I Turn Into a Control Freak on Thanksgiving: Here’s What I Want My Family to Know
It’s all done out of love, of course.
One Thanksgiving, I hosted dinner with a small group of friends who were all excellent cooks — with prima-donna personalities to match (myself included). It was a mild disaster. We fought over the stove and had differing opinions on how to mash potatoes and roast turkey breast (if I may: a dry brine is your best bet). Though the meal turned out delicious, the ship was not well-oiled. Too top-heavy. Needed more bottoms.
There were, as they say, too many cooks in the kitchen.
Most people who have helmed the Big Dinner before know that when it comes to Thanksgiving, you need a single power source. If you’re the cook of the family, then chances are this is you. And Thanksgiving is your day. Like with any well-earned position of power, you lead the cooking on this holiday because you’re the best person for the job and everyone in your family knows it. You know exactly what sequence to cook the dishes in, which pans and burners to use and when to start preheating the oven.
Maybe your dinner run of show is drafted in an Excel sheet with view-only access, color-coded with tabs and assignments based on each family member’s skill set. From the menu to the shopping and certainly to the cooking, you’re calling all the shots and giving every detail a ridiculous amount of thought. Like the fresh heritage turkey you ordered months in advance from that organic farm with the apple cider. (And of course, while you were at it, you ordered some apple cider, too.)
But while we control freaks would like to believe that on a day of a thousand moving parts, a single, decisive leader is the crucial ingredient to the meal’s success, the truth is: No despot works alone.
You may be the self-appointed chef de cuisine on this one day — running your home kitchen like it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant’s — but your family members are your third, fourth and fifth arms. Don’t forget them. You need all the extra limbs you can get to run a smooth Thanksgiving operation. And anyone who can’t cook can wash dishes, run out for ice or, most importantly, steer clear of the kitchen. The point being: On Thanksgiving Day, every little bit helps. However small or menial the task (like peeling potatoes or staying out of the way), each person contributes to the final dinner, buoying your creative vision to fruition.
Even with careful planning and (admitted) micro-managing, there will be rough patches. That butter you left out to soften will accidentally end up back in the fridge. And the fancy salad you had meticulously planned for the first course may not look exactly how you wanted. It’s par for the course.
Ultimately, you’re controlling and neurotic and textbook Type A because you care. You want the meal to be perfect for the people you cherish most in the world. Behind the short fuse and exacting standards is nothing but love.
Sure, you instill slight terror in your family members in the days leading up to the Big Dinner, but when forks hit plates and everyone tastes the food for the first time, after an entire week’s worth of preparation and manual labor, there’s a moment of silence. The air in the room stands still.
This is my favorite moment, the moment that makes all of the stress worth it. I call it: The Despot’s Suspension.
It’s brief but powerful, filled with the voicelessness of clinking silverware. Then, the soft quiet erupts into a gust of praise — and on each face around that table is a satisfied grin and a mouthful of potatoes, stuffing and Brussels sprouts. The food tastes great. “You’ve done it again!”
As you, the despot, look around from the head of the table, carving the turkey and watching everyone get lost in their flooded plates with glee, you smile, too. Every ounce of tension you’ve kept in the back of your neck releases. Finally, you can exhale.
Though you have to keep reminding yourself, it’s the same lesson every year: Whatever ends up on the table — whether cooked to perfection or slightly over-salted — is a reflection not of your talents or your ambitions as a Thanksgiving cook, but of the people who fill your life with meaning. Nothing else matters. And this dinner, however ambitious and impeccable it may be, is an act of love not because it’s restaurant-worthy, but because you all made it together.
Again, no despot works alone.
Eric Kim is a food writer and recipe developer based in New York.