Privilege Blog

When You Cook Too Much Food For Thanksgiving, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:58am

This Thursday, 17 people came for Thanksgiving. We finally located the kitchen counter on Friday afternoon, as we dug out from under. 4 large pots and pans remain to be washed, and with that, we are done for another year.

I tried very hard to keep my expectations low. I could not avoid, however, high hopes. The events as they played out in real life left me with some thoughts. And dishes, of course, but those are all now clean. What follows is a dishwasher for hopes. If you will pardon the sentimental metaphor.

When You Cook Too Much Food For Thanksgiving And Other Life Lessons

Keep your eyes on the prize.

I had a singular priority this Thanksgiving. I wanted to bring together a certain group of people, and celebrate a certain set of relationships via a certain atmosphere and a certain menu. I focused on the task and, despite very complex logistics, succeeded. In other words, we fed 17 people at a sit down dinner with linen tablecloths, silver centerpieces, and silver utensils. I need to be clear. Everyone helped. This was not a solo effort, although it was my plan, and we made turkey, gravy, stuffing, two kinds of cranberry including canned for those who insist, two kinds of mashed potatoes, two kinds of rolls (one version from scratch with yeast), chard, brussels sprouts, peas, sweet potatoes, salad, fried rice with lap cheong, salad, pecan pie, apple pie, pumpkin pie, and a gingerbread cake with chocolate glaze. Also ice cream. Lactose-free and regular. The food was delicious.

I even changed into my Prada dress. It looked beautiful under a brown and black giraffe-covered apron.

1. Do less, achieve more.

In retrospect, the menu was a bit over the top. Dinner came late to the table. Small children waited for food. Never a good thing. And 17 people had to navigate the small living space in my small ranch house for 2 hours, requiring several trips to the park. Everyone handled the situation well, with more than reasonable good cheer. But I, the cook and manager of the event, felt badly. Had I tried for less, I could have provided a better experience. Which, after all, is what I was after. The long list of dishes was to ensure that everyone could eat as they pleased, from the completely traditional to the rather experimental. This wasn’t necessary. I should have remembered that my family eats broadly, and therefore nobody needed both peas with mint and chard stir-fried with shitake. I should have kept my eyes on the higher prize. Set aside the letter-perfect menu for the full experience of several hours spent together. We are rarely all together.

2. Once you achieve a goal, don’t discount it. Persist in your gratitude.

I found myself a little wistful during the evening. Once I sat down to dinner, I kept thinking, “But wait, where are the hosannas? Where is the peak moment of fellow feeling?” Especially I wished for a stronger moment of feeling my family together. Although people ate happily, somewhat quietly, I wanted more. Having achieved my stated, strongly-held goal, why did I move on to a new desire? That way lies discontent. Focus instead on what has been achieved. Persist in your gratitude.

3. To keep your eyes on the prize, you have to admit what it is.

You see, had I been honest with myself, I would have acknowledged that I wanted not only to feed everyone, not only to set a beautiful table, but to sit, full center, in the midst of those I love, and be acknowledged by all. Briefly. No need for prolonged fanfare.

I couldn’t fully enjoy my realized prize because I hadn’t put away hope for something more. And I couldn’t have my something more because I told myself I cared about things like salty gravy. A gravy focus meant that my plan to have the little children do the place cards, happening outside my supervision, evolved into having little children plan the seating chart. Said seating chart put me on the periphery of adult conversation. One cannot inspire hosannas from the edge. So even though I should have basked in achieving my first priority, even though I sat next to those I love with all my heart, my secret wish wormed my heart. I know better than that. Nobody’s fault but my own.

If you really want something, admit it or move on. There is no middle ground.

4. Even if every known fear comes true, the outcome is not that bad.

Many things I’d feared happened, my house was too small, it was too hard to cook so much at the last minute, some people got a little cranky, some people drank a little too much. These things didn’t matter. Known fears are never as dangerous as the unknown.

5. How you remember something is how it happened.

If there is wisdom in age, it is the ability to narrate one’s past with a reasoned voice. In other years, after this event, I would have scolded myself into a tizzy of shame and regret. Instead I tell myself, now, carefully, the best part is that I can learn. That, and everyone got fed well. That, and we were all together. And happy. All of us.

