A Pandemic Thanksgiving … Family, Food and Football!

Editor’s Note: Thanksgiving will undoubtedly look and feel different this year. Everyone from lifestyle bloggers to news outlets, cooking gurus and even Dr. Fauci are suggesting we forgo the traditional indoor Thanksgiving extravaganzas and instead limit the size of our celebrations to our immediate households in an effort to avoid being the hosts of super-spreader events.

However, if you are determined to invite those near and dear to you to Thanksgiving dinner at your house, one suggested alternative is to celebrate in the manner of the Native Americans and Pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving – in the great outdoors of your backyard.

As a result of reading the various scenarios, it occurred to me that chef Bill Scepansky, whose column, Bill of Fare, formerly appeared in the magazine, addressed this very topic way back in 2006. So, we thought we’d dust it off, make some updates and share it with you as you consider what your Thanksgiving is going to look like this year.

– Sue Long



Before you even begin to think about Thanksgiving dinner, you need to answer some questions.

  1. Do you usually spend an entire week preparing for the big Thanksgiving feast only to have the football fans at your table wolf down the meal so they can watch the games?
  2. Does your kitchen look like a bomb went off in it on Thanksgiving Day? No, not generally speaking – in football terms, I’m referring to pre- and post-meal conditions.
  3. Are you sick of your spouse being glued to the television while you are chained to the stove?
  4. Is having a big Thanksgiving meal really that important to you in the first place?
  5. Do you even like roasted turkey?
  6. Are you (namely, the lady of the house) feeling beyond-stressed-out (who isn’t these days!) and just want a break over the long holiday weekend?
  7. Does your spouse (namely, the man of the house) love to grill anything and everything?

If you answered yes to any of these questions – specifically numbers 6 and 7 – you may want to try something different and opt for a simple, low-key approach to Thanksgiving dinner this year. Plus, I hate to be the bearer of good/bad news, but Thursday, November 26 will feature three televised NFL games – Houston Texans at Detroit Lions (12:30 p.m. on FOX), Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys (4:30 p.m. on CBS) and the biggie, Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (8:20 p.m. on NBC). It’ll be a day made for grazing!

Now, please don’t think that I’m not for eating or even preparing an all-out, beak-to-tail Thanksgiving spread, but considering what we’ve been through over the last eight months, all you might be looking to do is enjoy the holiday with a simple but special meal and relax a bit.

With that said, I thought that it might be fun to share a few different things you can do to prepare a simple Thanksgiving feast. First, consider grilling your dinner. I think you’ll agree that grilling isn’t just for summer anymore. I can’t tell you how many times I detected the aroma of grilled meat wafting through the air last winter.

Grilling, of course, is also a way to get everyone involved. Generally speaking, if it entails building a fire, then most guys are all over it. So, if you are the lady of the house who, as mentioned before, does all of the cooking while your hubby stations himself in front of the television, this might be a way to include him and have a lot of fun preparing the meal as a family. Meals are always better when everyone pitches in.

Talking Turkey

I’m not talking about smoke-roasting a whole bird. That’s a different story. What I’m suggesting is buying turkey breasts, thighs and drums and grilling them separately. This will solve the issues typically associated with cooking a whole bird, i.e. the breast is often overcooked and beginning to dry out by the time the legs read done.

Instead, you can simply grill the legs until they are done, the breast till it’s done and so on, resting those pieces as the others finish. The meat will be juicier, much more flavorful and easier to carve. Plus, you’ll be better able to figure on the quantity that’s needed since we are talking about 100% useable product, if using totally boneless. Another bonus – grilling won’t take nearly as long as it would to cook a whole bird in the oven. Timewise, you’ll be looking at an hour or two max, as opposed to half a day.

Can the Casseroles

Even the veggies can go on the grill! Sweet potatoes and green beans are fantastic. The potatoes can be either baked in the covered grill from scratch or cooked the day before and simply “marked” while re-heating on the grill for added flavor, texture and appearance. Served with the maple-pecan butter, these otherwise simple sweeties are just as tasty as those more complex sweet potato casseroles that I’m sure you’ve prepared.

