Take it down a notch: Nancy Williams' top tip for best holiday meal – Citizen Times

There’s a niche for a new profession: the Thanksgiving meal planner. Actually, it’s not a new job, because somebody assumes a role in every family.  But it would be new to be paid for it. Long before ovens heat up for the big day, phone lines are buzzing and texts are flying.  It’s never too early to plan … or is it?
By September First, some families have a detailed blueprint down to who is sitting by who and what tablecloth will be used. I used to be the ultra planner for our clan. In charge of lists and assignments. I could out-Martha Martha Stewart. Now older, wiser, more tired, and more content, I’m guiltlessly aligned with the philosophy of “whatever.” Over the years, I’ve gone from following the rules of a traditional meal put together as a magazine spread to off-script to no script.  I am coyote. Wild and free.  
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Holiday meal planning is like other happy events that should be happy events where nobody is unhappy, at least openly. Sound confusing? It is. There are a thousand small decisions to be made and while folks say “anything is just fine,” it really isn’t. There’s no ‘right’ way to do Thanksgiving; however, change a tradition, and you’ll find out actually, there was.
My relaxed approach is more fun. Make do, get by. Keep the focus on the relationships, not the food. The resulting meals are culinary collages. Less predictable. More mystery. I think of them as art. Let it go if there’s a half-frozen/half-cooked turkey and punt. As long as no one gets food poisoning, the meal is a success.
A professional family holiday event planner’s primary job would be to coordinate communication. Particularly between in-laws. People don’t want to offend others, so they smile and nod to suggestions they privately grit their teeth about. What to eat, when to eat, where to eat. What dishes to serve and whether they are store-bought or homemade. Who pays, who says thank you, and how. 
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I’ve heard laughably long discussions about what kind of dinnerware to use. The heirloom china. No, we’re saving that. Isn’t this the kind of thing we are saving it for? We’re going to use paper plates so there isn’t much clean up. Finally everyone conceded to use disposables. But someone bought nice plastic plates. Which then someone washed to reuse. Think about it.
Preferences I’ve developed which my imaginary professional planner will have to work with in coordinating with my friends and relatives:
No traveling food from me. I will not bring food from far away. If I accept an invite to your place and it’s more than two hours drive, I’m coming foodless. I was taught your carry-in edibles are a reflection of you as a homemaker, woman and human. You are as good as your potato casserole, which doesn’t travel well. So if I’m making a holiday trek with kids, pets, luggage, pillows and all the chaos of a band of gypsies — which is how we travel — there won’t food included. Plus, by the time we’ve wallowed the whole interior of the car, I’m not sure anybody would want to eat whatever was in there with us.
You want me to come, fine You don’t, fine. But I ain’t dragging the gang plus deviled eggs and gravy across the state.
Local dinners and potlucks I don’t mind bringing a dish to. However, I’m not currently in the stage of proudly parading my food item for oohs and aahs and for people to talk about it. The next event I go to, I promise I’m taking bacon. A big platter of thick-sliced bacon. It goes with anything and enhances about everything. And I’m pretty sure people will talk about it.
Kitchen help often isn’t helpful. I don’t typically participate in others’ kitchens and don’t want anybody helping me in mine. Giving instructions is harder than doing it myself and a person could open a cabinet in my house and cause a Tupperware avalanche. A fast cook, I’ve taught my sons the same. They literally sling hash when they sling hash. A person parked in the kitchen freeway could be hurt. We don’t chop and chat, we get down to business. Speed cooking is dangerous to the kitchen loiterer.
Set the culinary bar low. To feel good about myself as a hostess (a stretch or even outright misuse of the word), I avoid Norman Rockwell art and Hallmark movies. The starting point of planning for my holiday meal is lunchmeat, rolls and canned peaches. Any further upgrade is a bonus.  With doable standards like these, we feel we really rocked it when somebody bakes a Mrs. Smith’s pie.
Two seatings. If I’m going to attend a meal, I want it to have two seatings. First seating is for people who like to do things all uppity and proper-like. Nothing wrong with their way. But I’ll come over for the leftovers. Second shift. Waiting in the wings until the formal fuss has finished. I’m in the turkey sandwich crowd. When things are dialed down a couple of notches.
Rethink the feeding. A couple of years ago, I was at a meal with meat this and potato that. High caloric supposed-to-dos and must-haves out the ears. I wanted to say (but didn’t), “Look at us cattle. Everybody here is 10n or more pounds overweight. We need to have a Thanksgiving jog, not a meal. Run the block, then have protein drinks afterwards. This year, let’s build muscle instead of fat.” Again, really proud I didn’t say it aloud.
All commentary welcome. My family of origin is the most agreeable in the world. Will go along with anything at all. One friend I’d said that to was taken aback after a dinner with me and my sisters where there was constant remarking and critiquing. I didn’t say they’d go along without comment or opinion, I just said they’d go along.
People can do anything they want after the meal. At my house, they can leave, nap or wait five minutes then eat again. Watch football, read the paper or sit in the chairs and analyze the event as it unfolds.  Furthermore, nappers can sit in the chair and doze or retire to a bedroom or couch. Peace on earth, baby.
New traditions. Tradition can guide us or enslave us. One of my sisters said, we’ve always done it that way. The other one answered, yeah, but we shouldn’t have. It was nuts then and it’s even more nuts now we know it was nuts, and yet still keep doing it.
True. Our new way is low-stress, high margin of culinary error. If I’m in charge, it’s lunchmeat and a holiday jog. Anything more, a holiday planner needs to be involved. It’s no longer me. I am coyote.
This is the opinion of Nancy Williams, the coordinator of professional education at UNC Asheville. Contact her at


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