Why Every Holiday Dinner Should Be a Potluck

by Rachel Riederer
Originally Published: 

I have rolled my eyes at many a holiday hostess. So stressed out and cranky, I’ve thought, worrying about mashed potatoes or whatever. I mean honestly, why can’t she just relax?! And then I hosted Thanksgiving for the first time.

Maybe this is obvious. I’m just going to say it anyway because it was not obvious to me: making a holiday for a big group of people is hard work. Making food for a lot of people is hard; cleaning a house, accommodating dietary restrictions, catering to drink preferences, and generally making sure that a bunch of people feel welcome and relaxed and happy—all of these things are hard. Doing these things while maintaining an air of calm, collected holiday cheer? Basically impossible. And yet that’s the standard we set for ourselves (our moms, our aunts, whomever). The highest compliment you can offer a hostess is the one that erases the evidence of her work: she makes it look so easy.

Thanksgiving is not a normal dinner party. It’s a meal to which everyone brings high expectations and fond memories.

I love entertaining. It’s fun to bring people together, choose the right music, serve them snacks, thoughtfully introduce them to one another, make sure everyone has a drink and a pleasant conversation partner. But I was not prepared to host Thanksgiving. It is not a normal dinner party. It’s a meal to which everyone brings high expectations and fond memories of their mother’s very specific candied yams or oyster dressing. I wanted to do a good job. Okay, I wanted to do a great job. I wanted my group of friends and family to come over and eat turkey that was better than any turkey they’d ever eaten, and most of all, to say—as I twirled through my tiny apartment in a fancy apron that I would have acquired for the occasion, refilling wine glasses and, like, garnishing things?—”she makes it look so easy.”

So I read. I read about how to roast a turkey. And whether or not to brine a turkey. (If we could harness the energy and passion people bring to the turkey-brining debate, we could solve climate change in about a week.) I read about the thousands of ways an innocent woman can absolutely ruin a batch of mashed potatoes through her sheer ignorance of the highly variable starchiness levels of different potato types, or by adding hot milk to them instead of cold, like a fool. Then I shopped. Then I cleaned. Then I chopped a thousand vegetables and made stock and did a bunch of other things so tedious I’m getting annoyed just listing them here.

By the time my beloved guests arrived at my Brooklyn apartment—my mom and brother via planes from Midwestern cities, my friends from New York subways—I was, um, not very cheerful. When my brother (love you, bro) came in on Thanksgiving morning, he was tired from an early morning flight and wanted to take a nap rather than shower me with compliments. (Also, he might not have thought that I deserved compliments, since at the moment he arrived my apartment was filled with smoke because of an oven incident we don’t need to talk about here, which turned out totally fine anyway, don’t even worry about it.)

The outrage! He was, to be quite honest, being a little bit sulky, a ‘tude I have copped at many a holiday gathering, holidays being prime revert-to-teen-self opportunities. Normally I would have had the sisterly aplomb to take a bit of brotherly sulking in stride, but I had used up all my stores of aplomb making a kale salad and mushroom-walnut stuffing and a fancy seasonal cocktail and, oh yeah, putting out the small fire in my oven that we don’t need to talk about. Instead I glared, I resented, I mentally recited the list of chores I had been doing for days and days and days and wondered why those things weren’t good enough. I love hanging out with my little bro, but I spent a lot of our short visit being annoyed with him, because I’d expended so much work on the holiday that I was going to be annoyed with anything short of perfection. And families, at least the kind I know and love, don’t do perfection.

Do not give in to the weird social pressure to be a Kelly Ripa/Martha Stewart/Nigella Lawson hybrid who cooks and crafts and cleans for days, bathed in a cool-blue aura of energetic peace.

So here is what I learned from hosting my first-ever fancy grown-up Thanksgiving: this holiday season, if you are in the sightline of a busy hostess who has spent several days and maybe quite a bit of money and certainly a lot of emotional and physical energy trying to ensure that you have a good time at her house, do not sulk. Instead, have a good time at her house. Do not make a face that even ever so slightly approximates an eye-roll, even if someone is freaking out about cranberry relish in a way that would seem to call for pharmaceutical intervention.

But here is what else I learned: do not become this hostess. It is not fun. Do not give in to the weird social pressure to be a Kelly Ripa/Martha Stewart/Nigella Lawson hybrid who cooks and crafts and cleans for days, bathed in a cool-blue aura of energetic peace. (Unless you are this person naturally, in which case congratulations, and please invite me over for supper sometime.) Cook some things if you want to, or make the whole affair simpler. When your guests ask if they can help you, don’t try to “make it look easy.” Tell them to bring something. Shoot, tell them to bring everything. Put them to work. Set the table and make the cocktails; spread of the rest of that work around.

American culture has never been good at valuing, or even recognizing, domestic labor. This is a cultural weakness that makes nice women go crazy. A great holiday gift for everyone would be to get better at sharing it.

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