It began with a nightmare.
Years ago, shortly after the birth of my second son, I found myself in my bed with a head full of savory dreams about dressing, turkey, the wonderful cranberry salad with walnuts, broccoli casserole, corn casserole, rice casserole, pies for days, deviled eggs and my sister’s favorite canned crescent rolls. It was a delicious dream that headed south as soon as my eyes opened.
I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say I had the stomach bug of a lifetime. The parade hadn’t even begun and I was praying to the porcelain gods, my young family looking on as I urged them to turn their heads. Thanksgiving for me had been ruined.
Eleven months later, I found myself thinking back on that tragic day. It was as if the Grinch came a month early and stole Thanksgiving. I recall taking matters into my own hands and vowing to never miss another Thanksgiving meal by simply having two! Every September or October since then I have cooked a portion of my favorite holiday dishes, and essentially the first “Thankstaking” was born.
The name of the holiday wasn’t coined until this year, and I’m jealous to say it was Rob who came up with it. Google Thankstaking and you’ll see it’s a term that’s been used before to describe the genocide and taking of lands from indigenous peoples.
Our Thankstaking does not reflect that. It’s not political. It’s not racial. I have too much to be thankful for. This is about taking back a holiday via a pre-emptive strike to ensure I never miss it again.
It is also a way for me to express how much I love the holiday season and the food associated with it. This year we made Thankstaking a more formal occasion. Preferably we would not have done it so close to actual Thanksgiving, but I had a busy September and October.
My mom Khaki’s house is the place to be on turkey day, but should the guest list get out of control Andrea, my sister, has a more spacious abode. My brother lives two doors down from my mom, so I doubt I’ll ever convince them to come to Mobile for dressing and all the trimmings. That’s another reason for us to put on Thankstaking.
Starting with lofty goals of inviting many Mobilian friends and family, we quickly whittled that down to only a couple of couples. It’s impossible to make schedules gel this time of year as the city creeps into its loveliest temps. Invitations to events pour in, and everyone commits to so many things. I’d have loved for the dozens on our list to make the scene, but it just wasn’t going to happen. We only had a table for six in Catherine’s dining room, so think of this as a test run.
Joining us would be Rob and Beth. Small of stature, Beth was almost as excited about the food as I was. She agreed to make a chocolate pie and a green bean casserole. I’m talking about real green beans, not canned. With the chocolate pie she brought whipped cream. For days we fed on that pie, and it was even better with ice cream. Rob was in charge of an apple and Cool Whip. He brought an apple.
Catherine’s dad, Pete, was a bachelor for the evening so we elected him Beverage Chairman. Next to him would be Jessica Bruer whose husband, Gjuro, was on his way home from Iowa and couldn’t make it. Jessica brought a decadent sweet potato casserole that could knock down a diabetic but was too good to not devour.
I was in charge of the lion’s share of the cooking, as I requested, and was a bit nervous about making this style of dinner for six. It’s always been just me, or maybe one or two others. I wanted a good showing and I wanted to land all the planes at the same time.
That’s the hard part with multi-dish menus. What do you do ahead of time and what do you do just before the guests arrive? Luckily I wasn’t frying a turkey like my brother Big Al and I do. I decided on roasting two chickens.
The trick to roasting chickens is brining. Do this once and you’ll never neglect doing it again. For my brine I start with a gallon of water per chicken. I use hot water, adding 1 cup of salt, one-half cup of sugar and one-quarter cup of soy sauce. I prefer the flavor of the gluten free, for some reason. Stir the hot water until the sugar and salt dissolve and allow the liquid to cool. Add the chickens and refrigerate overnight or at least six hours.
Roast the chickens uncovered at 350 F, legs side down, until an internal temp of 165 F is reached. I did mine ahead of time and wrapped them pretty heavily in plastic wrap. The night of the dinner I reheated them, plastic wrap and all, in a warm oven. The plastic wrap melts a bit but doesn’t stick to the chicken. It peels off easily and the chicken stays moist.
For the dressing, my friend Bobby Baird said his family always used sage and a few biscuits mixed in with the cornbread. I heeded his call for sage, but left all traces of white bread out. I didn’t want to totally change my grandmother’s recipe. It’s the best, just like your grandmother’s.
There was that cranberry salad I mentioned earlier that calls for sugar, walnuts and apple juice. (Pete grabbed a sparkling Martinelli’s for me and it worked fine.) A cup of sugar from the neighbors and all was well.
The part I am proudest of is the giblet gravy. Tightened up with a little cornstarch, a boiled egg and a tablespoon of dressing, it was the best I’ve done.
What began as a nightmare ended with a smile. Next year will be bigger. And you will be invited. Happy Thankstaking.