My parents hosted our family Thanksgiving from my childhood in the 1950s until they were both in their 80s. We grew up, went to college, married and had kids, but continued to converge at my parents' house for this marathon. Ultimately, to accommodate cousins and their families, Thanksgiving dinner became a two-night affair with an evolving menu. During that time, my mother’s apple pie became an apple crisp, and our traditional 25-30 pound Thanksgiving turkey was later joined by a whole salmon, before being banished altogether. And on the second night, a mountain of Dungeness crab took center stage. We also needed provisions (and futons!) for family staying through the weekend. Since the parents—now grandparents—weren’t getting any younger, I gradually took on more of the cooking and finally introduced a novel new idea. Planning!
By 1984, I owned a chocolate dessert business with multiple locations and had survived eight grueling Christmases. This involved working around the clock for days on end, organizing the production and distribution of dozens of different desserts, and handling eight demanding store managers. That year, I got down to fixing the chaos of our otherwise wonderful family Thanksgiving—child’s play, in comparison.
The first thing I did was revert to my (eye-rolling, sarcastic) teenage self. "What do you mean you don’t remember how many pies, how big of a bird, how much wine was consumed, how you made the yams, when the turkey went into the oven (or salmon hit the barbecue) last year?" Not to mention: "Mom, you have to sit down during Thanksgiving dinner!" Then I got down to business.
I took notes on loose paper and insisted that we debrief over breakfast the following day. I had my parents write in their comments and ideas for next year and I wrote mine. My first comment was a stern reminder that dessert dishes and coffee cups should be set out ahead of time to avoid a last-minute scramble; that my brothers should vacuum the living room well before lunch—without complaining! My sweet mom’s first comment was a compliment about well it all went and how everyone pitched in. But she and dad eventually got into the swing of things with suggestions like "more mashed potatoes and rutabagas next year so we have enough leftover," "start defrosting that bird earlier," and "buy turkey necks and make extra stock a week ahead." The following year, I grabbed a random Composition book with green cardboard cover, slipped the loose pages from 1984 in front, and wrote “Thanksgiving: 1984—“ on the cover. Had I known we’d be using it 30 years later, I would have chosen a less ugly book.
At first the family made fun of it (and me), but over the years the notebook became a valuable, sometimes ironic and hilarious, reference. Whenever a TG question came up—when do we tell people to show up? What time did we put the bird in the oven? Should we ditch that red cabbage dish?—someone would say, “check the notebook!" It surely reminded us of what worked and didn’t work from year to year, but family history was also embedded between the lines: births and adoptions, new houses, deaths, and even family fights were intertwined with menus, recipes, and logistics. It includes drawings depicting how tables were arranged to accommodate 26 people in a small house, recipe notes, timelines, chore lists, and shopping advice. We all participated in the debrief and my parents’ handwriting is in the book with my own. Another family might have inserted snapshots or kids drawings—both good ideas.
My favorite insert summarizes the entire notebook to date in a graph (!) drawn by my 10-year-old daughter Lucy in 1999. The number of guests is one axis and the date is the other, and there is a sidebar highlighting the most important dates: her birth and first Thanksgiving, the year salmon replaced turkey, the year my parents moved from Los Angeles to the Central Coast, the year her cousins were adopted and their first Thanksgiving, the year we began celebrating two nights instead of one, the year we started serving crabs…
My favorite debrief note of 1988: DO NOT let boys turn living room into TV room! All TV watching upstairs!
My favorite wine note of 1998: Muscadet is not a very interesting wine, but it’s the very very best thing to drink with crab (and so cheap!).
Scariest (now funny) debrief note from the year I stuffed the turkey under the skin the night before roasting it: Do this in the morning next year to avoid a horrible sleepless night worrying about poisoning the whole family!
My mother is 94 now and the notebook lives at my house. I still refer to it—smiling the moment I crack that ugly cover. It’s an odd and wonderful album of family history, evolving recipes, and in-jokes—all disguised as a guide to holiday survival, which it also was (and is).
My advice? Toss out this year’s trendy guide to creating the perfect holiday. Start a notebook instead. Write in your checklists and chore lists—but please don’t forget to include the critiques and kerfluffles, anecdotes and asides. Decades later, Thanksgiving will seem like a piece of cake, and you’ll enjoy the notebook on a whole new level.