A Family-Free Feast, To Say the Least

Sometimes it's not possible to get home for the holidays, but that's not to say it's impossible to bring home to wherever you are for the holidays. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Etzel


This year I experienced my first Thanksgiving away from home. While it wasn’t as emotional as missing Christmas, breaking tradition is always hard. I couldn’t make a trip home for the holiday because my internship at the Heard Museum placed me in charge of the media for their annual Harvest Feast, which took place on Thanksgiving. After overseeing the guests’ reservations and taking pictures at the dinner, I decided to create my own Thanksgiving feast for my friends in town. From cooking through blaring fire alarms and the pressure to perfect a feast, I learned what it truly takes to pull off a successful Thanksgiving meal.

I come from a long line of amazing cooks. Stacks and stacks of family cookbooks take over the bookshelves at home and secret recipes are rarely passed around on paper in our family. Every Thanksgiving I enjoy the company of relatives whom I don’t see often and we share a magnificent meal prepared by my mother or grandmother. I was determined to experience that same feeling this Thanksgiving, despite my lack of family and culinary expertise.

The Menu

First, I had to secure a guest list, which turned out to be harder than I expected. Three of my friends who had planned to stay in Tempe for the holiday ended up going home, leaving me with a table for one. Thankfully, my devoted boyfriend James made the trip from California to Tempe, making the dinner a date for two. After I knew he was coming the pressure was on. Not only was he driving six hours across the desert, he was also sacrificing a family holiday and most-likely-delicious meal prepared by an experienced relative to risk eating the experiment from my oven!

I decided to cook traditional items like turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and vegetables since I had never prepared a Thanksgiving dinner before. But I needed to add a family recipe, which would bring a taste of home to my menu. I decided to concoct corn casserole, a southern family recipe that I grew up eating at every special occasion I can remember.

The Shopping

I set a budget of $100 for my Thanksgiving extravaganza. As I entered the Safeway a couple blocks from my apartment, I clutched my shopping cart with a nervous smile. I anxiously dug through my purse to find my grocery list, and began to make my way through the aisles, grabbing basics like potatoes, stuffing and baking necessities; confidence slowly grew within me.

I wanted to cultivate an organic and local side to the menu, so I picked up organic chicken stock, antibiotic-free turkey and cage-free eggs from Whole Foods. I also visited the local farmer’s market at the Public Market in downtown Phoenix for fresh herbs and the potatoes and onions.

Making the pumpkin pie from scratch cost less and tasted better.
Photo by Kathleen Etzel

In order to minimize my workload I planned to purchase a store-made pie for dessert. But, James pointed out it would be more cost efficient and tasty to whip up a homemade pumpkin pie from scratch — making this Thanksgiving a holiday full of firsts. Since I had to work on Thanksgiving Day, I cooked on Saturday. Luckily for my bank account there were great specials at Whole Foods on turkey legs, so I only paid $3 for four turkey legs. I splurged on a turkey breast in addition to the legs, which only put me $5 over budget at the end of my shopping day.

The Chopping (and blaring)

The Food Network makes cooking a four-course meal look easy and glamorous. It’s not. I discovered that a successful dinner takes patience and precision. Missing one teaspoon of salt was the difference between perfection and disaster. But at least I had an apron, which provided the illusion that I sort of knew what I was doing.

My primary obstacle: how to baste, season and cook the bird. To ease the stress, my mom acted as my sous chef via telephone and coached me through the prepping process and timing the turkey just right.

As soon as I returned from Whole Foods that afternoon I held the phone in one hand and seasoned the turkey with olive oil, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper with the other. I popped the turkey in the oven and moved to prepping the potatoes and vegetables. I checked the turkey every thirty minutes to make sure it didn’t dry out.

Just when I started to fall into a rhythm — wash the green beans, put the corn casserole together, peel the potatoes — the smoke alarm went off. I nearly sliced off my finger with the potato peeler! James burst into the kitchen like a racehorse (expecting to see a fire I’m sure), but I had everything under control. With a smile, I motioned him over to the oven where the turkey was roasting in peace. The alarm sounded because the room temperature had increased, not because anything was burning. Shortly after the alarm subsided, we joked that at least we knew it worked now!

The Final Stretch

My biggest challenge arose in the final 30 minutes before serving the meal. I wanted all of the food to be warm when it was ready to be served. The turkey takes about two hours to cook and around 30 minutes to cool. So in that 30 minutes I had to mash and season the potatoes, steam the green beans, take the corn casserole out of the oven to cool, prepare the stuffing, and mix the gravy. At this point I realized the craziness of what I had gotten myself into.

As I whisked the gravy, the oven timer beeped, demanding I take out the corn casserole. I raced to retrieve the oven mitts, praying nothing would burn while my eyes were away from the stove.

Once I finally started to feel like I had the kitchen under control, the fire alarm once again decided to blare in distress. I wondered if maybe it sensed my head heating up from exhaustion.

My handyman James opened a window to let some air in, and the alarm stopped. With its loud, obnoxious sound now vanished, I could focus on not burning the rest of the meal. As soon as the gravy was whisked to perfection, I uncovered the turkey and set the table.

When we finally sat down and started to fill our plates with warm potatoes and a golden turkey, I felt a sense of relief. I had successfully survived the fire alarm, the oven and the stove without any major burns or screw-ups.

College is about trying new things because sometimes they turn out fantastic.
Photo by Kathleen Etzel

For my first Thanksgiving Day meal, I would have to say my trials and tribulations were worth it. James loved the corn casserole more than any other dish. I would have thought he was looking for some bonus points with my family if it hadn’t come out as perfect as it did. My roommate lucked out because the fridge was full of delicious leftovers through the week.

This holiday season some students may not get the chance to go home and be with their families. They might struggle to keep tradition alive, especially on a family holiday with no family around. During this holiday season, people should turn off the electronic world and focus on the relationships and friends that surround them. College is about trying new things and even if this meal would have turned out burnt and tasted like rubber, I would have reflected and laughed about the memory for years to come.

Contact the writer at ketzel@asu.edu or via Twitter @KITTTY_katt

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