These days I remind myself, eyes on the prize. I know that life is complex, and made up of very small steps. I congratulate myself, just a bit, on what we actually accomplished. One learns over time to forgive oneself errors even while remaining focused on doing better next time.

6. Life tends to give you second chances, rarely when you expect it, most often when you ask.

Yesterday the Wizard of Oz was on television. I found myself on the sofa, someone I love on either side. You know, somewhere over the rainbow.

7. Persist in your gratitude.

Happiness is in large part a matter of intent. Little provides so much happiness as gratitude. I am grateful to have had my family here. I am so grateful for my big family. Every single person in it.

Speaking of second chances, my brother is getting married in May. We will all be together once again – this time even my father and his wife. Eating food I don’t cook, in a big space I don’t own. I will make sure, that day, to intend gratitude and recognition of my family.

I hope everyone who celebrates Thanksgiving had a wonderful time. To those of you who don’t, have a wonderful weekend anyway. You probably don’t have a large roasting pan full of turkey juices on your countertop. Thank goodness for that. Let us celebrate all manners of gratitude.

53 Responses

  1. “Yesterday the Wizard of Oz was on television. I found myself on the sofa, someone I love on either side. You know, somewhere over the rainbow.”

    how lucky are you?! sounds like a pretty amazing Tgiving and I know that you had to be stunning in the Prada dress, even with the apron- and hey, aren’t animal prints “in” for this winter?!



  2. So well said. How I know that “secret wish wormed my heart.” I wonder if my appetite for “How did you manage all this? You are amazing!” will ever be satisfied. I do think time has dulled the wish from the sharp and gnawing pang it was in my 30s, so I am grateful for that. And you are so right, there is nothing like intentional gratitude to mend and lighten.

  3. Such a beautiful, heartfelt post Lisa. I can indentify with your feelings of hoping for something more. Yes, it does help to be honest about what one is really after. Once you admit that, even if the “thing” is not attained, you feel a bit better. There is so much to be thankful for. I always make way too much food and whip myself into a nervous frenzy…What a wonderful moment, watching the Wizard of Oz with your family. That is what it’s all about!


  4. What a beautiful post, so many life lessons worth remembering every day! I posted it on my facebook profile and forwarded it to friends. And I am printing it and saving it in the gratitude journal I keep. Today I am also thankful for this read and for having found your blog. Thank you for writing it.

  5. This year I had the epiphany that Thanksgiving is about preparing the food, not eating it. For the last couple of years I have prepared dinner completely on my own and came to the table exhausted, definitely without a beautiful Prada dress in my chef-induced stupor. I found that the meal was anti-climactic.

    But this year my children worked side by side with me in the kitchen, doing what they could: my 5-year-old son snapped green beans, my two daughters (8 and 11) chopped vegetables and mixed the pumpkin pie whlie chattering happily. So when we sat down to eat the meal felt like a wonderful continuation of the conversation and family time we’d been having all day.

    I will never cook by myself again on Thanksgiving!

  6. Wow! You have surely done your part concerning the Thanksgiving celebration. You might feel dissatisfied in some small detail just now, but as time passes, all you remember are the nice parts, and the fact that you succeeded fine as a hostess : )

  7. This is perfectly wonderful, as are you. I’m speechless with the pure honest wisdom of your words. Please recognize and honor your generous heart that wanted this perfection, and don’t discount that impulse as selfish, or some such other deprecation. Please recognize and honor the wise woman who knows which road to choose for happiness in her own life’s narrative. Abe Lincoln, who had more than a few private and public reasons to be bitter, sad, angry, said something like, “Most people are just about as happy as they choose to be.” I agree. Truly a lovely piece. Thank you.

  8. Happy thanksgiving! I had a wistful moment at the table, too, after I cooked for two full days and then everyone was done eating in ~20 minutes.

    But I had to remind myself that I am uncomfortable receiving praise, so I don’t know what I was really hoping for.

