This Week in the Mayonnaise Clinic: Giving Thanks Well
And some early preparation for Christmas
Thank you for sending in your holiday questions, and for your lively comments in response to The New York Times’ and my advice on holiday etiquette. I am relieved that none of you are planning a Clark Kent-style apron reveal tomorrow.
And I’m excited to answer a few of your questions below.
First, a reader has a question about Thanksgiving catering:
My wife and I are attending my younger brother’s house for his first Thanksgiving hosting with his family and he’s taken the approach of ordering virtually the entire meal from Wegmans [a grocery store], aside from some appetizers and desserts that guests are bringing. How would you go about complimenting the host on a meal when virtually all of it is store-prepped and delivered? I believe he is roasting the turkey.
In general, my feeling is that it is for the best when people who are not good at cooking don’t cook. There’s no shame in catering, and these days, some supermarkets produce quite good catering. So if the food is good, just say so — he knows he ordered it in, so it’s not like it’s some dark secret that the potatoes are from Wegmans.
My one note of hesitation is that the turkey is the hardest part of a Thanksgiving menu to execute well. I find it unlikely that your brother is both competent to execute a moist, delicious turkey and yet skittish about making stuffing and green beans. So you may want to focus both your eating and your compliments on the side dishes. If he finds the lack of compliments for the turkey awkward, that just increases the likelihood that he’ll outsource it to an expert next year.
How do you bring pre-mixed cocktails? And when do you bring them?
I wouldn’t bring them to Thanksgiving unless the host asked for them. I have two main use cases for pre-mixed cocktails, which I discussed back in September on the podcast with Peter Suderman:
A party where you want to speed up service or allow guests to serve their own cocktails. A carafe of pre-mixed negronis or martinis or manhattans can work well in this context.
When gathering at a location where hot or cold cocktails are desirable but ordinarily impractical. This is a great use for a Swell bottle or other thermos: You can fill it with Irish coffee (or hot toddy or spiked hot chocolate) to bring to a tailgate or a winter bonfire; or fill it with margaritas or mai tais and take it to the beach in the summer.
We’re in the season where hot cocktails are most likely to be relevant — just heat and combine all the ingredients, pour them into the thermos, and seal; then shake and pour into campfire mugs or paper cups wherever you’ve gathered. Cold cocktails for summer are a little more complicated. First, make them as you normally would at home — shake with ice, strain, and then pour the strained liquid into the thermos to keep cold. Ideally, you should bring ice with you so you can pour the cold drink out of the thermos and over ice to keep it cold. If that’s not practical, you can put ice in the thermos with the drink, but you won’t get as many servings.
Casey has a question in preparation for Christmas:
A close relative spends a lot of money every year on what she calls “stocking stuffers,” which won’t credibly fit in a stocking, are sometimes but not always gag gifts, and are usually picked up on the impulse item aisle by the checkout. After several years of this, my spouse and I have both tried gently discouraging it or asking for donations to charity in lieu of gifts. This felt obnoxious, and it also hasn’t made a difference. How can I get my relative to stop doing this, or if I can’t, how should handle it? Donating a box of TJ Maxx tchotchkes every year feels like making it someone else’s problem.
My advice is to smile, say thank you, and then throw the tchotchkes in the trash when you get home. (If a charity can get value out of them, donate them, but be honest with yourself about whether you’re just giving the charity something of yours to throw away.) You feel guilty about your wasteful consumption, but this isn’t your consumption — it’s your relative’s. It makes her happy to give you these gifts. Some people enjoy driving sports cars; some take trips on airplanes; this is your aunt’s consumptive hobby, and she’s entitled to it. If you still feel the need to atone, estimate the price of the tchotchkes you receive this year and make a donation in that amount on your aunt’s behalf to a charity you consider worthy. Don’t tell her you did so.
My wife and I are hosting Christmas dinner for our parents this year, a flip from the usual. My family is Jewish and hers is Italian, so we all talk much too loudly and enjoy food to an unhealthy extent. We are avid cooks but always struggle with picking out what exactly to make. Any suggestion for a six-person holiday dinner?
So, I have an oddly specific suggestion to make here.
I have a lot of back issues of Gourmet magazine. I used to read my mom’s issues of Gourmet as a kid, and its feature stories on sumptuous dinner parties — always exquisitely photographed; it’s amazing how much money publications used to spend on photography — are a key part of how I became really interested in food and entertaining. I was one of those kids who always wanted to be an adult, and what’s more adult than the sort of dinner party that becomes the basis of a Gourmet feature?
Gourmet tragically stopped publishing in 2009, but I’ve bought up much of the magazine’s back catalog on eBay, and I leaf through the issues for menu ideas, or just for fun. One idea I keep toying with is a dinner party based on food trends around the year 2000, as exemplified at restaurants like Union Square Cafe in New York and Kinkead’s in Washington — food stacked high, extremely complicated plating, soups that look like Rothko paintings, Chilean sea bass or sesame crusted tuna, no concept of “farm-to-table” — and there’s quite a bit of fodder for that in the back issues.
Anyway. That is not my suggestion for you, even though it happens to come from that era. I’m pointing you toward a Christmas dinner menu for six from the December 2000 issue called “Sumptuous Santa Fe.”
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