The potatoes are wrong. The football game’s too loud. The kids aren’t dressed right. Thanksgiving can, of course, be a great joy, but with so many beloved traditions on the line, it can also be prime ground for sniping and griping the first time the torch has been passed.
Your mother, mother-in-law, father or father-in-law might be thrilled to give up hosting after many decades, but that doesn’t mean they’ll behave themselves once sidelined, said Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children.”
Before you find yourself wrapping yellow crime-scene tape around the kitchen as you slurp white wine from the bottle with a crazy straw, just listen to what Nemzoff has to say:
▪ Give them a role, whether it’s asking mom to make her famous pumpkin pie or contribute a favorite family tablecloth, platter or candlesticks.
▪ Don’t implode. There’s no need to convince yourself you couldn’t possibly measure up. Rather than get crazy with comparisons, let the elders know you hope to emulate them.
▪ Make new foods, but keep the old. Thanksgiving is about the familiar. Families expect to see the same dishes each year. Introduce menu changes slowly.
▪ Don’t feel you have to make everything yourself like your predecessors. It’s fine to reach out for side dishes or – gasp – cater. Secretly or otherwise.
Andrew Royce Bauer, 21, of Neptune, N.J., and his 21-year-old cousin, Alexandra, are doing all the cooking this year but sticking to the usual place, the largish upper Manhattan apartment of Alexandra’s mother.
And they’re doing something else: providing a la carte side dishes and other menu tweaks to accommodate the Atkins groupies, Paleo followers and gluten-free folks among the 15 to 25 people expected – something that hasn’t consciously happened in the past.
“We’re a little apprehensive,” he said. “It’s one of our family’s favorite holidays. They’re going to be watching over our backs to make sure we don’t start any fires.”
The mother and stepfather of Gabriel Constans, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., are 80 and 86. They’ve hosted the large family for Thanksgiving for more than 40 years at their house in Northern California but are no longer up to the task.
So Constans, 60, and his wife decided to rent a large house near the elders for three days as a haven for themselves and other out-of-town loved ones. They’ll throw Thanksgiving there, for 40 people. He and others in the family know it would be too difficult for his parents to watch them take over their kitchen.
They wanted to carry on some menu traditions, so Constans’ sister took their frozen cranberry salad with marshmallows out for a test run last year to rave reviews. She’ll make it again this year. And they’ve asked Constans’ stepdad to do what he does best: gravy.
Somebody else in the family has already successfully duplicated the family’s favorite stuffing. Covering one of the tables will be his parents’ go-to Thanksgiving cloth of purple and green with tassels and a design of squares.
Constans heads into hosting duty knowing some of the pitfalls. One is not allowing his nephew, who hunts and is in charge of the bird, to use one that he shot himself.
“He tried it once and my stepdad said no way. He thought he could catch something from it. He wouldn’t come out of his room for hours, until my nephew promised that he would go to the store and cook a different turkey.”
Newbie Annalisa Parent in Colchester, Vt., is sweating some “what ifs” as she heads into hosting her first Thanksgiving, for 22 people.
“Not only is my large French Canadian family gathering, but I’ve also invited my boyfriend’s family to meet mine for the first time,” she said.
One of her biggest stresses is pulling off the tourtiere, a minced meat pie handed down from her great-great-grandmother. The meat filling is also used as a stuffing, and her family can’t get enough.
“If I fail, Memere will probably let me know and then help me make another batch,” Parent said.
And that’s as it should be, said Taryn Mohrman, senior editor at Woman’s Day magazine. She agreed that the first year can be challenging all around.
“When you’re a parent going to your child’s house for the first time, the thing to remember is that hosting can be overwhelming. People who have done it for years tend to forget how stressful it can be,” she said.
But some things aren’t as difficult as they might seem, Mohrman said. Is it really that hard to peel a pile of potatoes and mash some while roasting others, or cook a mass of stuffing and use different mix-ins to please more palates?
For elders who want to be a real asset rather than merely kibitz, she suggests offering help in small ways, such as managing RSVPs or putting together a timeline for day of.
“That helps the parents feel involved,” Mohrman said. “But don’t be offended if your son or daughter insists they have it covered because they’re probably excited that you get to finally sit back, relax and be a guest for once.”
On the big day, torch-passers should stay out of the kitchen unless specifically invited, Mohrman said.
“If you’re banished, offer to take coats, make drinks, greet people at the door,” she said. “There’s plenty to do elsewhere.”
Torch-takers might want to chew on this: If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t have to be a permanent thing.
“Maybe next year it needs to be somewhere else,” Mohrman said. “It’s more about family than the place.”