My mother took Thanksgiving seriously.
Every year she exclaimed it the perfect holiday, a day bound not by religion or gift giving, but focused on what, to her, was important: delicious food; a beautiful setting; and family gathered around the table. Thanksgiving dinner meant sitting at a dressed-up dining room table with candles and linen napkins, the best china, and antique glass and silver twinkling on the sideboard. She made an entrance into the room, holding a massive bronzed turkey. And there was pie.
Before bed, leftovers were packed up in a moveable feast to facilitate an early Friday morning drive. Naturally, it was over the river and through the woods to their little house in the Berkshires. The country house-neighbors, Dusty and Gale, made the same trip from New Jersey.
I imagine it was sheer curiosity that kindled the flame for the first Dead Poultry Society meeting: two households awash in Thanksgiving leftovers and two curious cooks ready to share. After the first haphazard meeting, each year, no sooner had the cars been unloaded, the telephone would ring and Gale and my mother would compare leftovers.
Within a couple of hours, a bountiful spread appeared, made all the more interesting for the chance to taste another take on the same old holiday fare. The D.P.S. quickly became a holiday tradition.
Fast forward a couple of decades: I was newly married to a vegetarian who was no fan of Thanksgiving where, he declared, “there is never anything for me to eat.” For a Type A, adventurous and determined cook it was quite a gauntlet. That first Thanksgiving we were married, in addition to the turkey-gravy-mashed triumvirate, I planned to cook a dozen vegetarian sides, including vegetarian gravy and stuffing. I was in the weeds before I even started.
Add to that, I forgot to order propane for the grill I planned to cook the turkey on. The empty tank meant another 3 hours added to all my careful calculations of cooking times for bird and sides and desserts. I sat on the basement stairs and cried.
There were many problems with this plan, but perhaps the most egregious: There were only eight people at the table. So leftovers. And I was so tired from all the cooking (control freak), I fell asleep before dessert.
When we paired that falling asleep thing with the “crying on the basement stairs” that my husband insists is an annual event, it soon became clear we needed a better plan. And that is when the annual meeting of the Dead Poultry Society officially moved to Washington, D.C. For more than a dozen Friday-after-Thanksgivings in the last 15 years, we have invited friends to share our Thanksgiving leftovers.
We invite everyone we know and celebrate with the biggest crowd we can muster. That could mean 80, as it did one year, or 35, as it does most. It’s an open house, so the crowd ebbs and flows. There is a core group I depend on who bring their own holiday foods.
A traditional Baltimore sauerkraut side dish. A classic sticky-rich sorghum pecan pie. In the past, guests carried in a turkey carcass and extra gravy and several have contributed half a pie. One friend brings mac and cheese, which makes me so happy I could dance for joy. There are cranberry relishes and pickles and sides. Chocolate tarts and butterscotch puddings. For those who didn’t cook, wine or cider or a box of crackers are more than acceptable contributions to the cause.
My core menu remains the same year after year, with two or three new recipes (because I can’t help myself). There is great comfort in knowing there will surely be stuffing and that the sandwich station, with home-baked rolls and challah and condiments, will be in the kitchen, the desserts will be in the dining room,the gravy warm on the stove. There is usually something left in the oven or the refrigerator, found after everyone has already gone home.
The regulars know to come early for butternut squash and creamed spinach gratin. And the sour cherry pie. But two big turkeys and doubled recipes of stuffing and gravy on Thursday ensure Thanksgiving classics won’t run out.
I do cook a thing or two on Friday morning just for the party. I’ll usually make another vegetarian side, something with an entirely different flavor profile. This year, I’m planning sweet potato chana masala. A few years back, I made a curried lentil loaf. If I get ambitious and make an additional turkey for D.P.S., I’ll carve it up on Thursday night to make Winnie Abramson’s Turkey Pho or Liz the Chef’s Turkey Tetrazzini. Occasionally, I will make another pie.
Starting in late October, I create lists and flowcharts. I root through the freezer and pantry to see what foods I’ve stashed away. I’m ready for appetizers this year with gravlax and pâté grandmère in the freezer, and pie filling, chicken stock, and chutney in the pantry.
By the beginning of November, I have projects each weekend to stay on top of all the cooking. I spent last weekend making and freezing challah (six loaves) for stuffing and for sandwiches. I have grocery lists (non-perishable and perishable). The turkeys are ordered. With some area farmers markets closing for the season, I start scouting for gourds and squashes, onions and yams, Russets and Yukon Gold potatoes, shallots and garlic, all of which I keep in the garage, our temporary root cellar.
And I make arrangements for some help. Long ago, I learned that one person washing dishes during the party keeps me from cleaning long after the party until the wee hours. In tears. This is a no-brainer: Just check with friends to see if their college age kids want to make a few dollars.
There’s one more benefit to the D.P.S. We encourage our guests to bring their guests: parents, in-laws, siblings, children, best friends—really everyone is welcome. The party has a great multi-generational thing happening.
And, if you’ve had enough of your blowhard brother-in-law, you can pawn him off for a few hours. We don’t mind. It’s a big party.
The first time I hosted Thanksgiving, I was in my late 20s, and lived in Colorado where I had moved only a few weeks earlier. I met a few other displaced East Coasters unable to fly home for the holidays and we decided to gather at my house.
In retrospect, even then, I had some issues with moderation. I overplanned the menu, took on too much, and tried to replicate my mother’s food with no experience in the timing and preparation. There were 15 for dinner and right before dessert, I snuck away to my bedroom and fell asleep. (Yep, I’m sort of known for leaving my own parties to go to sleep.) My friends had dessert, finished up the wine and cleaned the kitchen.
Nothing much has changed since that first Thanksgiving dinner almost 30 years ago. I still fashion an ambitious menu. And I still want to fall asleep before dessert.
But I wake up Friday full of energy and hungry for the leftovers. The Dead Poultry Society allows me to give in to cooking craziness and make All. The. Food. And taste a bit of it Thursday, standing in the kitchen in gravy-splattered clothing.
Friday? That’s when I celebrate.
What do you do with all the Thanksgiving leftovers? Share with us in the comments below!