The season of family reunions and cheerful celebration is upon us, and the crisp air is filled with magical anticipation. Thanksgiving is a festive opportunity to gather the ones you love at your home and share gratitude and happiness to the sounds of cheerful laughter and aroma of great food.
When I moved to the United States from Russia at the age of fifteen, Thanksgiving was a new tradition to me, and for the longest time, I had very little interest in celebrating it. It was somewhat foreign to me. As years rolled by and all my American friends traveled home to reunite with their family, and I joined them on several occasions, I found appreciation for this joyous tradition. I liked the idea that on this day entire families come together, cook side by side and spend the evening laughing and sharing stories over delicious turkey and wine. And the decor! I love baking and decorating, and nothing feels more celebratory to me than to set the table with the finest linens, china and seasonal flower arrangement. A little visual drama never fails to get the appetite going!
This year is the first time I am hosting Thanksgiving, inviting friends over to my parents’ lovely home. With my new puppy travel was out of the question and I embraced staying in California as a chance to cook something fancy myself. I am excited! Mom and I are splitting the cooking responsibilities and, boy, is it going to be a feast! With a Russian twist!
As the turkey with chanterelle mushrooms and buckwheat stuffing is baking in the oven, I pour us a glass of wine and set the table to the nines – what’s better than a festive excuse to use beautiful seasonal china (acorns print anyone?) and finest gold rimmed crystal to set the mood.
Here are some tips I’ve come up with to make the event one to treasure long after all the turkey has been gobbled up and pecan pie made us swear to detox the day after!
Think Seasonal But Elegant
I like to tie all of my table decor around a striking detail I randomly discover to inspire me. This year there were two details – a Sur La Table mini decorative turkey figurines and Staub pumpkin cocotte. These items were very traditional in their Thanksgiving symbolism, so I wanted to have the rest of the design more subtle while sticking to the chocolate/orange color scheme. I chose William Sonoma Acorn dinnerware collection for its warm autumnal look and gold-rimmed vintage glasses to add a touch of elegance. I pulled through the gold tone in the leather placemats for texture as well as decorated the napkins with chocolate crystal and gold chain napkin rings. I think texture adds interest to the tablescape and finds its culmination in the flower centerpiece. For the centerpiece, I chose the flowers in vibrant yellow, orange, and green accessorized with Rowen berries for a pop of color. I don’t like when the stems of the flowers show in a clear vase, so I dropped some lemons, apples, and persimmons in the water before arranging. If the table still feels a bit sparse, go ahead and throw in some autumnal produce such as acorn squash and pomegranate. They look lovely, and you can always cook them later! I think creativity here is key and you do not need to spend an arm and a leg on decor. Use what you have, go in your backyard and clip some pretty branches, berries or lemons – most of the items I used came straight from our (or neighbor’s… wink wink) garden.
Thanksgiving = Friendsgiving
For Thanksgiving, I love to invite friends as well as family. I think it is tremendously fun to mix the group up! If it is a large group you are hosting, think about your guests ahead of time and where they’ll sit. Who will have the most in common and enjoy a great conversation? Who is a chatterbox who can talk to anyone (or as in the case of my family is bilingual) to keep things going when the discussion gets stale? I like to make sure that people I invite have fun and a few minutes put into the seating arrangement is time well spent to keep the party lively and entertaining.
Let People Help
This I learned the hard way! For the first year of living alone, I would break out in a rash every time I hosted a party. Even with days of preparations, my perfectionism would get the best of me, and I would rush all over town for the last minute best ingredient, flower arrangement, wine. I would plan each dish meticulously and freak out if something went awry. To put it simply, I would be a sad neurotic mess right before my guests arrived. Thankfully those days are far behind me, and I no longer sweat the small stuff. I also let people help. Your guests genuinely want to help. Many feel out of place when they first arrive as you are busy in the kitchen and would love to take part with easy tasks such as filling the wine glasses with Cabernet you’ve reserved to enjoy with dinner, tuning the playlist or carrying shared appetizer platter to the table. When everyone gets involved, you feel a shared joy of celebration that is special to you and your guests.
Know Your Guests
You never know what allergies people may have or whether they’ll drink alcohol due to pregnancy they are not yet ready to announce. Have non-alcoholic beverages just in case and ask for any restrictions to avoid unpleasant surprises due to allergies or personal/religious beliefs. To anticipate your guests’ needs before they have to ask is a golden rule for any gracious hostess.
Keep the Menu Hearty and Simple
Food is a fantastic way to honor memories and preserve traditions. While it’s tempting to get creative with the menu, there is a certain anticipation that comes with Thanksgiving – turkey, potatoes, pumpkin pie. I like to save the new recipes for parties I host during the year and only subtly change the traditional methods for the “Day of Thanks.” This year, for example, my mom and I are making a turkey stuffed with buckwheat and chanterelle mushrooms for a bit of a Russian twist. I also ordered an exquisite pecan tart from a local french bakery which I plan to serve with vanilla ice cream complemented with homemade cranberry sauce! As you can see the dishes are traditional, but the presentation varies so, it is not same old, same old each year!
Know Your Timeline
If you are doing most of the cooking, remember to pace yourself and start early. I like to cut all the herbs and other non-spoiling ingredients the night before and put them into neat containers. It cuts down on a lot of day-of extras you need to do so you don’t feel swamped with panic if you start running out of time. When you plan to cook the turkey, make sure to create a timeline for when to put the bird in the oven and how to strategize sides to bake there as well. Unless you are a professional chef, I bet your oven is a standard size like mine, and you have to maneuver quite a bit to remove this and that and make sure everything cooks through and promptly. I usually cook the sides right after the turkey comes out. The turkey rests in the kitchen covered with tin foil and towels to keep it from cooling down. It allows me to pop back into the dining room and socialize with my friends while the cooking keeps going backstage. I also always set the table ahead of time – the night before or first thing in the morning. It is a great trick I learned from my grandma. When your guests arrive, and the table is set and pretty, they feel welcome, and everything seems under control – kitchen might be another matter altogether, but no one would notice that if they have a table to sit at and enjoy some wine and conversation!
Remember what Thanksgiving is all about and embrace your family and friends. Raise a glass to those who join you and make them feel special and loved. This day is all about love, kindness, and grace. And, maybe, just one too many slices of pecan pie!