It came and went just in the blink of an eye it always does — my favorite holiday – Thanksgiving. Maybe it has something to do with me growing up in the restaurant business and being comfortable preparing large quantities of food. But more likely, the immense satisfaction I draw from gathering people I enjoy into my home and assembling an event centered on food and drink, is more the explanation for my annual Thanksgiving festivities.
The idea started some seven years ago when, fairly new to Dallas and knowing few people, my husband and I invited over a couple close friends who had no other apparent destination that day. I had managed to make it into my early 40s and never had prepared a turkey before! I think that first year we had 16 people, including us. Over the years, as our reach in Dallas has expanded, the numbers too have grown steadily. This year, we enjoyed the company of 75 people, a few of which found themselves suddenly stranded at the last minute, their previous plans gone awry. One special family had just this year lost Grandpa/Dad and so were facing their first Thanksgiving without him. It was incredibly humbling and touching to hear his surviving beautiful wife express her gratitude that we had opened our home, and thus got to avoid the first holiday in a house barren of the beloved man. Our common connection is through the children, of course – the granddaughter goes to school with our daughter Gabi.
The shopping usually starts Tuesday or Wednesday. This year on the menu were seven turkeys totaling about 135 pounds: four traditional herb roasted, one deep-fried Cajun spicy, one smoked, and one pineapple curry (done on the stove top in a broth and cream sauce). Additionally, thirty pounds of whipped potatoes, ten pounds of sweet potatoes, eight pounds of green beans, along with all the according quantities of smoked ham, vegetarian quiche, stuffing, saffron rice, and buttered corn. Lest anyone feel bereft of flavor, the following sauces (all handmade, like everything else) are then placed at the end of the buffet line: turkey gravy (of course), spiced cranberries, apple curry cream, roasted pumpkin cream, and roasted Poblano pepper cream. An array of desserts always include pecan and pumpkin pies, along with some kind of fruit cobbler and chocolate cake. A variety of after dinner liqueurs are then placed next to the coffee pot. About three cases of wine eventually find their use, and all is comfortable and cozy in the Cortez house.
Now, in case you’re wondering… I’m no fool. Getting ready for and pulling off this feast requires some serious help. So, an especially fun tradition has evolved over the last few years: Wednesday night prep and set up. I hardly even have to recruit the “workers” – they’ve somehow heard through the grapevine that Wednesday night prep at the Cortez house is FUN! I do try to make it somewhat worth their while by plying participants with some freshly prepared and hopefully tasty food, and of course lots of beer, wine, and scotch. On the menu this year for prep night was freshly marinated and smoked beef brisket and salmon. This year, some 15 souls lent their talents to chop the multitude of onions, carrots, celery, and apples; cut into cubes 10 loaves of bread for the stuffing; and peel and cut the potatoes and sweet potatoes. Other folks set up all the buffet tables and chafers, while another crew set up the dining tables and chairs and then decorated all the tables with cloths, pumpkins and gourds, and the freshly assembled flowers (done by another guest). The kids who come generally get the job of wrapping the silverware into the cloth napkins and adding the napkin ring. But the very best part, no matter what role anyone plays, is the joyous sound of communal exchange – stories being shared, laughter echoing, and general good cheer is enjoyed by all. My role becomes chief project manager as I assign incoming guests a job appropriate to their interests and skills and keep the flow of the evening and tasks moving.
By midnight, when most all of the other guests/helpers have gone home, my goal is to have the four turkeys stuffed with herbs and veggies, and then placed into the low-heat oven by midnight. At that point, I can then sit down and enjoy a glass of wine with my husband and whoever is left, and then drop into bed to rest up for the big day. I wake at 6 am to retrieve the roasted turkeys from the oven, turn on the coffee pot, and make my way for the shower. Once dressed and apron on, the first order of the day is making the cornbread – with orange peel and dried cranberries. From there, the morning rushes on until usually at 1 pm when the first guests begin to arrive, I start to feel that all-familiar adrenaline rush followed by the undeniable “Oh my God – there’s still so much to do to pull off dinner by 2!” At that point, any unsuspecting guest who has perhaps lingered a bit too long in the kitchen with his greeting to me suddenly finds himself in charge of carving the turkeys – never mind if he’s not done it before. Others are called to “just please set this pan of corn on the buffet line,” when they innocently ask if there’s anything they can do to help. My friend Katrina got drafted into mashing the 30 pounds of potatoes with my small mixer and adding the butter and sour cream in small batches. Her husband Ian, being the trusted chef, got pressed into service to finish the gravy. Dear Sherri found herself assigned to roasting the green beans, garlic, parmesan cheese, and lemon zest – next door at my friend and neighbor Mark’s house, since I had run out of oven space in my own place. And so it went – that final flurry of 60 minutes with lots of hands in the kitchen – and then POOF! – Thanksgiving was served at 2 pm. Whew!
As the guests lined up to the buffet to fill their plates, the carefully decorated tables gradually filled with people enjoying the food and company that for me SO make the day. Once everyone had a plate and found a seat, I looked across the room of tightly packed guests, incredibly grateful for their friendship and thankful they were spending my most cherished holiday with the Cortez family. Though this first meal is served at 2 pm, the day goes on well into the evening, with the lasts guests leaving a 2 am the next day. I fall into bed at 10 pm, bone tired and hopelessly content.