By Donna Gustafson, Guest Contributor
I asked my friend Mary “ are you making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for your family?" She replied, “Oh Gosh no!! Why in the world would I spend all day in the kitchen making something that I would never ever cook on any other day? I find that to be just ludicrous!”I have to admit, I’ve been mulling over that comment all week. Although Thanksgiving is a favored holiday of many, those who prepare the food feel more than a bit overwhelmed by the demands of food preparation, often compounded by the duties of hosting too. I can assure you that every culinary professional has had at least one culinary faux pas in their lifetime. Hey, we all have to start somewhere, right?
As a former caterer, one of my most vivid culinary nightmares came early in my catering career. My client's home was located on the Battery, in a 4000 SF home with the original kitchen. I mean, this kitchen was literally like 18' X 12' big. Or small, however you want to look at it. Although I had cooked for this client family before, it had been small dinners for 6 or 8 guests. This time, I was cooking their Thanksgiving dinner for a family of 24. Sit down. Formal. China. Silver and crystal stemware ... all family heirloom. Everyone had a place setting of approximately 12+ items each. From salad forks to dessert spoons, wine goblets, champagne flutes, all crystal. (Hand wash only!) Full formal place settings with monogrammed linen napkins.
I arrived at my off-site caterer's commercial kitchen at 5:30 a.m. to get “Tom” (the turkey) in the oven. As he basked in the warm glow of the commercial Viking oven, I chopped and diced, mixed and whisked, and finally loaded the makings of a spectacular Thanksgiving feast into my catering van. I was feeling rather pleased with myself with regards to logistics and my organizational skills. I knew that upon my arrival at the client's, "Tom" would only need a couple more hours in the oven, while I started the gravy and whipped the potatoes. It was all going to come together so nicely.
Of course, there was no room in the refrigerator because there were gargantuan amounts of leftovers from past meals, various containers filled with small bits of stuff. Always a caterer's nightmare, but one that is usually expected and somewhat manageable.
Imagine my dismay, my horror, my ANGST over finding out that "Tom" was “too fat to fit” in the oven! There was NO way this 1990's Tom was going to fit into this 1940's oven!! What’s a girl to do??? I grabbed my knife and filleted poor Tom into several smaller pieces that fit quite nicely into the one saute pan I could find. After a nice pan sear, he spent the rest of his time piled on himself, on miniature baking sheets that were actually parts of a toaster oven from a past life. All heavily wrapped in tin foil to keep warm. This is what we caterer's like to call "thinking on our feet."
Upon further inspection, I realized the gas stove top was only 4 burners. UGH! It was a juggling act, to put it politely. Move the green beans to the counter while heating up the gravy, and where to hold the potatoes while that’s happening? And of course, "Tom" was taking up space in the oven as well as on the stove. And the stuffing??? Well that had been stuffed (literally) into a bowl far too small, and was now sitting on the counter awaiting it’s turn in the heating line up.
Somehow, we made it through ... and a glorious Thanksgiving feast made it onto the dining table.
And the beautiful china, silver and crystal stemware? Hand wash only, remember? The hot water heater was the size of a kettle! We had to continuously boil water so it would be hot enough to clean. And, if it wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher. It couldn’t go in the dishwasher. The same dishwasher that a previous caterer had filled with Dawn dish washing soap as they were exiting for the night and subsequently there were soap suds for days! Not exactly the "bubbly" I had hoped to end the day with. But, we all toasted and celebrated none the less, and another cherished holiday made it into the memory books for this Charleston family.
NOTE: As we ease into this Thanksgiving week, don’t let the angst of culinary expectations and holiday travel unnerve you - let’s remember to be thankful for most of the things we have, and some of the things we don’t. And if you are lucky enough to be the guest at the table of someone who is doing the cooking or having it professionally catered, be extra thankful for them!
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!