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A Foolproof Thanksgiving Table Setting, According to My Mom

The line between dinner and decoration is much thinner than you'd think.

November 27, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

My mom worked as a food stylist back in the day when Elmer’s glue passed for milk and mashed potatoes were ice cream, and although she no longer works alongside the camera, she’s still one of the craftiest people I know. She can turn baby clothes into an adult jacket, hundreds of wine corks into a coffee table, and my long-abandoned Barbie accessories into wall art.

But her pièce de résistance is still the Thanksgiving tablescape.

Our market tote just emptied itself onto the table. Photo by Emma Laperruque

While this once traced a modest vertical axis, it has since off-roaded to occupy almost all available space on the table. Odds are, you won’t be able to see the person across from you—but in my family, everyone shouts, so who cares. And if we are riding a wave of Marie-Kondo minimalism now, my mom knows that, eventually, we will swing back to maximalism, and her tablescape will once again be ahead of the curve.

She likes to assemble everything on Wednesday night and then, like any true artist, forbids us from going near the masterpiece until Thanksgiving dinner. Between the decorations, place settings, and wine, there is no room for the food. But this is okay, because we put the turkey, the stuffing, the salad, and the potatoes on a nearby credenza (don’t you love that word?), and serve buffet-style.

Not to mention, most of the tablescape is edible, anyway.

Here are some of my mom’s go-tos:

  • on-the-stalk Brussels sprouts
  • in-the-shell walnuts
  • tiny apples
  • tiny squashes
  • tiny pumpkins
  • persimmons
  • clementines
  • kumquats
  • lemons
  • pomegranates
  • artichokes.

Throw in a colorful tablecloth, a lot of candles, and a few water pitchers filled with flowers, and call it a day.

No room for turkey on this table. Photo by Emma Laperrruque

Like a Jackson Pollock painting, this approach is foolproof because there’s no pattern, and no right or wrong place for anything. Just throw a bunch of produce on the table and see what sticks. (Well, she makes it seem that easy, anyway.)

And the best part? Your guests will love furtively popping fruit in their purses as the meal stretches on. Or maybe that’s just my grandma’s friends.

What are your go-tos for Thanksgiving table decoration? Tell us in the comments below!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

Amy L. November 27, 2019
Lol I loved that Emma - just 1 question...who is Marie Kondo? jk...😭😭