Before theater professionals perform a play for an audience, they run a dress rehearsal to look for kinks that need fixing before the show opens.
Traditional Thanksgiving dinner is a big production that can benefit from rehearsal, too, say some veteran hosts.
Cortney McLellan grew up helping her mother cook, but was nervous when she was stepping up to host her family’s Thanksgiving.
“My quote-unquote ‘recipe book’ was in my head,” recalled the Flushing, Michigan resident. “I wanted to make sure I had all the recipes right.”
Thanksgiving’s traditional dishes — roast turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and pie — weren’t part of McLellan’s everyday repertoire: “I can’t usually afford all those carbs the rest of the year,” she said.
So before hosting the whole family, she did a test run with her daughter and husband. Almost everything came out well, but when the dressing wasn’t quite right, she consulted her mom, Nancy McLellan. The two conferred on ingredients, technique, cooking time.
“She ended up giving me her stuffing pan for Thanksgiving. It just didn’t taste the same without it,” McLellan said.
Samuella Becker went a more formal route to practice for Thanksgiving: She took a class at the New School in New York City where she prepared turkey, side dishes, appetizers and dessert.
Becker learned some specifics — she bought an electric knife for carving, and learned how to buy the right turkey for the number of guests — and gathered recipes to try to approximate the feast of her Ohio childhood.
“What I mostly learned was to be more confident in the kitchen,” said Becker, who’d previously roasted a turkey with the giblet bag still inside.
Carl Collins co-hosts a monthly dinner party in New York City with a friend, Robert Blinn, and they often use their October gathering to test-drive new Thanksgiving dishes. Now that he’s hosted Thanksgiving for several years, Collins enjoys pushing the envelope — they’ve tried turkey ramen, as well as roasted rabbit and poached octopus.
But with a nod to tradition, Collins said, “My favorite side dish to test is stuffing.” Additionally, he’s experimented with variations on turkey methods, including cooking the legs and breast separately and spatchcocking.
Back when he was a Thanksgiving rookie, Collins tried out the whole meal on his roommate and friends, both to make sure everything tasted good together and to work out the timing.
“I’m cooking all these things in a New York kitchen,” Collins said. “I have to work the coordination.”
Many people have eaten a Thanksgiving dinner hours later than planned because the turkey wasn’t done yet or some key dish was forgotten.
“I have misjudged the length of time things take and I’m a professional chef,” confessed Ruthy Kirwin, a recipe tester, recipe developer and cooking instructor in New York.
Kirwin writes a schedule for Thanksgiving day, working backward from when she wants to eat. Testing can help identify schedule issues, like having more side dishes to put on the stove than you have burners, or needing to bake turkey, pie and rolls at different temperatures.
When hosting a dinner party, making recipes you know well can help lower stress, Kirwin said. But on Thanksgiving, most hosts feel obligated to make the expected all-American menu.
“There’s a lot of expectation and weight and tradition,” she said.
This year, Kirwin is working in advance on a version of the green bean casserole she grew up eating in Michigan.
One year, she practiced a fresh fig pie that didn’t make it to her Thanksgiving table. “Thank God I made it as practice because it just didn’t work,” she said.
Shel Roumillat of New Orleans practiced cooking a full Thanksgiving meal with her college friends as guinea pigs when her mother wasn’t interested in hosting any more.
“I felt beholden to take up the mantel of the holiday meal because I still wanted the grand Thanksgiving dinner,” said Roumillat. “I decided the only way I was going to get that was if I did it.”
Initially, she didn’t get great results. “What I mainly learned was how to ruin pans,” Roumillat recalled. “I remember the turkey being disgusting.”
But she has improved over the years.
“I view every Thanksgiving as an opportunity to practice for the next Thanksgiving,” she said. “If you embrace the idea that it can be experimental and fun, it becomes less of an obligation.”