Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past: Our Highest Highs and Lowest Lows

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Vicky Wasik

For a holiday with a relatively fixed menu and, in most homes, an unrivaled predictability, Thanksgiving still manages to surprise us year after year. Whether it's a burnt turkey, one parent's dramatic antics, or a sudden tragedy, we've seen our share of Thanksgivings gone horribly awry. Of course, that doesn't diminish the triumphs—the rescued birds, the perfect expats' dinner, the communal moments you actually treasure, no matter how corny. In either case, the one thing Thanksgiving is always guaranteed to be is memorable. We asked the Serious Eats staff about the very best and worst Turkey Days they've experienced. Here's what they had to say.

The Triumphs

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Vicky Wasik

When I set off to spend a semester of college in France, I didn't give much thought to what it would mean to miss Thanksgiving with my family for the very first time. But, while I'm a sucker for the sentimental side of the holiday—the gathering of friends and family, the spirit of appreciation, the heavy eating and, in my case, even heavier drinking—I could honestly care less about the turkey, the cranberry sauce, the mashed potatoes, the pies. In fact, the only Thanksgiving food that I genuinely look forward to is stuffing. Which is why the Thanksgiving of 2007 was the most epic I can recall: just me and one close friend at a dining room table in my Paris apartment, with about four bottles of red wine and an enormous tray of the best sausage and chestnut stuffing either of us has ever made. Breaking with tradition never tasted so good. —Niki Achitoff-Gray

My boyfriend, Dan, never really celebrates Thanksgiving at home—he's fond of recounting the one year he and his siblings went to a Boston Market and split a rotisserie bird. So when I spent the holiday with his family last year, I had every intention of pulling out all the stops. With a day's notice, the surface area of a 3 x 3 kitchen table to work on, and a three-year-old oven with the tags still hanging inside, I was able to pull off a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a spatchcocked turkey, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy. After the meal, Dan's dad, who had never really spoken to me before, said that I was welcome back any time. —Leang Chaing

Okay, so my triumph has not quite been realized yet, but I reserved a turkey for this year from San Francisco's fantastic Fatted Calf butchery, and I could not be more excited. I'm pretty sure I'm going to win Thanksgiving, especially since I can pick up some of their stellar charcuterie when I go to get the bird. —Maggie Hoffman

The Discoveries

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Vicky Wasik

Cranberry sauce is one of those sides that I've just never really relished. And those few recipes I did gravitate toward were starting to feel tiresome—my wife and I were despairing at the thought of serving the same old, same old again. Then she found a recipe for a molded cranberry sauce, and everything changed. If you're envisioning, as I did, some centuries-old, gelatin-loaded recipe courtesy of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, think again: The combination of fresh cranberries, simple syrup, water, apples, walnuts, and dashes of clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon was seriously delicious, and the mold actually made for an appealing presentation. No more boring, gloppy cranberry sauces in my house. —Ed Levine

Last year was the first Thanksgiving I spent away from my family. Instead, I celebrated with my then-fiancé, now-husband's family. I was totally terrified and intimidated to go—it was the first real holiday I would spend with them. To contextualize, holidays at my house consist of people wearing their pajamas all day and picking at food as it's cooking; holidays at his house come with place cards and assigned seating. So the day was a little bit of a culture shock for me, but I had a remarkably fun time, and they were incredibly welcoming. I even got to try some new and different Thanksgiving foods—my husband grew up in Switzerland, so they do raclette, which is truly delicious. —Roxy Lane

When I was growing up, my mother—a busy nurse—made very simple, straightforward Thanksgiving meals. But one year she'd been working night shifts, and it just wasn't practical for her to cook. In the Birmingham suburb where we lived, there was a very old-school Jewish grocery with a restaurant in back, and they'd do a huge family-style Thanksgiving meal. It was a totally all-American dinner, but every bite was a revelation. Having never eaten anything but the most simple, classic renditions of Thanksgiving dishes, it was the first time that I really understood how different they could taste—up until then, the most radical thing I'd heard of was serving ham at the holiday table. I'm talking great seasoning and complex flavors; the moist stuffing and juicy turkey totally blew my mind. From that point on, even though my mom was a perfectly good cook, I was always secretly sad that I could never convince my parents to go back to Browdy's Deli for another epic Thanksgiving dinner. —Chris Mohney

