Thanksgiving feast should actually require multiple weeks of shopping and list-making and make-ahead cheats and pre-day prepping. Cooking that you can’t do day-of — or maybe, in rare circumstances, begin the night before — doesn’t deserve to be done.

2. Don’t get too cheffy.
Unless you run with a very tony gang, you shouldn’t swap out turkey for guinea fowl, or decide that this year’s theme will be “Nordic Thanksgiving.” On Thanksgiving, people just want to eat these foods in this order: Stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, Parker House rolls, pie, more stuffing, dark meat, cranberry sauce, white meat, and whatever vegetables you make. The only culinary innovation anyone tolerates on Thanksgiving is marshmallows on the yams.

3. Do not make green-bean casserole.
This monstrous dish — beans, mushroom soup, onions from a can — only became a Thanksgiving staple because huge industrial food companies tricked people into thinking it’s good. It is not good. It’s like a dish full of bubbling mushy green slugs, with canned onion rings. Don’t force your guests to participate in this charade.

4. Serve a lot of alcohol.
Offer wine, beer, and pre-made pitchers of cocktails. (And, if you’re doing the cooking, hold a bottle of nice wine back in the kitchen, pours from which you can use to lure people to help you.) If everyone is sauced, they won’t care that you left a few lumps in your mashed potatoes, and you can just blame your wine-lured helpers if anything doesn’t turn out.

5. Ignore the vegetarians.
Fussing over details for a vegetarian Thanksgiving is like fussing over the details of a celibate orgy: The day is about an excess of turkey and oyster stuffing and bacon and maybe even some venison if you’re fancy. If you make mashed potatoes and the vegetarians at the table still complain that there aren’t enough things for them to eat, then ask them what do they even want in this life? I’d love an excuse to eat a meal that consisted entirely of mashed potatoes.

6. Trust that the turkey will cook fine.
Everyone worries so much about getting the turkey just right, but this shouldn’t be the kind of dish that requires four days of prep and brining: Just put the bird in a hot oven and cook it until it’s done. Pilgrims could figure out how to do it and they didn’t have Viking ranges with convection fans and digital thermometers. Plus, Butterballs are scientifically engineered to come out fine no matter what. If you’re worried about the breast meat drying out, just cover the bird with a bunch of strips of bacon. Whatever you do, don’t think about grilling it (because it’s a turkey, not a steak) or sous-vide-ing it (because what the hell, seriously?), or even deep-frying it (because you don’t live in a trailer park). Roast it in an oven full of fire, the way God intended when He put those big ugly birds on this planet.

7. Serve a lot of gravy.
Another reason not to worry so much about the turkey: You’ll just slather gravy on it. Gravy, obviously, is the best part of the meal and it deserves proper respect and care. If you don’t know how to make gravy, it takes like six seconds to learn and it’s a life skill worth having. Everything is better with gravy.

8. Roast some Brussels sprouts.
Brussels sprouts are a fringe Thanksgiving standard: They’re not part of everyone’s holiday meal, but they don’t seem out of place if they’re there. I say go for it. You toss them with some oil, put them on a pan, and roast them in the very same oven where you’ve got your turkey going. This is delicious and simple and apparently there are still some sheltered pockets of the world where roasting Brussels sprouts is a novel culinary technique.

9. Don’t watch the football games.
The Lions usually lose, the Cowboys are insufferable, and people don’t watch the third game of the day because it’s on that NFL network that nobody gets.

10. Put out more booze.
Did you think you put out enough alcohol the first time you read this advice? You did not. Put out some more.

11. Outsource dessert duties.
You’re making, what, like seven or eight things and people expect you to bake multiple pies, too? No. Put someone else on pie duty and if they show up with anything other than a pumpkin pie and an apple pie, throw them out of your home immediately.

But with all that said, this last tip is the best strategy of all:

12. Just get yourself invited to someone else’s Thanksgiving.
All you have to do is show up with a nice bottle of wine and a willingness to help with the dishes when everyone’s done eating. And if you’re a vegetarian, be thankful that you’ll get to eat a plate full of mashed potatoes.

Grub Street’s Very Simple Tips for Thanksgiving Dinner