Well, folks. I did it. I made my very first turkey. I feel like I just crossed some important threshold in my adult life. I haven’t felt this grown-up since I booked my first podiatrist appointment.
Saturday I hosted my 2nd annual Friendsgiving dinner, and it was awesome. It’s my new favorite fake holiday, trumping even Festivus and National Talk Like a Pirate Day. Last year was my first time to host this important event (hence…2nd annual), and things went more smoothly with a year’s time and a little experience under my pilgrim’s belt. Since Thanksgiving (aka: best real holiday ever) is right around the corner, I thought I’d share some of the tips that helped me feel stress-free. If you’re an apartment dweller, hosting a seated holiday dinner can seem like a pretty intimidating idea, but I assure you…it can be done!
FIGURE OUT WHO’S COMING: I hesitated writing this post because friends read my blog who weren’t part of this event, and if I had it my way I’d own a 30-seat table so I could accommodate more wonderful people. But since Friendsgiving/Thanksgiving is a seated dinner, it forces us to narrow the focus on a specific guest list. For Friendsgiving, I choose to invite a group of people who all know one another pretty well (you’ll see why this bit is relevant later in this post). We had 17 last year, and it was tiiiiiight. But do-able. So if you live in an apartment, never fear! You can do it. But be realistic with how many invitations you extend.
MOVE STUFF AROUND: When I host seated dinner parties, I end up completely deconstructing my home. With a two-room apartment (note: two-room, not two-bedroom–big difference), I really have no choice. When dinner is served in our kitchen/living room, that means appetizers and desserts are served in our bedroom.
The sofa gets moved to the bedroom, so folding tables can be brought in for dinner. A chest of drawers next to our bed gets cleared off and becomes a dessert buffet. It’s very New York, and actually makes the party feel more intimate and kind of sweet. Little do our friends know that their chocolate cake is being served right above Vin’s underwear. Well, now they do.
INVEST IN FOLDING TABLES: We got three folding tables at Home Depot and ten folding chairs from Ikea, and we get SO much use out of them. We also use every counter available for hosting– bedside tables, bureaus, windowsills. Gotta make the most out of your space when you’re an apartment dweller!
CLEAN OFF YOUR KITCHEN COUNTER: When potlucking, your kitchen counter is going to fill up FAST once people start arriving. Hide things that aren’t essential, pack away any unused appliances, and make sure you have a big blank canvas for people to start piling things on.
GET YE A COAT STAND: In a small apartment, 14 coats and 7 purses can make a tight space feel immediately claustrophobic and messy. Instead of having people drape coats on the couch or bed (which I always need for actual seating/lounging), Vin and I cram our own coats in a closet, then make sure all guests’ coats get corralled in one place on the coat stand.
PAPER OR PLASTIC? For me, both. We don’t have a dishwasher, and no one has time or energy at the end of the night to hand-wash 14 sets of big plates, little plates, bowls, cups and wine glasses. To keep things looking uniform and pretty without falling victim to dishpan hands, I use a strategic mix of permanent plates and disposable serveware. Knowing we will spend a lot less time wasting water makes me feel a little better about all the garbage we put out. Once I know I’m hosting and have a good idea of our guest count, I buy my plates, napkins and tablecloths. I like to get all decorative stuff out of the way early so I can just focus on food the week of the party.
I set the tables with plastic tablecloths and paper plates and cups. Then I mix it up with glass stemware, pretty silver or glass platters, and good silverware. With the lights off and candles lit, you really can’t tell the difference anyway. Party City has a great selection of disposable stuff in a full range of autumnal colors and they’re cheap. Local dollar stores are good resources too. Pick a color scheme, stick to it, and cheap stuff looks more expensive. Is it sad that I get so much enjoyment from setting a table? Eh- don’t answer that.
BUY YOUR TURKEY EARLY! For last year’s Friendsgiving I served pork tenderloin because a) I had no idea you had to defrost a turkey for several days in the fridge, and b) I completely underestimated how difficult it would be to find a fresh turkey in Queens two weeks before Thanksgiving. You generally need 24 hours of defrosting time per 5 pounds. For a 21-lb bird, I bought it on Monday night, and cooked it up on Saturday.
PREP ALL WEEK: I don’t like rushing the day of a party, so I’ve learned over the years to use the whole week to ensure that I don’t. I knew I was making sweet potato casserole and butternut squash soup, so I peeled and baked those a few days before the event and stored them in tupperware until I was ready to assemble the dishes. That morning, all I had to do was mix them with the rest of the ingredients. Easy-peasy. Anything that required baking (ie: pies, cookies, cornbread) was taken care of Friday night, so they wouldn’t have to compete with the big bird for oven space on Saturday afternoon.
TAKE SHORTCUTS: Sorry, I don’t do homemade crusts. Those little Jiffy pie crust mixes cost less than a buck and create a pretty decent pie crust in like two minutes (seriously, all you do is add cold water, stir and roll out into your pie pan). In lieu of homemade rolls (which I do love), this year I made cornbread instead, which requires no rising, kneading or hand-holding. Know what’s even faster? Go to the bakery or grocery store and buy ready-made or frozen bread dough. Bada-bing, bada-boom. Most people don’t notice the difference.