Like many kids, I grew up taking Thanksgiving for granted; it was just another meal, often accompanied by a long drive to visit family. Plus, I was never all that crazy about turkey, stuffing, or mashed potatoes. (I've come around a little.) All that started to change when I transplanted myself a couple thousand miles away from everything and everyone I knew. I don't recall many details about the food at my first Thanksgiving away from home. Certainly there was a turkey, mashed potatoes, and all the other typical sides, but more importantly, there were new friends, many of whom would become family over the years, and, for a change, I was truly thankful. A decade later, I've moved back, closer to family, cutting the miles from the thousands to the hundreds, but I've kept my new appreciation of Thanksgiving going strong. —Paul Cline

The Close Calls

Vicky Wasik

My wife, Amy, and I were beaming with pride over the Thanksgiving turkey we purchased from the farmers market two years ago. It was a 26-pounder, antibiotic-free, humanely raised, and cage-free, and it cost as much as a week or two's worth of groceries. Our plan was to brine it in a mixture of apple cider, oranges, rosemary, peppercorns, and bay leaves, then proudly serve it to her parents and her sister, Kate, who were driving from northern Ohio to Brooklyn to join us for Thanksgiving. But on Tuesday, Amy's dad, Clark, called to tell us he'd been to the doctor, specifically the cardiologist. He needed a stent to clear one of his arteries. Stat. And he'd scheduled the procedure for the Friday after Thanksgiving. "Don't even think of traveling," the doctor had warned. Without hesitation, we loaded the turkey into the trunk of our Honda and drove eight hours toward Cleveland. Arriving late on Wednesday, we rummaged through her parents' garage for an old bucket, added the brine, and let it sit overnight. Despite the anxiety we would feel over the procedure the next day, the turkey was, without exaggeration, the best any of us had ever tasted, and its leftovers served as perfect comfort food when Clark returned home, all mended up, two days later. —Keith Pandolfi

Last year, I woke up at my parents' house on Thanksgiving morning and made my way downstairs. As always, my mom was already up—she typically gets the turkey started by about 7 a.m. But this time around, I couldn't detect the familiar scent of a roasting bird. Instead, my normally relaxed mom was freaking out, and when I asked her what was wrong, she nearly burst into tears: "I ruined Thanksgiving! The turkey's too big for the oven, I just can't fit it in!" It turned out that she'd tried to squeeze it in and proceeded to drop it, clean it off, and then try over and over again, at every possible angle, all in vain: The turkey was just too broad. So I—who had never cooked a turkey before—tried to think of some way to make it smaller. I considered everything from cutting off limbs to spatchcocking, but it was all a little daunting. Then I remembered that we'd trussed some turkeys for a photo shoot at Serious Eats, and realized that my mom and I could do the same. Maybe, just maybe, we'd be able to pull it off. So I dug up a roll of twine and looked up instructions on the site, and together we trussed it up. It was definitely a squeeze, but we got our enormous turkey into the oven with plenty of time to spare. —Vicky Wasik

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About 10 years ago, we were ready to serve the pies after a remarkably drama-free feast. Pie is the only Thanksgiving dish that my family traditionally buys instead of making from scratch. I always do exhaustive research first, and I usually end up buying pies from a bunch of different sources. That year, I carefully set down all five prized pies on our painstakingly arranged table (my wife even has special Thanksgiving plates that were handed down from her mom) and went back to the kitchen to get something to cut them with. When I was in the kitchen, I heard a wail, perhaps best described as a primal scream. "Brass!" yelled my wife. "Get down!" I raced from the kitchen, but it was too late. Our beloved beagle had leapt onto the table in a single bound and buried his nose in the pecan pie. By the time I'd put him down on the ground, there was nothing but crust left in the pie tin. Brass had wasted no time in snarfing down the entire thing. Our only solace was that we still had four pies in reserve. As I told my wife, "There is no such thing as too many pies at Thanksgiving." —Ed Levine