    I have only been cooking the meal for three years. My mom has finally given up having all of us come to her, and she rotates among the Thanksgivings of her three grown daughters and their families. But I remember she always had a tired, dissatisfied look on her face at Thanksgiving, and now I know why. :)

    My favorite Thanksgiving meal is a turkey sandwich on homemade bread the next day, after the dishes are gone and everyone has left!

  9. Another beautiful and well written post, thank you.
    I am deeply impressed with your menu…all the traditional fare plus fried rice!
    I am of the “less is more tradition”, dishes as well as guests. I don’t have your stamina create such a lovely meal…and to do it all in a Prada dress no less!

  10. Holiday/family celebrations are often a disappointment compared to the Norman Rockwell or other iconic ideal. We imagine everyone else is having a perfect day while our guests and food, being real, have a few rough edges. Less IS more and the point of the holiday is gratitude. Out of town relatives ferried to the airport and train station, I am finishing the cleanup and enjoying leftovers.

  11. Wonderful post. Your day was not perfect but pretty much near. How fortunate you are to be surrounded by loved ones. We perfectionists always try harder and want to please everyone. You were successful.
    Yours gratefully,

  12. Last year I also made way too many dishes – wanted to satisfy everyone. For example, 4 different gravies! And so much variety to suit the vegetarians, lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant, mushroom haters, etc etc etc.
    I finally sat down at the table, with my hair dripping wet from sweating.
    This year our kids were scattered, so I didn’t cook – went to Montecito to the country club with my mom and some friends. It was lonely, but easy.
    Next year, I’m going to seriously pare down the menu. And give up my need for accolades (which never seem to be enough to equal the amount of work.)
    I want to enjoy my family, and I have a feeling they’ll enjoy me more, if I’m relaxed and present. Great post – really reaffirmed what I’ve been contemplating about entertaining in general.

  13. I have always found my own expectations considerably harder to live up to than those of anyone else. I have small children and I have realised that nothing is ever going to go smoothly or picture perfectly when they are around. But things can be incredibly special.

    I think if you had everyone together, well fed and happy then that may be as good as it is going to get. And it sounds very very good to me.

    Take care.

  14. QBS – Yes. I am very lucky. Animal prints and all.

    Town and Country – I sense you know my feeling. And thank heavens for the passing of the decades in this case.

    Hill House – Thank you. It was heartfelt, and saying it all here really did help me feel better even than my own words to myself.

    Marcela – Oh I am so honored. This blog has been a great event in my life.

    Miss Cavendish – Exactly. I had all kinds of help. It wasn’t at all that I worked hard all by myself. Just that I lost sight, a bit, of the process.

  15. HOSANNA to YOU for bringing it all off. You have spoiled us with yet another masterpiece journal entry in equal parts head, hand, heart with a dash of bitters. You were raised in family circumstances where there would not have been a toast made to the deserving caterer working far out of sight, and certainly out of mind. So for all the traditions you succeeded in duplicating last Thursday — from your vision of remembered Thansgivings past to your excruciatingly honest port-mortem — please accept this toast in honor of you, Lisa. Bravo.

  16. Mette – I appreciate your words of wisdom.

    Kcecelia – You are a generous spirit. A quote from Abe Lincoln is probably just what I needed:). The perfection I wanted, I now understand, was for me and me only. Perfection for others would have been a little different. I’m coming to terms with it all.

    rb – I too am uncomfortable with too much praise. I think most likely because I want it so badly. In this case, it was as much wistfulness for a moment of shared community as praise. I was sitting down the table, as I said, and therefore didn’t get the feeling of a full coming together that I was looking for.

  17. Belle – Don’t worry. I didn’t put on the Prada until we were done cooking. Nor did I do it all. I did, however, make the fried rice. Perhaps that will become a tag line in my life, as in, “Is this a fried rice experience?’

    DocP – I suppose these thoughts are in many ways my leftovers. I am glad you had a nice Thanksgiving.

    BarbG – And I gratefully thank you in return.

    Kathy Peck Leeds – Exactly. There has to be a middle ground. At one point I had flour all over my sweatshirt and I felt like the woman in the Rice Krispy treat commercial, except no trickery.