GO POT-LUCK: Thanksgiving is a communal feast if there ever was one. I would have been stressed out, cramped for time, and halfway to broke if I’d made all the dishes myself. Once I extended the initial save the date (about 6 weeks in advance) I let people know I’d send out another email to get a thread going about food contributions. As the host, I would make the main course (turkey), a few sides and a dessert. I then gave some suggestions for contributions that would be helpful, and would blend with what I was planning to cook. Since everyone has different dietary restrictions, I made sure we’d be covered in all areas so I asked for friends to contribute vegetarian-friendly and dairy-free side dishes and desserts.
WELCOME NON-FOOD CONTRIBUTIONS: Not everyone enjoys cooking, so always extend a non-food option. Wine, beer, soda, ice, coffee creamer and jugs of water are always helpful.
RECYCLE, REUSE, REPURPOSE: Did you know you can reuse all those glass candle holders you have? If you have old wax in a nice glass canister, pop it in your freezer for a few hours. Then you can break up the wax easily with a knife and wash it out with Palmolive and a sponge. They’re great to use as vases, candy dishes, or to burn fresh candles in. The short vase here used to house a candle. The tall vase is actually a drink dispenser filled with fake leaves I picked up for a buck at the dollar store.
USE BUDGET INGREDIENTS: Pumpkin desserts are cheap; pecan desserts are not ($8 for a tiny bag- no pecan pie this year folks!). Sweet potatoes–cheap! Dishes requiring bacon? Not cheap! I wasn’t planning on making brussel sprouts, but when I went to my market on Friday, they were on crazy sale, so I ended up swapping out green beans for brussels at the last minute. A little flexibility can shave off quite a few dollars.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
BUY A BIGGER TURKEY THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED. I bought a 21-pounder, thinking there’d be tons of leftovers. If you’re going to go ahead and devote so much time to one food project, make a really big one and get a few more meals out of it. Our group ate the bird clean! Wish there were more leftovers this week, but I’m really glad they liked it and I didn’t kill anyone. (PS: If you don’t have one, make sure to get a meat thermometer so you don’t kill anyone either).
GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT: I heard four people ask “Is there gravy?”. There wasn’t. Note for year three– make the gravy. Also! Buy gravy boat.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: Recipe didn’t call for it, but I threw a shot of whiskey in my sweet potatoes. Know your audience.
DON’T GO NUTS. I cop to the fact that I tend to overdo it. I start scouring Pinterest and my cookbooks, and then fantasize about making a huge spread with a million different things. I have to continually remind myself to reign it in a bit, and not go bananas with too much food. I kept it much simpler this time, and it made my day less complicated, less expensive, and no one missed out on anything.
SERVE ALLERGENIC STUFF SEPARATELY: We’ve got friends who are vegetarian and others who can’t have nuts or dairy. I like keeping small bowls of toppings on the table so people can customize dishes to their liking. Last year I made a butternut squash polenta which people could top with either bacon or cheese. This year I made a butternut squash and apple soup, then left out bowls of maple-cinnamon-cream (holla!) and almonds to put on top. The cream also doubled as topping for the pumpkin pie. If you can go double-duty on items- do it!
BUY TAKEOUT CONTAINERS: The last few events I’ve hosted left us with pounds of uneaten food in our fridge. I finally wised up and bought some takeout containers so guests could help us finish up the leftovers. Everyone packed doggie bags, and we now have a reasonable amount of food to eat for the week.
SET THE MOOD:
START NEW TRADITIONS: Thanksgiving, in my opinion, is the best holiday because it’s the one that emphasizes bonding, community, gratitude, and togetherness as opposed to over-the-top expectations and egregious consumerism. It’s a holiday that seems to bring out peoples’ sentimental sides, and it’s a great time to begin and maintain traditions with your family and friends-that-feel-like-family.
I started a tradition last year that our group seems to really enjoy, and it’s one I plan to continue doing as the years roll by. I give little writing assignments at the table that put a spin on the old “what I’m thankful for” lists people conjur up this time of year. For example, last year, I gave everyone a card and had them write 3 things they’re thankful for. Then they had to also write something nice about the two people sitting next to them. It ended up being a great mix of sweet and hilarious. Apparently my husband smells “exactly how a man should smell.”
This year, I had everyone draw a name of someone else sitting at the table. Then they had to write down everything they were thankful for, in the voice of the person whose name they drew. It ended up being a collective roast, and it was hysterical. My friend Kerri drew my name and read her list in a questionable Texas accent, giving thanks for having a group of friends in Queens so I could “introduce them to cornbread and good manners”. It was fantastic.
And now I need to know…what are your best tips for hosting Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving on a budget? Do you have any fun traditions that you do year after year?
Anyway, that’s a wrap for this post. Off to stick my face in some leftover pie.