Instead of the usual notes to myself about when to pick up Gabrielle from violin or how long I wrote that day or how many minutes I slaved away on the elliptical machine, this week my day timer is filled with just a few simple commands. On Wednesday, I have to grocery shop and roast tomatoes. On Thursday, I have to make cranberry sauce, soup and ice cream. On Friday, I have to prepare the turkey, bake bread and chocolate tarts. And Saturday, whose square is highlighted in pink, the list extends into Sunday’s box as I wrap everything up.
Though nearly a month late, the Baker/Kaprowy home will be celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving Saturday and our dining room will be packed with friends, who will gamely tuck beside each other like sardines and eat. Everyone comes at 7 and, usually, they come ready to work.
I’ve been hosting Canadian Thanksgiving since I first came to Kentucky a shocking nine years ago and each year the event has grown. Last year, we reached our max at 16 people, resulting in the dining room table extending nearly to the front door.
The Thanksgiving meal is one I love in theory to cook, mostly because I love to eat it, but is particularly challenging because of its last-minute requirements. Its heart is, of course, the turkey but it’s that bird that makes things tricky. You have to get it out of the oven in time so you have room to warm up the other dishes — stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams — but not too much time so it gets cold. You need its pan because you need to make the gravy, which can be a long process that needs constant attention. Then the turkey requires carving, which is always stunningly time consuming. Generally, I’m prone to standing over my husband while he dismantles the bird and prodding him to go faster, bloody faster, William.
“Everything is getting cold,” I finally announce in a shrill, ugly voice and he hands me a glass of wine like medicine.
“Drink,” he commands.
It’s actually this state of mind that has prompted all of the military precision in my day timer this year. I realized a few years ago that, while the goal of the evening is to celebrate with friends and express how thankful we are for each other, the meal is preceded by my intense fear that everything is going to fall apart at the last minute. In my quest to make everything perfect for my friends and husband, I’m instead imparting my stress onto them. In fact, my friend Lacey, who boldly announces all the time she hates to cook, has told me she purposely avoids me when she sees me with my apron still on.
“You’re very strict,” she said. “And a little scary.”
So this year, I’m going to try something new. Since our gathering is so late this year — Nov. 2 was just the date that worked for everyone — I decided I could scrap the traditional meal. Rather than eating buffet style, which requires everything to be ready at the same time, I’m going to pluck a few guests from the table for each course to help me in the kitchen and plate everything ourselves. I’m hoping this will let me visit one-on-one with everyone plus provide me free help to get things out of the kitchen.
I’ve also decided to reinvent the turkey. First off, the gravy is gone. I wince a little bit as I write this, because God knows I love gravy, but I’ve made the decision and I’m going to roll with it. I’ve also decided to separate the breasts from the legs and wings, which means minimal carving. A lot of the magazines I’ve read said this is the best way to get the juiciest, most tender meat so I’m going to give it a go. The legs and wings I’m going to confit in duck fat. The breasts I’m going to brine with juniper berries, arbol peppers and a bunch of other interesting stuff for 24 hours, then I’m going to roast them.
Whatever happens, it’s got to be better than the first time I hosted a big party. It was Easter and my mom and Peter were visiting me. I was having William’s entire family over so they could meet my parents. I also had invited his ex-wife at the last minute. My mom looked at me a little warily when I went grocery shopping for the meal at 11.
“When are they set to arrive?”
“2,” I said, without a hint of impending doom.
By 2 o’clock the kitchen had fallen in complete silence. Peter was mashing sweet potatoes like his life depended on it. My mom was stirring grits, which she’s never made before. And William was dismantling the plumbing under the sink to try to dislodge a huge clot of potato peels that had gotten stuck in the garbage disposal. I was near tears, which I finally shed in the bathroom once everyone arrived. I emerged red-eyed and blotchy, a fact everyone so politely ignored it made me cry again.
Since, I’ve learned a lot about time management. But this year, I’m going to do even better because I’m going to be happy and calm. And so my day timer and the work of getting a lot of the pieces prepared before Saturday even rolls around. And when it does, I make this promise to myself: After the year we’ve had, I know now that all that’s really important are the people around the table, not what’s on their plates. And for that lesson, I will remain thankful.