  18. When I read the first “Persist in your gratitude,” tears sprang to my eyes. That is always a sign of Something Important being imparted.

    Yes. Yes. And again, Yes. Persist in your gratitude.

  19. A Farmer’s Wife – “I think if you had everyone together, well fed and happy then that may be as good as it is going to get. And it sounds very very good to me.” Yes.

    Flo – You are so kind. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Writing this post and hearing your comments has made me realize it wasn’t so much the lack of praise as it was my sense that OTHERS weren’t enjoying themselves as much as they might have. That I had let everyone down, and that as a result we didn’t have the transcendent moment of familyness that I wanted.

  20. “How you remember something is how it happened”

    I love this! And it’s so true. Every time I get together with family, we bond over memories of various events and I’m not sure if the stories are 100% accurate but they are 100% real.

  21. Sounds like it all went pretty well – no mention of burning anything.

    I had this industrious idea that I’d make turkey stock out of the bones from my de-boned turkey breast, and then let it boil dry filling my kitchen with smoke a hour before everyone was supposed to arrive. Next time those bones go on the back porch.

    Being the hostess is difficult work. I will certainly remember the tip about not letting the children assign the seating!

  22. I, too, have been known to lose sight . . . but it’s in the ephemeral trying, the goodwill that involves, that the hospitality creates the sustaining memories, perhaps. And in the moments where serendipity catches us between two loved ones, watching a classic movie on tv. Well done.

  23. I,too,reflected on all the toil and sweat where thanks was sparse and clean-up great. I resolved to think about dining out next year.

  24. Lisa
    I love this post…your fine choice of words weaving a picture that tug at my heart strings.

    Cooking and serving 17 and a Thanksgiving feast wearing Prada…WOW!

    you’ve earned accolades and Hosanna’s :)

  25. What a frank and honest debriefing of your event. To me, the best part sounds like the Wizard of Oz. And the mantra, “persist in your gratitude,” is one I will remember.

    The chances are that you have contributed to a memory for many of those present, whether they can acknowledge it yet or not.

  26. I read it all….good points…expectations at family gatherings ummmmmm….
    Don’t be so hard on yourself I bet there would be a number of different takes on it all from the guests and the small ones will have good memories so different and good you’d be surprised…probably the big ones too!

  27. Great post. Each year I want a big, happy family celebration and then wonder why I am disappointed that everything wasn’t perfect. Because it never was and it never will be. It was as good as it can be and everybody will remember that we were together, not how many dishes were made or when we ate and that is the joy of the holiday.

  28. I’m sure in the eyes of others your gracious Thanksgiving was wonderful. So long as children are involved Thanksgiving will never be stress free. I remember thinking some were horrible. But looking back I cannot remember which ones or why.

    I was alone for the first time ever this year. The children went off with their father. I guess this is part of what is to be my new normal. I did not like it very much. Despite whatever thoughts I have about mil’s cooking, it certainly is better than being alone.

    As much as I missed being with them they all missed me… despite what their son and I are going through… they still wanted me there… still had a place set for me. Had I known I was invited, wanted or missed I would have gone for sure. After all these people have been my family for nearly 15 years. I hope, after all is said and done, they still consider me family.

    I hope also, to have my “over the rainbow” on the couch with me one day too… settling down to a good movie the day after Thanksgiving.


  29. Dearest Skye,

    You have composed a masterpiece in this space. May I recommend you reprint this every year to remind us about appreciating the trip and the destination and love and family and “pulling it all off.” Remember “studies show” (I love that explanation of everything) that experiences are more valuable and meaningful to us than any “thing.” Et voila, you have collected a huge collection of anecdotes, precious souvenirs to savor for years, which you have generously shared with us.

    I have a similar problem, every time I drive to the airport to pick up Andrea, my mind is twisting around the sad inevitability of the trip back to the airport when she flies back to the States. I count the days until she arrives with such blissful anticipation and then when I have her in my arms, I count the few days she will be with us and can’t always fully celebrate her being here. It’s sick. But I am working on it and I am better than I was.

