MICHELLE LOCKE, For The Associated Press
For most of us, Thanksgiving is a one-day-a-year turkey triathlon. Roll out of bed in the shivery dark and cook as if your very life depended on it: bird, stuffed; potatoes, whipped; pumpkin, pied.
But for some, once is not enough. While the rest of us are still toying with our shopping lists, they’ve already made and cooked entire practice Thanksgiving feasts.
Why would anyone run turkey trials?
Cynthia Bee, a food blogger and landscape designer living in the Salt Lake City suburb of West Jordan, says practice Thanksgiving dinners are a tradition that began with her husband’s passion for turkey and her desire to try new things.
She brings desserts to the family gathering and having a dry run “gives me a chance to see how well-received they’ll be.”
For Kelsey Nixon, host of “Kelsey’s Essentials” on the Cooking Channel, turkey try-outs are a family tradition that started several years ago when her grandparents began heading south for the winter before Thanksgiving rolled around. Determined not to miss the family get-together, Nixon’s mom started throwing a “mock Thanksgiving” the last week in October.
Over the years, the practice dinner has given the family a chance to try out some wacky but good recipes, such as a dish involving Jell-O and marshmallows at this year’s feast that they dug up from Nixon’s mom’s 8th grade home ec textbook, as well as some recipes that were simply wacky. “We once tried to make a turducken and it was the worst experience ever,” she says.
The desire to cook at home, and cook well, has become increasingly attractive in the weak economy. And why not extend that to Thanksgiving? Plus, consider all the bytes dedicates to making great bites.
“Since I started reading food blogs, I’ve way upped my game,” says Bee. “YouTube has been tremendous. There’s just things I’ve never done before which were more about technique than ingredients.”
Add to that the pressure to get Thanksgiving just right and it’s not surprising if cooks feel a few gastronomical jitters.
“It’s probably the most important meal of the year,” says Stacy Finz, food and wine reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, which has run a number of “turkey training camps” for cooks of varying levels of experience.
The camps aimed at culinary novices drew “hundreds and hundreds of people who want to participate,” says Finz. Many had sad stories to tell of Thanksgiving dinners gone bad.
The paper mixes things up; one year having star chefs compete — selected readers chose the winning dishes — and another year bringing in people who considered themselves turkey aces. This year, the topic is being treated in two parts with one story featuring chefs’ retro recipes — turkey Kiev, anyone? — and another following West Coast Thanksgiving traditions with recent San Francisco Bay area transplants invited to take part.
Meanwhile, Finz’s sister has been getting in a little practice of her own. “She wants to get her cranberry sauce right.”
At Cook’s Illustrated magazine, where recipes are meticulously tested to take the worry out of home cooking, John Willoughby, the executive editor, was ambivalent about the concept of turkey dry-runs.
“If you’re doing it because you want to have two big celebratory dinners and you like cooking, that’s a good reason,” he says. “If you’re doing it because you’re afraid something will go wrong — I’m not so sure that I’m in favor of that.”
Thanksgiving should be mostly about celebrating and hanging out with family, Willoughby thinks. As for strategizing for a fail-free feast, he says, “There’s adventure in cooking. Practicing can take the adventure out of it.”
And practice doesn’t guarantee perfection. One of the worst mishaps to befall Bee was during the real meal two years ago when her sister had cooked, carved and presented a perfect turkey.
“And I dropped the platter. My family will never let me live it down.”
On the other hand, a trial run did keep one unfortunate dessert safely away from the family celebration.
“I should have known from the get-go that cantaloupe pie was just a bad idea,” Bee says with a chuckle. “There are some things that cannot be made into a pie.”
- Cynthia Bee’s blog, http://thegregbeefamily.blogspot.com/
- Kelsey Nixon, http://www.kelseyskitchen.com