Our family of four made a spontaneous, last minute plan for a one-night overnight for Thanksgiving with my wonderful in-laws, very spry octogenarians. We wanted to do this on the condition that they didn’t do a big deal Thanksgiving for us, cooking all day until we get there. I keep advocating for us all to go to a restaurant, but they seem to have set in motion their wonderful Greek hospitality imperative and it appears they will be cooking after all.
I guess it’s not a recipe I want from you, but the magic words to keep them from knocking themselves out. Frankly I don’t think there is any magic. Maybe I just need a recipe for something simple I can actually bring on the plane and contribute to the meal. Help!
What a terrific question, thank you for asking it. With the holidays approaching, and many letters coming in concerning etiquette and custom, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hospitality, gratitude, and the obligation we can all feel (whether guest or host) when celebrating together.
Based on your letter, my guess is that you already emphasized that you have chosen to make this journey to spend time with them; the Thanksgiving meal is inconsequential. I’m also guessing that their excitement about your arrival is for the same reason: they miss you and love you.
You describe your in-laws as spry, wonderful, and accustomed to providing a level of hospitality to guests that relies on home-cooking, at least while they feel able. Just as your expression of love is to make a spontaneous, potentially costly choice to fly out to see them, their response will be to cook for you, even if that is taxing.
I agree with your assessment that there will be no magic words to stop their efforts. I suspect that if you press too hard on this point, you actually risk creating hurt feelings. They may wonder if you think they can’t pull it off, or if you don’t actually want their meal.
If their Greek hospitality is anything like my family’s Italian hospitality, there will be enough food for an army. While I love the idea of you bringing them a carry-on ready dish, I don’t think it will be necessary. If there is a specialty food product from your current home that they enjoy and you can pack, bring that as a gift. Other than that, I’d give up the idea of contributing for Thanksgiving, proper.
I do, think, however, you have a great opportunity to lift some burden off of them and show them how grateful you are for their efforts.
Here are my suggestions:
- Upon arriving, become boots on the ground. Ask how you can help, do anything and everything you can to jump in. If they are the kind of cooks who are more distressed when others are crowding the kitchen, do other things for them that might make their life easier while they cook. If they won’t enjoy themselves unless you are simply relaxing and enjoying their hospitality, relax and enjoy their hospitality.
- When the meal is finished, jump up to wash and dry dishes. They may protest. Ply them with coffee or tea and tell them that they cooked, you can clean. Give them large pieces of pie to distract them.
- Before leaving, make some freezer meals for them with the leftovers. You can’t stop them from knocking themselves out for this holiday, but you can help them by creating dinners for them for the next few weeks. One of my favorites to make post-Thanksgiving is a turkey cottage pie (recipe below.) Adding some fresh herbs and parmesan cheese will brighten up the pre-cooked ingredients, without masking your in-laws delicious cooking.
- If they truly won’t let you cook, or clean, or make them some leftover meals, remember that they can’t stop you from sending them a glorious gift basket once you get home. Fruits, nuts, candy, or a hot, delivered meal—you can spoil them from Black Friday through Christmas.
No matter what, remember to be present and really enjoy the time together. That’s ultimately what all of you want, after all. If you spend your time focused on how to eliminate their work—work that brings them joy—you may miss out on the fun. In the end, this is a holiday about gratitude, and being grateful for a delicious meal and time together around the table is celebration, in itself.
- 2-6 cups turkey, pulled from the bone and shredded
- 3 cups mashed potatoes, plus milk (as needed)
- 1-2 cups turkey gravy OR 1-2 tbsp flour + 1-2 tips butter + 2-3 cups poultry stock
- ½ cup finely grated parmesan (or similar hard) cheese
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 cup carrots, diced
- 1 cup celery
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- ½ cup dry white or rosé wine
- 1 tbsp oil (olive or vegetable)
- Salt and pepper
- Stuffing (as much as you'd like)
- Cooked vegetables (as much as you'd like)
- Cranberry sauce
- 2-4 tbsps fresh herbs (your choice: thyme, rosemary, and sage work well
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Remove all leftovers from fridge except cranberry sauce; place close to stove for easy cooking.
- Chop fresh herbs and set aside.
- Over medium heat, sauté onion with small pinch of salt in oil in a large sauté pan until just golden and sweet, stirring often.
- Add carrots and celery, and cook until slightly softer (but still firm), no more than five minutes.
- Add garlic, cook for 30 seconds, until just fragrant.
- Add ½ cup wine, cook until pan is dry.
- If you do not have leftover turkey gravy, add pat of butter and sprinkle flour over vegetables. Stir until flour is fully incorporated, then slowly add ½ of warmed poultry stock, scraping up any browned bits of flour and butter.
- If using gravy, add half to pan to coat ingredients.
- Toss turkey, leftover stuffing, and leftover vegetables into the pain, stir until combined.
- Fold in stuffing.
- Add remaining stock or gravy.
- Take off heat, then sprinkle in fresh herbs, stirring to combine thoroughly.
- Taste, add salt and pepper as necessary (precooked food may already be salty)
- Pour meat and vegetable mix into a 9x13 (or larger) casserole dish.
- Warm up mashed potatoes. Depending on their texture, add tablespoons of milk one at a time to make them spreadable (but not runny).
- Combine parmesan cheese with potatoes, reserving a few tbsps of parmesan for sprinkling on top.
- Spread the mashed potatoes on top of the meat and vegetable mixture, then sprinkle reserved cheese on top.
- If freezing, allow to cool completely, then wrap tightly and freeze.
- Heat until bubbly, then switch to the broiler seeing, and brown the top (1-2 minutes.)
- Serve with cranberry sauce on the side.