    Thank you, cherie,
    xoxo, Tish

    p.s.: Your “follower” explanation is hilarious. Merci. Now I don’t feel like such a fool.

  30. This post is beyond beautiful. The wisdom and love intertwined throught out each sentence makes my heart stop in awe of it all. Thank you for sharing this. I will have to read this again so that I can digest the whole wisdom of your words. Happy Sunday. XX

  31. Wonderful post. You are truly blessed.
    I served 16 plus five dogs this year. The dogs, for the most part, stayed outside…except for my granddaughter’s peekpugpoo (bless her heart) who (was freezing — dispite her red coat — and hiding from the other dogs)came in a few times and promptly christened my new scatter rug by the door. I am fanatic about darling doggies and their accidents — out, out damned spot and all…
    During the meal, by sister commented “We should do this every month,” which to me, was the highest compliment I could receive.
    I wore the toille apron sans Prada beneath.

  32. Seventeen people! Wearing Prada, too. I always feel like I wasn’t at the party, and feel like I wasn’t a good enough hostess because I was in the kitchen too much. Maybe feeling responsible for the event makes us more aware of the perceived shortcomings.

  33. My mother always told me, “When you give, give with an open hand”. And you did. How others act has almost nothing to do with your gift. In the moment, the people there may seem oblivious to your effort and yearning, yet years later someone might say, “Remember that Thanksgiving at your house, with the chard and the thing you did with the peas and all those trips to the park?”

  34. I doff my hat to you, hosting dinner for 17 is quite a task. I never ever invite people to dinner ,I find it horrendously stressful

  35. Dear Lisa, since English is not my mother tongue, I am not sure if I am overinterpreting the sad tone in your Thanksgiving-posting. hmmmmm. I wonder of your family appreciates your effort and skills and talents as much as you deserve it. I once baked a traditional fruit-pie for Christmas Dinner and my brother in law placed the mousse-au-chocolat from the supermarket next to it on the decorated table, straight from the fridge, still in the plastic-container, praising the -50% discount he got on it. I felt silly, with all the effort I put in the cake that got no attention at all, since I simply served it … family! Drinking them pretty works wonders.
    Did you light a Lampe Berger to get rid of the odours the next day? I need to do so every time Mr Paula cooks meat. warm regards, Paula

  36. I cooked my first full Thanksgiving meal ever on Saturday for some of my husband’s family. I was the only American, and the other guests are from Quebec, so it was their first Thanksgiving experience. I cooked several dishes for the first and had a very specific idea of what I wanted the experience to be like. I even had made a spreadsheet timetable of tasks down to 15 minute intervals to try to keep myself on track to get things all down and ready on time. But somewhere along the way my organization derailed and dinner ended up about an hour or so later than I had planned. By the end of the evening, the two children of some of our guests had dissolved into a screaming/crying mess of tears (it was 2 hours past their bedtime) and I felt exhausted by the work of trying to pull together a Thanksgiving. Thankfully the guests helped with things in the kitchen (and I had no problem putting them to work) and the only negative was that I never got around to making the yeast rolls, so I guess it went really well for the first time around. :)

  37. Dear LPC,
    You really are so clever. What a feast! Now would you please share the fried rice recipe. Maybe it’s because I don’t live near San Fran, but I have no idea what lap cheong is.
    Love, Miss W x

  38. A lovely post, lots of good food for thought here. But I’d bet that if you asked everyone there, they had a lovely time, and were glad of the meal and the fellowship and family. Because we are hardest on ourselves, and judge these things according to that vision in our heads. No one else sees that vision but us, and no one else judges our event by that standard but us. So along with your other lessons, take heart – I’m sure a lovely time was had by all.

  39. I’m so glad you had a happy Thanksgiving.

    I know well the need for control and perfection and how that can seriously undermine one’s enjoyment of the holiday. It’s taken me many years to realize that an imperfect (but still delicious) meal shared among loved ones is much preferable to exhaustion and drudgery, and I’ve learned to pare down the menu, both for Thanksgiving and for Christmas. (There are only two of us. We can’t eat all that food!)

