At my parents’ house on Long Island, Thanksgiving begins in August, when my mother plugs in her full-size freezer in the garage and starts preparations for the course she puts out as guests arrive: homemade challah, freshly-made chopped liver, and a mound of deeply caramelized onions. It ends with homemade jelly doughnuts filled with strawberry preserves and coated with granulated sugar, an old family recipe that has spoiled me for store-bought doughnuts forever.
There are a few things about that paragraph that need explaining:
Yes, my mother starts cooking for Thanksgiving a full three months or more beforehand.
Yes, my mother has a full-size freezer specifically for the purpose of holding all of the Thanksgiving dishes she prepares far in advance, including those fried onions (but not the challah or liver—those, like many other dishes, are made at the last minute).
And yes, my mom freezes many of her Thanksgiving items.
And they all taste delicious.
And yes Thanksgiving starts with chopped liver and ends with jelly doughnuts.
My mother is never happier than when she is feeding a crowd—and Thanksgiving always qualifies as a crowd, with no less than twenty in attendance but often more (so far, this year’s count is 31). And just as Macy’s starts planning their Thanksgiving Day parade for the next year the day after the current year’s parade is over, my mother’s thoughts are never far away from next year’s feast, even immediately after she finishes cleaning up the day after Thanksgiving. Throughout the year our conversations are sprinkled with “I was just trying out this recipe for next Thanksgiving…”
How does she do it, everyone wants to know? How does she successfully feed all those people so many different and delicious things (last year’s menu included ten appetizers, three main dishes, ten sides, and dessert) without dropping dead of exhaustion? Does she really freeze so many things? How does she know what she can freeze? Does she have an order to things, or does she just make what she feels like making? Does she really make everything herself?
“I’m very organized—you have to be!” my mom said when I asked her about this. I’ve seen the evidence, from the lists in her kitchen to the tables that are set weeks before the last Thursday in November. Serving platters are set out with Post-It notes indicating which courses go where.
But some things are more relaxed, including the order of dishes she prepares ahead of time, though she always starts with those caramelized onions. (A few years ago I called my father to wish him a happy anniversary, on August 6. He replied that he woke that morning to the smell of frying onions—my mom had started already.) She says they’re easy and time-consuming and a good thing to get out of the way early.
Then it’s on to everything else, in no particular order: gravy; spinach dip; sauce for meatballs and the meatballs themselves, which she shapes and freezes uncooked; cornbread one year and rolls the next; chocolate butter or vanilla butter, depending on the menu; stuffing; mini-lasagnas or ziti without the cheese topping (though the cheese is frozen along with the prepared pasta, to be sprinkled on before baking); sweet potato hash, with or without beets—delicious either way.
After all these years, she knows the rules of freezing, what freezes well, what doesn’t, how to wrap food so that it doesn’t get freezer burn (hint: the less food is exposed to the air in the freezer, the fresher it will taste when defrosted).
Of course there have been some crises at times. When Hurricane Sandy left my parents’ house powerless for nearly a week, my mother had already stocked her freezer with much of the Thanksgiving meal. Never one to waste food or miss an opportunity to feed people, she simply fired up her gas stove (a real restaurant Garland acquired nearly forty years ago, before “restaurant-style” stoves became ubiquitous) and invited the neighbors over for an early Thanksgiving feast.
While many items make their appearance year after year—turkey (deep-fried nowadays), ham, sweet potatoes in some form, raw vegetables with dip, that challah/liver/onion combo, and those jelly doughnuts—my mom likes to mix things up and add new items to the menu (though nothing ever seems to fall off the menu—haven’t figured that one out yet).
Thus gravlax, caramelized bacon, pot stickers, and shredded duck on toast have made their appearances in recent years. Next week, according to my mom, we might see lamb chops and a pretzel/chocolate/bacon dessert item added to the menu.
And then there’s the lime Jell-O mold made with sour cream and pineapple. It happens to be one of my favorites—don’t knock it til you try it! But when I told my mom that she really didn’t have to make it for me—not that many other people seem to eat it—she refused to drop it. That’s typical of Mom: If she knows someone likes something, it earns a permanent place on the menu.
In addition to all of that do-ahead preparation, of course there is a lot that needs to be done closer to or just before the Big Day. In late October, the baker’s rack moves into the kitchen from the garage and starts to fill up with sheet pans holding platters, notes, and some ingredients—the box of Jell-O and cans of pineapple are put into the serving bowl, for example. The week before Thanksgiving, lists of last-minute items are compiled and fresh ingredients are purchased.
A few days before Thanksgiving, the freezer starts to empty as items are moved into the refrigerator to defrost, usually ending up on the baker’s rack before their final trip to the oven or stove and then to the serving table.
And on Thanksgiving Day, despite all the advance preparation, the kitchen is still a beehive of activity, with my mother, two or three hired assistants, and various family members putting things in the oven, warming gravy on the stove, and plating hors d’oeuvres to be passed around. (Appetizers are served for two hours, then we get an hour to digest before the main course is served.)
In the backyard, my brother ceremoniously lowers the turkeys into a vat of hot oil while a crowd gathers to watch and smoke cigars. My father serves as the official taster, my brother and nephew as turkey carvers, and my husband as ham carver. My mother rarely sits down until everyone has filled a plate and there’s nothing more to cook, at which point she is finally able to eat and enjoy the hearty round of applause given to her by her grateful and sated guests.
To answer that final question: Yes, she makes everything herself—except, in recent years, the jelly doughnuts. Since I spent several years as a pastry chef in professional kitchens, she finally trusted me to make the jelly doughnuts, which I am always happy to do.
And at the age of seventy-four, my mother deserves something of a break after spending more than three months preparing a single meal.
Chopped Liver Fried Onions, Shallots, Challah
Spinach Dip Vegetable Dip
Mussels with basil bread crumbs
Gravlax and Molasses lox
Spicy Stuffed Meatballs
Crab Meat Quiche
Rib Lamb Chops
Deep Fried Turkeys
Sweet Potato Hash Browns
Roasted Garlic & Onion Stuffing
Lime Jell-O Mold
Jellied Cranberry Sauce with Mandarin Oranges
Corn Bread with Vanilla Butter
Pretzel Sticks rolled in Chocolate and Bacon
Jelly Donuts and Ice Cream Sundaes
Anita Steinfeld Chef de Cuisine
When does your Thanksgiving prep start? Share your timetable—and your menu—in the comments below.