Whether good or bad, some of the most memorable Thanksgivings I've had—and certainly the weirdest—are the ones I've experienced while away from most of my family. I usually find myself torn between nostalgia for the big going-to-Grandma's family celebration on the one hand, and abandoning the whole idea of a traditional holiday on the other. When you try to compromise in that situation, wackiness tends to ensue. Last November, my husband and I were living in Ghana, where access to good-quality Western vegetables was spotty and expensive and packaged ingredients were mostly limited to a jumble of unfamiliar spice blends, sauces, and snacks. (Ever had biltong-flavored crackers or banana-flavored milk? They're just about as good as they sound.) We'd been invited to another American couple's house for Thanksgiving dinner and I was simultaneously determined to bring green bean casserole and too busy and distracted to set aside the time necessary to do it well. What I brought was a gloppy pile of what were indeed green beans, mixed with a starchy mushroom soup from a package—which I could only kind of guess at preparing correctly, since the instructions were entirely in Arabic. The topping was the cleverest part: Instead of using Durkee's French Fried Onions (you're not finding those in Accra), or shallots I'd crisped up myself (clearly I wasn't planning ahead enough to do that), I crushed a bag of Funyun-like onion-flavored rings and sprinkled them over the top. And in the end, it was...well, for a jury-rigged green bean casserole in Ghana, something I'd have to call a success. At the very least, it was better than the spinach soufflé one of the other guests brought along. —Miranda Kaplan

Many years ago, I built a wood-fired brick oven in my backyard in Brooklyn, which took me several years given that I had no masonry experience. Finally, right before Thanksgiving, I finished a critical part, vaulting the oven dome and casting the whole thing in concrete. It was ready to be used! So I fired up the oven early that morning, got it really good and hot, and threw a big old turkey in there. No joke, about half an hour later, I thought, hmmm, I should check on the bird, just to make sure things are going okay. I pulled it out, and it was DONE. Cooked through. Any longer, and I would have ruined it. And it was so damned good, with a subtle wood-smoke flavor—not full-on like what you'd get with a smoked bird. I had so much residual heat in that masonry that I ran out and bought a couple of chickens just to pop in the oven and take advantage. —Daniel Gritzer

The Disasters

Vicky Wasik

I like to think that Thanksgiving is all about hanging out with family, so even if the food's not so great, everything's cool—so long as the drinks are solid, that is. Which reminds me of one time they weren't. My grandfather has a habit of storing expensive wine standing upright in a cabinet, which is certainly the best way to store wine if you want cork to dry out and turn to dust. One year, he brought out one of his prized bottles, proudly proclaiming that it was as old as my sister (25 years old at the time). We all had to choke down musty vinegar with our turkey that year. —J. Kenji López-Alt

As a West Coaster living far from home in the early years after college, I didn't have the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. A little homesick, and eager to re-create a few comforting rituals in my tiny New York apartment, I decided to take on my mother's pumpkin pie. But, lacking more than a few inches of counter space, I just couldn't hack the crust, and instead I bought a graham cracker number—the kind that comes in a lightweight tin pan. All would have been fine if I'd just put that flimsy pie tin on a cookie sheet, but I poured the rum- and cinnamon-laced pumpkin custard right in and lifted the pie by its edges as I moved it toward our teeny apartment oven. The pie buckled in half, and the filling poured out, as if in slow motion, all over the linoleum floor. I couldn't help but cry. —Maggie Hoffman

For a long time, I was the kind of control freak in the kitchen who tends to take on way more than she can handle and then blows a gasket at some critical point in the cooking process. Which is how, several years ago, I wound up cutting off a substantial chunk of my left index finger in a flurry of chopping the day before Thanksgiving. Undeterred, I ran off to urgent care, got myself stitched up, and returned to complete the stuffing I'd been prepping. From there, I dashed uptown to make a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner with my mother (one of the delights of having divorced parents who both insist on a full Thanksgiving meal). There, though thoroughly sedated on painkillers, I nonetheless managed to throw a sh*t fit while trying to spatchcock a turkey with my injured hand. I still have a bird's-eye view of myself squatting over the slippery beast—which I'd transferred to the kitchen floor, albeit on a cutting board, for better leverage—pounding on its pale, greasy chest and muttering profanities under my breath. I cried, had a fight with my mom, drank too much, and overcooked the turkey. We didn't eat until 11:30, and I was so embarrassed by my behavior that I barely touched the food. It was a less-than-elegant version of myself to be sharing with my mother's then-partner's children, who were graciously hosting and, wait for it, had never met me before. Suffice it to say, I remain forever ashamed. —Niki Achitoff-Gray

Max Falkowitz

When I was in grad school in Spokane, Washington, I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home. All of the students who were staying on campus decided to have a big potluck celebration, and I planned to make the only thing I knew how to cook in bulk: my mom's red beans and rice. Think of it as a Cajun recipe filtered through a Midwestern sensibility—it's a very meaty, very simple blue-collar rendition of a Southern classic. It's the kind of dish that only takes about 30 minutes to cook, but gets better the longer it simmers...to a point, of course. I was really excited to make it—it's a great wintry, crowd-pleasing side, and I spent weeks talking it up, bragging that it would be the best damn thing on the table.