You can also forget the requisite green-bean casserole! Beans can be placed in a foil pouch with a touch of stock, some sliced shallots, crumbled bacon and some olive oil. All you have to do is roll up the pouch, toss it on the grill and steam the beans till tender. It doesn’t get any easier than that (and they taste so good).

Craving Gravy?

You can even make the gravy on the grill. Perhaps you have a side burner, where you can cook and thicken stock into some tasty gravy. Or, you can always put the pot right onto the hot grill. Simply thicken some chicken stock with a little roux and add any juices that accumulate from the turkey parts as they rest. You can season it with some fresh herbs and citrus zest if you like. Just think, no lifting of any unwieldy carcasses to get to the drippings, no de-fatting, no burned fingers and no grease-splattered shirts!

A Chili Thanksgiving

Or, why not give into the football fans and serve something as simple as turkey chili with corn bread? That’s close enough to roast turkey and stuffing, isn’t it? I know it sounds like a cop out, but for some, this might be just the ticket. After all, you’re still eating turkey. Add some seasonal brews and a wide-screened TV and you are set to enjoy dinner and the game.

If you’re going this route, just make it is awesome chili. The rule that states, “I would rather have an incredible burger than a mediocre steak,” applies here. If the chili is incredible, made with fresh hot peppers, quality meat and just the right spices, you’ll score a touchdown, guaranteed!

Even more simple, but just as fun, is jerked turkey served with golden pineapple salsa.

Thanksgiving Alfresco

We know what you’re thinking — the late-November weather in South Central Pennsylvania can range from balmy to frigid. Depending on the number of guests, you could rent a tent that includes two or more open walls or set up on a screened porch (fans will be necessary to keep the air moving). If you’re going the total alfresco route, encourage your guests to dress for the weather and not the occasion. You’ll also have to decide if masks are required.

You’ll need enough tables to allow for social distancing. Or, you could ask families to bring their own tables and you could supply the chairs.

Just because dinner isn’t being served in your formal dining room doesn’t mean that Thanksgiving 2020 needs to be a paper plate and Red Solo Cup affair. Dress the tables with your special-occasion linens, china and glassware, plus a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer for everyone. (Another option is to ask guests bring along their own place settings.) Or, go rustic and top the tables with seasonal fabric, quilts or vintage cloths and an array of fall plants and pumpkins/gourds. Make the setting even more festive by stringing lights and lanterns among the trees. If you have a fire pit, utilize it. Don’t forget to add music to the mix. Games for the kids is also a good idea. As for bathrooms, designate to guests which one is available and stock it with plenty of soap, disposable towels and hand sanitizer.

As for food, self-serve buffets are frowned upon. You could set up a serving station and, depending upon the size of your guest list, designate a number of people to deliver the plated food to each guest or ask a guest at each table to do the honors.

Back to the weather: Monitor the forecast and be flexible about moving your dinner to another day of the holiday weekend if it looks like rain (or snow) will fall on Thanksgiving Day.

The Hand-off

No matter which route you take, it will still be Thanksgiving. You’ll still be serving the all-star turkey but you won’t be facing the immense prep and cleanup as before. You’ll actually be able to sit down and savor that piece of pumpkin pie or apple tart. Whether you want to spend the day watching football or enjoying quality time with your family, it’s your choice to make things easier on yourself or go for the extra point. Ultimately, the goal is to have a happy Thanksgiving (and don’t tell your husband where the grilling idea came from).

Menu Ideas

Buttermilk & Herb-Grilled Turkey (Select Parts)

Grilled Sweet Potatoes

Grilled Green Beans

Turkey Chili with Cornbread

Jerked Turkey Drums with Pineapple Salsa

Apple Tartlets

Seasonal Brews: Post Road Pumpkin Ale and Troeg’s Dreamweaver Unfiltered Wheat Ale

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