On Thanksgiving, the Chaos Is the Point

This year, like every year, I sent an email to my family with the subject line “Thanksgiving Assignments.” I was later than usual, and my niece had just texted me, wondering who was responsible for what dish.

Because I’m a cookbook author, I’m expected to oversee the operations for my family, but the feast itself is a team effort. You might say I am the conductor with an orchestra full of cooks: My mother is in charge of the turkey; my husband and I will make stuffing, potatoes and pies; my nieces, nephews and daughters will mix cornbread batter and brown the brussels sprouts with bacon. The assignments extend all the way to the wine (my dad), the cheese (my brother) and the table setting (my sister, the host). Even though my email is usually cut and pasted from the year before, and even though I’m still days away from actually cooking, just the act of sending the assignments makes me feel more on top of things.

Later, I draw up the schedule (Sunday, shop; Monday, make pie dough) and all the while I’ll do it knowing that my attempts to control the feast will end up going out the window. There will be the usual mad crush of cooks in the kitchen all jockeying for position, and if there weren’t, I know we’d all be disappointed. This is the part of the holiday that everyone seems to look forward to the most: the physical presence of our family together — like, on-top-of-each-other together — imprinted into our collective family memory, sealed in by the warm, oniony aroma of the kitchen.

My mother replied to my assignment email with a scan of a page titled simply “2021.” Every year for as long as I can remember, the morning after Thanksgiving, my mother sits down at the kitchen table and records notes on the holiday. She calls it her “post-mortem” and includes the date, the number and names of attendees, how many pounds the turkey was, the store from which it was procured, who cooked what, what worked, what didn’t, what we need more of or less of, notes on any newcomer dish (I shiver remembering the devastating “B-” given to a debut chocolate pecan pie), how she feels about the cranberry sauce (she will never not be skeptical of my niece’s fresh cranberry sauce, made in a food processor with oranges, mint and — gasp — ginger), what equipment needs to be replaced or remembered next year (a bigger roaster!), even the weather.

Occasionally she editorializes — in 2021 she noted it was “a celebration of Ivan’s recovery” to mark my father’s comeback from major neck surgery — but I think she sees the exercise as more strategic than sentimental, a way to help make things smoother the next year. More in control.

I admire the effort. In fact, I am pretty sure I inherited whatever gene it is that compels her to do this year after year. I have a notebook where I record every family dinner I’ve cooked since one wintry February night in 1998 (chicken cacciatore with a pear and blue cheese salad). I write it down whether it’s a 15-minute three-bean chili for my family of four, a Saturday night pappardelle with pork ragu for friends or a scrambled egg and toast consumed at the counter by myself while doomscrolling on Twitter.

I’d like to say I do this for professional reasons, so I can figure out what recipes work well together, which ones might be right for the next book, what I should make again and improve upon, to remind myself of what’s in season. But mostly it’s not. Mostly it’s about making sure that all the energy that gets poured into feeding my family, all the planning required in order for dinner to even happen — the shopping, the cooking, the dishwashing and the yelling at my kids to help with the dishwashing — doesn’t just disappear behind me like a jet trail.

My daughters are both in college now, and when I think back to 18 years of family dinners, I don’t necessarily think about how impeccably I browned my chicken thighs or how proud I am that they can appreciate the poetry of Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese. Mostly I remember the predictability of dinner, the comforting consistency of it, the idea that we all had a guaranteed respite from the pressures of the day-to-day, a safe place to simultaneously disconnect from our devices and talk to one another, even if that often meant a mere “good” or “fine” from the kids when my husband and I asked about their days.

Like my mom’s note-taking, I keep the diary simple, and rarely write more than the name of the dish we eat. It’s all the dinners taken together that matter to me. “I have something to show for all those years,” I tell myself, flipping through the pages of the diary while flipping a switch in my heart to a mode I think of as “emotional lockdown.” “Look at all these pages!” I tell myself. “It counted.” As though I still have some measure of control over how fast everything is going.

This is how I feel when I hold my mother’s notes as well, all collected and orderly inside a manila folder, hard evidence of decades of family Thanksgivings. I find that in spite of decades’ worth of the post-mortems, in spite of our organizational efforts, in spite of my assignment email, in spite of everything I make in advance like all the magazines tell me to, the Thanksgiving kitchen inevitably devolves into a last-minute scramble: All the cooks in the kitchen are do-si-do-ing around one another, one stealing serving platters from the other or competing for the middle rack in the 350-degree oven; someone is sprinting to the basement to hunt down dusty serving spoons; the electric knife is screaming away as my husband carves the turkey; the gravy is boiling over the edge of the saucepan; my mother is yelling about how the food is already getting cold.

And truthfully, this is what we remember way more than whether a 14-pound turkey was enough or if that trendy cranberry custard pie was worth it. The chaos is the point.

Jenny Rosenstrach is the author of “The Weekday Vegetarians.” She writes the newsletter and blog “Dinner: A Love Story.”

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