How to nav­i­gate the gen­er­a­tional shift in pre­par­ing the hol­i­day feast

The Washington Post - - FOOD - BY BECKY KRYS­TAL becky.krys­[email protected]­post.com

It all started with a pie crust. After years of shut­tling back and forth to my par­ents’ house for Thanks­giv­ing through col­lege and my first job, I had de­cided to stick close to home and start spend­ing the hol­i­day with my hus­band’s fam­ily. I had not yet be­come a food writer, but even then a store-bought crust on a Thanks­giv­ing pie struck me as tragic. I felt com­pelled to make one from scratch to go with the pump­kin pie fill­ing that my fa­ther-in-law would make, based on a recipe scrib­bled in a yel­lowed note­book.

Al­most a decade later, the rest of the menu’s ba­ton has mostly been passed.

Thanks­giv­ing is such a loaded fam­ily tra­di­tion. That’s why it can be tricky for many of us 20and 30-some­things when we ex­press an in­ter­est in tak­ing over the meal, whether our par­ents are ready to give it up or not.

Thank­fully, my mother-in-law was more than ea­ger to cede much of the cook­ing to me and my sis­ter-in-law. But it helped that nei­ther of us came in with chef’s knives and basters blaz­ing. The tran­si­tion was more of a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion than a hos­tile takeover.

After all, our par­ents have some­times spent decades build­ing their own tra­di­tions — ones that we grew up with, no less, and many of which they picked up from their par­ents.

Wher­ever pos­si­ble, avoid step­ping on toes. Take your time. You’re in it for the long haul. At least I plan to be.

That pie crust even­tu­ally led to in­tro­duc­ing my fam­ily’s cran­berry Jell-O mold, which paved the way for my mom’s sweet potato casse­role, home­made stuff­ing in­stead of boxed and a cider-herb gravy in­stead of jarred. The up­graded pump­kin pie turned into a pump­kin-caramel tart that has be­come a new tra­di­tion it­self.

Be­liev­ing in your­self can go a long way. Blog­ger and cook­book au­thor Gaby Dalkin went to culi­nary and pas­try school after col­lege and felt she had earned the right to spear­head Thanks­giv­ing, es­pe­cially be­cause as a pri­vate chef she had been putting to­gether Friends­giv­ing meals for clients.

“I knew how to cook bet­ter than any­one in my fam­ily,” Dalkin says. She ad­mits to “steam­roll” ten­den­cies but wanted to show her ex­tended fam­ily that there are dif­fer­ent ways to do the hol­i­day. She re­called one un­cle loudly protest­ing Brus­sels sprouts. By the end of the meal, “He had three serv­ings of them.” Ah, fam­ily. Still, when you’re plan­ning, you might as well keep the fam­ily — or at least the most agree­able rel­a­tives — in­volved. In our case, that means a sim­ple spread­sheet lay­ing out who does what. This way, the en­tire oper­a­tion feels more col­lab­o­ra­tive than com­mand­ing.

Of course, there are dishes that can never go away. On our ta­ble, sta­ples in­clude a choco­late peanut but­ter pie, my mother-in­law’s Brus­sels sprouts and the yeasted rolls my hus­band’s grand­mother made for years that she now su­per­vises us mak­ing.

If ask­ing to learn how to make your fam­ily’s Thanks­giv­ing sounds like a sneaky way to whee­dle your way into tak­ing over, well, yeah, it kind of is, but in the best way pos­si­ble.

It’s a strat­egy my col­lege friend Mag­gie Bow­den Buchanan gets. Know­ing that she was close to get­ting en­gaged and set­ting up a home of her own, Buchanan asked her mom to grad­u­ally teach her how to pre­pare the tra­di­tional Thanks­giv­ing meal, which dou­bled as a dry run for Christ­mas. “She taught it to me, and then I re­al­ized that I en­joyed mak­ing it,” Buchanan re­calls.

And her mom? “She had some con­struc­tive feed­back,” Buchanan says. “Over­all, she ap­pre­ci­ated the sen­ti­ment.” More im­por­tantly, “She ap­pre­ci­ated get­ting to be Grandma” to Buchanan’s sis­ter’s kids while some­one else cooked.

Those lessons are es­pe­cially trea­sured, be­cause her mother, Kather­ine, died a few years later. As her fam­ily dealt with the grief and a hol­i­day with­out her mother, Buchanan re­al­ized that mak­ing the same dishes would be a com­fort to her fa­ther. Even be­fore her mother died, though, she un­der­stood the ben­e­fits of con­ti­nu­ity, namely keep­ing hol­i­days at her par­ents’ (or aunt and un­cle’s) house even if she was go­ing to be cook­ing.

“I think my par­ents felt like they worked re­ally hard to build this home,” Buchanan says, and they weren’t ready to give up host­ing yet.

Ev­ery­one ben­e­fits in this ar­range­ment at our Thanks­giv­ing. I get a big­ger kitchen, enough room to fit al­most 20 peo­ple and help clean­ing up. For my moth­erin-law: Some­one else cooks, and she can still pull out all her turkey-themed house­wares.

What works for me, though, might not work for you and your fam­ily. The key is to talk, talk, talk far in ad­vance, even as you are mak­ing this year’s din­ner.

Much like eat­ing the meal it­self, the road to Thanks­giv­ing top-dog (turkey?) sta­tus is a marathon, not a sprint. Slow down. En­joy your fam­ily and the food. And for bet­ter or worse, whether you take the reins or not, re­mem­ber: It’s only one meal.

Here are a few of Dalkin’s tips when you’re ready to ease into a big­ger fam­ily Thanks­giv­ing role: Prac­tice, prac­tice, prac­tice. You want to feel con­fi­dent in your abil­ity to cook Thanks­giv­ing dishes, but you also want your rel­a­tives to trust you and learn to let go. So cook them a meal some­time, whether it’s Turkey Day fare or not. Or host an early Friends­giv­ing to make sure you’ve got every­thing down pat.

Keep it sim­ple. “Noth­ing’s ever go­ing to be too com­pli­cated,” Dalkin says of the dishes she pre­pares for Thanks­giv­ing. That not only makes it easy on you and your work­load, but it also will keep skep­ti­cal fam­ily mem­bers at bay.

Get ev­ery­one in­volved. In other words, let them feel like they have con­trib­uted. That could mean hav­ing peo­ple cook a few other things or ask­ing them to chip in with dif­fer­ent tasks, such as set­ting the ta­ble and even tast­ing a dish to make sure it’s right. Ac­cept help when you can get it.

Pre­pare. Put to­gether a sched­ule for the week and day of, and stick to it. The night be­fore the hol­i­day, Dalkin likes to take out all the equip­ment she needs. If you’re still cook­ing at your par­ents’ house, be sure they have every­thing you need, or ar­range to get it there, ide­ally be­fore Thurs­day.

CHRIS­TINE RÖSCH FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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