A Losers' Thanksgiving: No One Knows Your Name (But All Are Welcome)

20171121-thanksgiving-orphan-illo-2-alex-citrin-safadi.jpg

[Illustrations: Alex Citrin]

It was fall of 2008, and my husband, Ham, and I were fresh-faced culinary school graduates. We'd moved to New York City and started our first jobs as line cooks—Ham was elbows deep in lavash dough most days, while I was peeling and deveining shrimp by the truckload. As members of the B team at our respective kitchens, we both had Thanksgiving Day off (you know your chef hates you if you get Thanksgiving off). We'd known exactly zero people in New York before our move, and given that I hadn't yet earned the right to be spoken to at my job, the chances of sitting down to Thanksgiving with company looked slim. But at the last minute, uncertain of whether we'd get any holidays off in the future, we decided to give Thanksgiving a shot. This would be our first attempt at hosting a party on our own, and without the guarantee of family filling the table.

The night before, we extended invitations to anyone we had ever met. As a kid, I'd had my fair share of disappointing party turnout (ever eat an entire piñata's worth of candy alone?), so I have a tendency to overshoot with guest lists. We pressed the bartender and regulars from the pub down the street, solicited the strung-out neighbor who wandered the halls at odd hours, and enticed every busser, cook, and dishwasher from work with visions of a bathtub filled with gin. We hoped that after all the cajoling, one or two of them would be coaxed into showing up.

The next day, I pushed my way through the grocery store, wielding my basket of sweet potatoes and chicken stock as a battering ram and scavenging for whatever turkey rejects I could find. There is, I learned, no place more dangerous than a New York City Whole Foods on Thanksgiving Day. I witnessed long-term relationships collapse in front of my eyes and mothers threaten to leave their screaming toddlers behind—doomed to wander the aisles until adolescence.

I emerged physically intact, but too broke to take a cab, so I began a snowy trek to our home in West Chelsea in perforated Chuck Taylors, a reusable tote slung over each shoulder and a 14-pound turkey hugged to my chest.

20171121-thanksgiving-orphan-illo-3-alex-citrin-safadi.jpg

As I slogged through the gray slush between Union Square and our apartment, I wondered how long it typically takes for frostbite to set in. Do the toes snap off unevenly, like when you break a stalk of celery, or is it more brittle, with the decisive crispness of a bite into a Popsicle? How would I run up and down the restaurant's stairs in kitchen clogs, carrying hotel pans and sheet trays, without toes—perhaps Dansko would make me a custom pair of shoes to accommodate my fingerless feet? Maybe after observing my struggle as the toeless line cook who persevered against all odds, the other cooks would finally invite me out for a drink—or at least make eye contact? And why, for the love of God, didn't I just go to the Whole Foods on Seventh?

As I walked, overwhelmed by my imagined ordeal, I began to tear up. How heroic I would be, sporting sandals in summer, bearing the burden of horrified stares. Distracted by visions of statues raised in my honor, I slipped on a subway grate, sending the turkey carcass flying a block up Eighth Avenue, past unflinching bystanders. I chased after it like it was going to reanimate and take off, then fell face first into yellow-stained snow, losing apples and potatoes and onions along the way. After rounding up the unruly escapees, I picked up the bruised bird and made it home, where I immediately checked the status of my toes.

Our studio was across the street from the Chelsea public housing complex on Ninth Avenue, steps away from Penn Station. The Craigslist post had described it as "a micro-loft, with bohemian character." This meant that it was a few strides long in either direction, with a rickety ladder leading to a lofted deck for the bed. Drawing from the Ikea "small spaces" inspiration page, we had tricked out the place with Liatorp, Fintorp, and several Grundtals. You had to climb over the Kivik couch to reach the Hemnes coffee table, because the couch was the exact width of the room. The kitchen was nothing more than a two-burner stove above a small oven, along with a fridge. We had mounted a Skogsta shelf for a toaster oven and squeezed in a Förhöja island to serve as our countertop/dining table/office space.

After unloading the groceries onto the floor, Ham and I split up the prep list. He stationed himself at the coffee table, passing me chopped mirepoix and grated cheese across the loveseat barricade. It was only then, when I took over the multipurpose island and began seasoning the turkey, that I realized I had overlooked an obvious obstacle—would this turkey even fit in the oven?

