Three days before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest days of the year for Home-Maid professional maid service in Wichita. "With this being the first wave of company, we do a lot of extra cleaning — people want us to clean the inside of the refrigerator and the stove, and the kitchen cabinet fronts," as well as light fixtures and prominent windows, says owner Kandi Turner.
"When the windows are shiny and clean," photographs will come out sparkly as well, Turner says.
While you may still be able to hire a cleaning service to help you with the chores this Thanksgiving —"we are super prompt to take new customers that week," Turner says — you can also just take a hint from the professionals and focus on certain aspects of cleaning, decorating and cooking to help make Thanksgiving both manageable and special.
Here are tips from some seasoned Wichita hostesses.
A signature tablecloth
Mary Kay Rott started a tradition in 1996 of having everyone who comes over for Thanksgiving sign the tablecloth. She bought white cotton fabric and permanent fabric markers, and the family and their guests have dug in with relish ever since.
"The funniest ones are ex-boyfriends" whose names have been crossed out by subsequent husbands of her daughters, Rott says. Among the signatures on the cloth are relatives who have died, and there is also Rott's tribute to America after Sept. 11. Her dad usually just adds the year by his name each time rather than resign it.
"The little kids always want to write on it," she says, and they ask about a circle that has been drawn on the cloth. That was from the year when Rott's brother spilled some gravy and then drew a circle around it. The gravy stain has since washed out, but the circle remains.
"It's kind of a history for the family," Rott says.
If you'd like to start your own similar tradition, Rott recommends maybe not getting a cotton tablecloth —"I have to press it every year" — and suggests slipping a spiral notebook under the cloth where people are signing to protect the table. Also check fabric markers for whether they need to be set with an iron or not. She sets the table before people sign the cloth so that dishes generally don't cover up what's been written, and guests who arrive later in the day also are invited to sign it.
"Every year everybody wants to see it," she says.
A quick, inexpensive way to get a large tablecloth is to buy a piece of muslin, found at quilt shops or in the quilting sections of fabric stores, Jolene Holdaway of Red Nest Interiors says. The muslin is used to back quilts and so is unusually large — 90 inches wide — and there are no seams. Holdaway says you don't even have to hem it; just iron the edges under.
"Fall colors will look good on it," she says, and you can reuse the cloth for something else after Thanksgiving.
Rott often puts two card tables together for more dining room space and buys fabric by the yard for a tablecloth that will fit across the tables. "Sometimes people don't even notice if it's hemmed," she says, by which she means it's not. She recommends buying a piece of cloth 60 inches wide for the best fit on card tables.
For the illusion of a runner on a table, use a couple of place mats and put your centerpiece on those, Holdaway suggests. For the table decoration you could use branches of orange-berried pyracantha or vines of bittersweet, bundled and tied with a fall-colored ribbon and placed end to end, English-bouquet style, Holdaway says. Or bring in pinecones and colorful leaves from outdoors. Rott uses autumn-hued silk leaves on her tables.
"I sprinkle those around like they just fell off the tree." She also spray-paints real pumpkins and gourds gold, and acorns bronze.
Caterer Kelly Chandler of Kelly's Kitchen loves not only to prepare food but also to make it part of the decorations.
You can improve your pumpkin pie and make the house smell like Thanksgiving with this tip of hers: Cook canned pumpkin with the sugar and spices called for in your pie recipe for four or five minutes, until it starts to glisten, before adding it to the pie.
"It takes out that tinny taste and makes the house smell great," Chandler says. If that type of pie is not on your menu, simmer a pot of water with cinnamon sticks in it.
Turner, owner of Home-Maid, says she gets out all of her serving pieces ahead of time and sets the table a couple of days before the holiday. "For Thanksgiving Day, just focus on the food prep," she says.
Rott and some of her friends took that a step further a couple of years ago when they decorated their tables the weekend before Thanksgiving and had a progressive party to look at all of them and glean ideas. They didn't eat at the tables, of course.
Turner has guests bring their own Tupperware for leftovers, or she may go to Party City this year and stock up on some take-out containers. She says her relatives contribute to the meal and bring their dishes in laundry baskets bundled in blankets so things stay hot.
"I can't decide if I want to do a buffet this year because it's not as traditional" as setting all the food out on the dining room table, she says. But food can be kept warm in slow-cookers if served buffet-style. Or Turner likes to use hot plates, which she gets at Walmart or Bed Bath & Beyond.
If she does serve from the buffet, she still makes sure guests are seated at tables. Since she doesn't have a huge dining room table, she uses card tables and fold-out tables. "I think that makes it cozy," she says.
She makes sure each has a tablecloth and flowers. "It helps to have something festive," she says, suggesting little votives, fall flowers, pumpkins and gourds for centerpieces — nothing that would crowd out the food, of course.
If you need extra furniture and other party supplies and want to rent rather than buy them, Jolene Holdaway suggests trying not only rental places but home-staging companies as well.
And at the end of Thanksgiving Day, Turner reminds us all, it's not about where you ate or what you ate.
"It's about being grateful."