  40. VA Gal – Yes, and I think families can use this for good or evil. Good is always better:).

    RoseAG – I like your perspective.

    Mater – “but it’s in the ephemeral trying, the goodwill that involves, that the hospitality creates the sustaining memories, perhaps.” If so, I’m set. There was no lack of trying. And talking to everyone after, two things become clear. A) I was right in my assessment B) It didn’t matter in the scheme of things.

    Donna – We did that last year. It was actually kind of fun. I wouldn’t like to do it often, but once in a while was kind of nice.

    Hostess – I thank you very much. But so as not to mislead anyone, I only ATE in Prada:).

  41. Terri – Thank you. I needed to talk it all out, so I appreciate your listening. I continue to find additional reasons to be thankful for the event as the days pass.

    Heather – You are completely right. It’s been really good to hear everyone else’s perspective since.

    MaryBeth – It never was and it never will be and yet in memory it can become so. Thank you.

    EntertainingMom – This is such a difficult time, what you are going through. In all honesty, if you weren’t huddled on the sofa sobbing and drunk, I’d say you are doing great.

    Susan – Thank you so much.

  42. Tish – You are welcome, cara mia:). And I can only imagine what it must be like for you, anticipating Andrea’s visit. At least you don’t LIVE in Turkmenistan:).

    Lori – Thank you very, very much.

    Marie Francesca – Thank you. I feel my blessings quite strongly. And you have now prompted me to consider a new apron for next year. With sleeves:).

    La Belette – xoxoxox

    Julia – Yes, it’s hard to tell if the party didn’t happen or I just wasn’t there. Luckily my sisters are generous in letting me natter on.

  43. Duchesse – I think you are right. Given my family’s propensity for narration, for conversation, I imagine this will turn into a story about the year we had TOO MUCH FOOD. And it will be a fun story.

    Tabitha – I think that’s part of what got me into trouble. Cooking is one of the things I’ve been good at for a while now, as is hosting dinners. I believe I was seduced by my own talents into some poor decisions.

    Paula – Thank you. But pray tell, what is a Lampe Berger?

    Adventures Along The Way – Oh I feel for you exactly. Clearly we all do this at some point or another, and no real harm is done.

  44. Hi Lisa,
    To your list, I would add, “know your audience”.
    You are a very attractive lady with exquisite taste. To that I would add a witty and erudite writer. I think the amount of effort put into the celebration was never going to get the response you wanted, because they know what you can do, and probably assume you do too. Maybe your need for acknowledgement might have been met by an audience who have not had the pleasure of your company and your style. To them it would have all been wonderful. Next year, put your feet up and let them impress you for a change.

  45. Lisa, a Lampe Berger cleans the air, has been developed by a medecin in France, Monsieur Berger. It works with a catalysator that gets hot. One can use scented liquids to scent the air at the same time. I stay with “Neutre”. At the end of this rather long posting you can see it in action:
    Today “Rocky Road Brownies” ruled out the Lampe. There is nothing like sugar/butter/chocolate coming out of the oven. :-)

  46. LPC, this is a beautiful post. I know how easy it is to want more. This year I tried to do less and it was wonderful. I must say, as an aside, that my adult children weren’t the slightest bit interested in the sterling, but never mind, we love it!

  47. I always love the life lessons you so graciously share.

    “Little provides so much happiness as gratitude.” I SO subscribe to this and it’s something that I want my children to take to heart. The happiest people are the ones who know gratitude.

  48. Dear Ms Lisa, I read this post several times. I admire your ability to look clearly into yourself, acknowledge your feelings and then seek to move forward. The love you have for your family shines like a beacon. You captured precisely what I often feel: the desire to create something perfect for my family and guests and the inevitable self critique because no matter how good it is, it can never meet that mental picture I started with. I have to stop myself too, breathe and enjoy being in the moment with those I love best and as you so wisely say, persist in gratitude. May I also say in the words of my mother-in-law, that I would have died with my leg in the air (a good thing) to have been at this feast and the bit I would have loved the best would have been working with you in the kitchen with a glass of wine.

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