The oven wasn't much bigger than a toaster oven. After I'd removed the racks and placed the roasting pan directly on the oven floor, the turkey still touched the top and sides. I didn't do the smart thing and roast it in parts, separating the legs to roast first and later cooking the crown. I didn't even do the dumb thing, hacking away at it until it fit. I don't know what came over me—my only explanation now is that I was in shock after suffering a near-amputation experience—but I just shut the door and let it roast.

As the fat rendered from the turkey's skin and dripped onto the electric coils, the oven shot off sparks. We stood close by with a fire extinguisher as the apartment filled with haze and the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms simultaneously rang out. Luckily, after an initial layer of soot had formed on the turkey, the air cleared enough that we could proceed. Ash was all the rage in the haute restaurant scene back then, so I was comfortable calling it an ash-roasted turkey.

We mixed up a pot of classic stovetop mac and cheese, molasses-spiked sweet potato mash, sage and cornbread dressing, and turkey-neck gravy. Even with most of the apartment's surfaces covered in carrot peels and crouton crumbs, I still had plans for pie. Not only would it be the perfect consolation if no one showed up, pie represented all my Thanksgiving insecurities wrapped up in a buttery, flaky crust.

20171121-thanksgiving-orphan-illo-1-alex-citrin-safadi.jpg

I was born and raised in America, but I didn't grow up with pie. From the moment I heard the phrase "American as apple pie," I became a girl with a mission. I genuinely believed, throughout my entire childhood, that mastering the apple pie would solve all my problems. The perfect apple pie meant that people would stop teasing me about my chicken korma sandwiches and start pronouncing my name correctly—maybe even make an appearance at one of my parties. In a time before internet or the Food Network or Stella, I would pore over the cryptic messages in dessert cookbooks for hours, trying to unearth the mysteries of cutting butter into flour.

I covered the tiny Swedish island with flour for the thousandth attempt at fixing my life. I don't mess around with booze in the crust or any precooked filling. I believe in classic apple pie, the kind my perpetually-dusted-in-White-Lily-Southern-spirit-grandmother would make me. After some rolling and crimping and filling, I popped it into my trusty $30 Black & Decker toaster oven and pulled up a chair. (Whenever anything's baking, I feel the need to stare into the oven the entire time—it's my favorite show.)

Soon, the turkey was all set to be scraped from the oven walls. The pots of sides waited to be dug into with leftover plastic takeout spoons grabbed from a drawer. We were stocked on paper plates and red Solo cups. The freezer was packed with bottom-shelf booze and bodega ice. We were ready.

The wait between the announced start time of a party and the moment the first guest arrives—or doesn't—is when I question all my life choices. Given my poor track record with parties, I had prepared myself to eat the entire pie alone. But this time, it didn't look like that was going to happen.

After the first guest showed up, I was already mentally declaring myself a champion, but as we started to tuck into the modest banquet, the buzzer kept going off. I could hear the crowd cheering in my head as one after another, people kept piling in: the line cook who had just moved from Florida, the hostess from Trinidad and Tobago, the busser from Ireland, even the bartender avoiding her Long Island family. I did a quick head count and wondered what sort of advanced geometry would be needed to cut one pie into 15 slices.

We emptied milk crates for impromptu seating, spilling books, clothes, and shoes onto the bed. A few braved the shifty ladder to sit in the loft, legs dangling from the deck. Two perched in the windowsill like house cats, blowing cigarette smoke through the screen. A few strays settled for the floor, sitting cross-legged on the hardwood.

Our tiny studio was packed with the entire B team. We were the restaurants' outcasts. We had never uttered more than kitchen callbacks to one other—"three all day," "five out on ceviche," "86 cod." But, as the stock of gin in the freezer dwindled, the exchanges grew increasingly intimate, and I finally got to know the people I stood next to 14 hours a day. During a competitive session of Monopoly, I learned that our reservationist aspired to be a professional cyclist. Over a round of Jenga, the porter told us about his life as a psychiatrist in Colombia. It didn't matter that the turkey was dry and the apartment stank of burnt fat for weeks. I had finally conquered a dinner party. The fact that the pie turned out pretty good just made the achievement extra sweet.

The next morning, we were all back at it, leaning over steaming pots of simmering stock and reaching into blistering ovens. My coworkers and I didn't become besties after one meal together; it was just a holiday hookup. But it did start a tradition that my husband and I would continue for Thanksgivings to come—some years with Pictionary in a bigger apartment, another year over Cranium in our own restaurant. The guests are always different, and the food, thankfully, has improved. The one and only thing that remains constant is that everyone is welcome.