After an impossibly long hunt for a ham bone—a ubiquitous ingredient down South that can be a real struggle to track down anywhere else—I finally got all my ingredients assembled and set the pot to simmer. And then I made the fateful decision to go visit a friend down the street, figuring I'd let it simmer for a good three hours. But when I got back, I forgot to check on the pot. Another hour or two went by before I remembered, but I figured it wouldn't be a big deal—my red beans and rice would just be even better. Once I finally looked in the pot, though, I discovered that about two minutes after I'd turned on the heat, a fuse had blown. The whole thing had been sitting there, tepid, for five hours. All I had was an incredibly vibrant bacterial ecosystem, a vat of congealed fat and meat and beans. I had to toss the whole thing, and I had nothing to bring to the potluck. Let's just say I paid for my hubris—I never heard the end of it, the entire time I was in grad school. I was too ashamed to even cook it again; there was just no coming back. Chris Mohney

I've made my share of Thanksgiving dishes that fell flat, but the failure that comes to mind involves basketball and, in a nod to How I Met Your Mother (see Slapsgiving), a slap to the face. Everything was set: Thanksgiving Day, me, Pete, first to 11 points. If I'm being honest with myself (I'm hoping Pete isn't reading this), he's probably got me beat when it comes to basketball, but on the right day, I'm still confident that I can win. The game started, we traded a few baskets, and both of us started to tire out. Nervous that Pete was a step quicker and could beat me with his dribble, I sat back on defense, allowing him ample perimeter shots. Which he took. And just as quickly as it had started, it was game over, 11–7, with one monster slap to my face. —Paul Cline

My sophomore year of college, I caught a nasty bronchial infection that kept me up coughing for months. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, my throat was so swollen I could barely swallow food, and I'd lost all sense of taste. Yet this didn't stop me from insistently cooking a couple of dishes for the festivities. I seasoned the mashed potatoes blindly and aggressively, leaving them practically inedible. But worst of all, I gave the attendees my infection. My cousin bruised her ribs from coughing so much in the months to follow. It took a couple of years for us to finally be able to joke about it. —Leang Chaing

My sophomore year of college, I attended an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner in the house I lived in on campus. The culprit was an apple crisp topped with pot-infused butter that got me so ridiculously high, I nearly passed out and had to be carried into bed by a strong housemate. I was properly embarrassed, but the others were sympathetic, and that apple crisp was quite tasty if memory serves.* Would eat again. —Miranda Kaplan

*It definitely doesn't in this case, but I'm pretty sure apple crisp is always tasty!

The Tragedy

I learned to cook by watching my wonderful Italian grandmother, standing at her feet in the kitchen. To this day, when I think of her, what I remember most is how amazing her house always smelled. But about five years ago, my grandmother had to move into an assisted-living facility. That fall was the first time she couldn't travel to join us for Thanksgiving, so my family decided to come to her instead. We picked her up and drove to the closest restaurant we could find, which turned out to be an Outback Steakhouse. It wasn't exactly a traditional holiday meal—I ate a steak—but my grandmother was super excited about it anyway. She ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a Diet Coke, and smiled while she talked about how it was her favorite childhood meal. I got to show her pictures on my phone of my very fat cat.

But after we'd eaten, my grandmother said that she wasn't feeling well. My mother got up to help her to the bathroom, and Grandma suddenly collapsed on the floor. I stood there with my aunts, watching a stranger perform CPR on my grandmother in the middle of an Outback Steakhouse as we waited for an ambulance. The management were incredibly kind—they didn't charge us for our meal, and they were really helpful throughout. I remember grabbing her shoes and her coat and following the ambulance as we rode to the hospital, thinking, she's going to need these. When we got there, they'd put her on a respirator, but she never regained consciousness. We waited a few hours so that the rest of our family could come and say good-bye, and then we let her go. I went out the next day and got her name tattooed on my side so that I could have her with me. To this day, it's the only tattoo my parents have approved of—I have five. But even though it was a gut-wrenching and horrible day, it was as though she'd held on to see us that Thanksgiving, and I'm grateful for that. Roxy Lane