Back in March, during the bleakest days of the coronavirus pandemic here in New York, I often tried to buoy my spirits with thoughts about the holidays. How surely, by that point, I’d be able to travel again to visit my extended family.
Eight months later, it looks as though a reunion won’t be happening any time soon. But the promise of one still fills me with hope and happiness.
That reality, however, does beg a question: What will my immediate family and I do for the holidays? The answer, it turns out, is fairly simple (and, with any luck, sanity saving): I am committed to viewing our solo holiday celebrations as opportunities to try new things and rethink traditions. We will experiment, workshopping untested dishes and folding the successful ones into our future holiday menus.
The time my wife and I spend mentally preparing for travel with our two young sons (not to mention the physical exertion of lugging our crew through airports and beyond) will go toward food and drink prep instead. At this point, I can think of few better trade-offs.
Since we won’t be hitting the road or cooking for a large crowd, the entire process has the potential to be a bit more relaxed and less time consuming. The whole of Thanksgiving Day won’t be devoted to watching a giant turkey cook, but there will be plenty to keep us busy and happy.
Because the holidays will be unlike any others, I don’t feel the pressure to follow tradition—and you shouldn’t either. Order take out if you want to. It’s a great time to support your local restaurants and bakeries who, no doubt, could use the business. We won’t tell your great aunt that you bought a delicious chocolate layer cake instead of making her signature cranberry loaf. And there is truly no shame in outsourcing the whole damn meal this year.
For that matter, your local craft cocktail bar could also use the support this year. Why not order a punch or a large-format drink from your favorite establishment?
It’s time: Open the bottles that you’ve been saving for a special occasion. We all deserve a reward for getting through this tumultuous year. Dip into that bottle of rare bourbon in the back of the liquor cabinet, like my prized Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon that waits patiently for me to drink it. As my sister once put it as she eyed my whiskey collection, “If you’re not going to open them now, then when?” Wise words.
Several years ago, I made a promise to myself to no longer go through the exhausting exercise of infusing every dish and cocktail with holiday flavors. I have even less patience for that kind of nonsense now. (Believe me, no one wants to try a giblet Gimlet or candy cane Martini.)
Even without those gimmicky concoctions, I find coming up with the perfect drinks for Thanksgiving or the holidays to be fairly tough. Usually, it needs to be something that serves a crowd and goes with a variety of dishes with strong flavors. (What goes with yams or cranberry sauce or stuffing anyway?) So, I usually default to obvious things like Champagne or punch. They are perfectly defensible choices, especially if, in addition to playing bartender and host, you’re cooking a feast. Guests can just refill their glasses when they get thirsty.
But this year I feel freed from the standard norms and am contemplating reworking our complete menus from top to bottom. A few years ago, I started making big pots of turkey and bean chili on Christmas Day for my wife’s family. While not traditional, it ensured folks would eat more than just sugar cookies and potato chips. It’s easy to whip together and it makes a lot. Cooking it also became a meditative act. It’s usually just me chopping onions and stirring pots, feeling satisfied to make something hearty and delicious for my family.
Inspired by the success of our Christmas chili, I plan to rework our Thanksgiving menu this year. That means starting the meal with steamed vegetable dumplings and replacing the turkey with just a turkey breast—or even jettisoning the turkey altogether and making lasagna.
We’d like to start the day with our own turkey trot through Central Park. With no turkey to cook for hours, we can take our time. Afterwards, we’ll have a decadent brunch of bagels, cream cheese and lox, plus a chocolate babka. And just in case anyone gets hungry before our early holiday dinner, I’ll whip up trays of homemade nachos with plenty of cheese and olives.
I’m also rethinking our plan for drinks. Since only my wife and I will be drinking, I want to serve bubbly with our bagels. In the afternoon, as we cook the meal, I plan to sip whiskey Highballs—tall glasses of ice topped with a couple of ounces of liquor and plenty of club soda or ginger beer.
During dinner, we’ll serve non-alcoholic apple cider as well as club soda. When dessert—pie and an ice cream sundae bar—rolls around, I’ll have a nightcap from my special bottle of Jefferson’s Bourbon. Once the kids go to sleep, no doubt I’ll also drift off for a nap. But, it being a holiday and all, it’ll be quick, leaving lots of time for another glass of whiskey and leftover nibbling as my wife and I talk about the day and watch silly television shows.
Maybe some of these new ideas will work out so well, we’ll introduce them to our families next year. I’m learning not to assume anything, but by then (fingers crossed) we’ll all be ready to go back to our regular holiday programming.