A woman at my gym bakes bread for Thanksgiving, using yeast she makes herself by soaking grapes in water. My friend, Michael, takes equally extraordinary steps to create the perfect turkey. He brines the bird over night in a solution of cider and spices then, rain or shine, smokes it outside in a smoker. My mother used to crush walnuts by hand, just to make the crust of her raspberry torte.
Nothing like that happens in my kitchen on Thanksgiving, or ever actually. When I first inherited the holiday after my mother passed away, I struggled to make the entire feast from scratch, just like she did. I made sweet potatoes topped with tiny toasted marshmallows, traditional stuffing and gravy. I even reached inside that disgusting turkey cavity and removed the giblets myself.
The food was pretty good and everyone seemed to have a nice time. But I was stressed and exhausted. Then I had an epiphany. I didn't have to be a kitchen slave to host a warm and memorable Thanksgiving. I have other talents. The key was to use those, create my own traditions and farm out the rest.
Here's the game plan that works for me:
Whole Foods, Trader Joe's & Krusteaz
I skip scrubbing that saggy turkey skin and go with the basic "Thanksgiving for Dummies Box" from Whole Foods. It comes with a seasoned, partially cooked turkey that you pop in the oven for two to three hours, depending on the size. The aroma fills your home and it's hard to mess up. The package also includes gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.
I fill out the meal with Trader Joe's baby spinach salad kit (a combo of fresh, washed spinach leaves, dried cranberries, blue cheese, candied walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette) and some sort of fresh vegetable. I also go with TJ's fresh maple roasted sweet potatoes that just need to be warmed before serving.
Guests bring desserts, plus I make cheater snicker doodles from the Krusteaz box mix (available at Ralph's). Snicker doodles are my husband's favorite cookies and no one can tell the difference between these and those made from his grandmother's century-old recipe.
My family always ate around 6 p.m., which meant we spent most of the day starving and trying to keep the house clean. My husband is from the Midwest where they celebrate with an afternoon feast. I love this version. We now dine at 2 p.m., hang out, then go back for leftovers at 6 p.m.
Don't Hesitate to Decorate
I love gardening and crafts, so decorating the table is the fun part for me. But anyone can easily and inexpensively get a festive look by filling bowls or baskets with pomegranates, mini-pumpkins, gourds and maize from the grocery store.
I bought a bag of miniature apples for $2.49 and a half-dozen tiny green pears for $2.99, both at Gelson's, plus two bags of small cinnamon-scented pine cones for $5 at Michaels.
Fun Between Feastings
We put out a 1,000-piece puzzle in the morning. My husband and kids start working on it before guests arrive. By the end of the day everyone has contributed at least one piece to the finished product, which we glue and sometimes frame.
The Final Touch
I prepare plastic containers with name labels and thank you messages before anyone arrives. I may not cook like Martha Stewart, but even her guests don't leave with cuter doggy bags.
About this column: Susan is a closet fan of those "Real Housewives" shows, but prefers the simpler insanity of her own life as an Encino mom. On Mondays, she'll share her mother musings in this column, Confessions From the Carpool Line. Follow her on Twitter @Susan_Spillman.