Every November since the dawn of time, food publications have promised to help you master the perfect Thanksgiving. “Best turkey ever!” and “101 drool-worthy sides!” they tease. What follows is usually a rehashing of the holiday’s greatest hits, with a few new bells and whistles thrown in, because Thanksgiving is all about tradition (and I would know — I’ve spent a decade-plus in food media, helping put together many of those Thanksgiving packages).
This year, to state the obvious, looks different. Last year, I wrote up some tips and tricks for people choosing to host a nontraditional Thanksgiving. Now, pretty much everyone is hosting a nontraditional Thanksgiving, whether you want to or not, so you might as well lean in to the weirdness of the 2020 holiday season and make it as enjoyable (and responsible) of a celebration as possible.
In fact, as a longtime advocate of having a totally un-Rockwellian holiday, I’m actually looking forward to the break from the expectations and pressures of a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Even if you can’t travel or be with extended family (or, hell, anyone outside of your immediate household) this year, you can still throw down for Thanksgiving, but make it your own. After all, tradition is overrated.
Skip the turkey
I’m just going to lay it down: Turkey is an inferior meat. On a sandwich, it’s fine. But as a centerpiece to a feast that you’ve likely spent many hours preparing, the ROI just isn’t there. I’ve written in the past about hosting Porksgiving, and I’m a staunch ham proponent — it’s dead simple (it’s already cooked, so all you have to do is make a glaze and carve it), cost-effective, and delivers about 100 times more flavor per square bite than turkey.
Other festive meat things you can make besides turkey (or ham):
I’m not the only one who feels this way: Eater Young Gun Lucas Sin (’19) grew up in Hong Kong before attending college in the U.S. “As an immigrant who has less reason to adhere to Thanksgiving tradition, many of my Thanksgivings have featured Chinese bastardization/hacks. Turkey just isn’t as succulent as chicken or duck, and what is the deal with the textural uniformity of casseroles, pumpkin pie, and stuffing?” He recalls holidays alone on campus with a crew of international students, cooking up braised duck stuffed with glutinous rice, sweet potatoes with black rice vinegar, and corn and pine nuts in lieu of traditional Thanksgiving fare.
You don’t need a dining table
In previous years, I’ve advocated for “inviting all of your people over” and accommodating them with makeshift tables and chairs. This year, you probably aren’t having all of said people over, so this is less of a concern, but it’s still worth noting in the event that you’re cooking up a feast for your household:
- Even if you’ve eaten the better part of every meal with the same people for the past seven months, you can make this meal feel more festive by busting out a new tablecloth, using the fancy plates, and/or setting the table with candles or fresh flowers.
- Tabletops don’t need to come from tables. Upturned cardboard boxes, bookshelves, filing cabinets, and essentially anything with a flat surface can be used as a table. Just throw a tablecloth, pretty sheet, or even a nice silk scarf on top. Same goes for chairs. Ottomans, couches, and the floor are also perfectly viable substitutes.
- You might not be able to fit everything on the table, and that’s totally fine. If you’re celebrating solely with members of your immediate household, set up a buffet in the kitchen, and serve yourself directly out of the cookware. If you’re having a socially distant, outdoor gathering with other people, do the opposite — portion everything into individually sized vessels to avoid cross-contamination.
Looks aren’t everything
Now that you are no longer beholden to turkey, you can also free yourself from the pressure to create a Martha-worthy tablescape.
- “Embrace mismatched tableware, furniture, and linens and focus on clean lines to keep things from feeling chaotic,” says Eater Young Gun Annie Kamin (’19). “Space things as evenly as possible and create rhythm and balance by evenly distributing both large and small dishes across the table.”
- Speaking of the table, you can make it look beautiful with found materials from your own backyard. “Gather pine branches (can also double as incense), cones, moss, fall leaves, and anything pretty you can find (shake free of bugs!) and arrange right on the table or on a cake platter,” suggests fellow Young Gun Ashleigh Shanti.
- Finally, don’t have a huge tablecloth? Use a canvas drop cloth instead. “They’re really cheap and no one will guess that you got it from the hardware store,” swears Kamin.
Pick up from a restaurant
Here’s a radical idea: You don’t have to cook at all. You can get takeout from a restaurant instead. Many restaurants offer special prix fixe menus or meal packages for Thanksgiving, and may sell out early, so order well in advance, and tip extra well.
That said, you can also pick up a restaurant meal and not eat Thanksgiving-themed food. Been wanting to try that Sichuan spot in deep Chinatown? Curious about that Georgian place an hour away? There won’t be any traffic; tonight is your night to make it happen. (Tip extra well here, too.)
Depending on where you live and what your comfort level is, you can also, of course, choose to dine out on Thanksgiving. If this is the case, do so as responsibly as you can: Maintain proper social distancing, keep your mask on any time you’re not actively eating, and tip very, very generously for the employees who are risking their lives to take care of you.
Connect in a way that works for you
Families are complicated, and even without a pandemic standing in the way, it’s not always feasible (or advisable) to be with blood relations on Thanksgiving. This year, release yourself from the pressure of having to adhere to any notion of normalcy or tradition. Enjoy the company of those safely surrounding you; Zoom with your friends and family if you want (but not all night — maybe just for cocktails or a round of “what I’m thankful for”); or take the holiday off entirely. The most important thing this year is to do something that makes you feel good (provided it doesn’t harm anyone else along the way) — there’s always next year for a hunk of dry turkey.
Jamie Feldmar is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and cookbook author.
Photo credits: Turkey illustration, GraphicaArtis/Getty