I cooked my first Thanksgiving when I was 14. You wouldn’t have known it was for just me and my parents.
We had a whole turkey, brined with spices and carefully roasted on a V-shaped rack for maximum golden-brown coverage. I made sage and sausage stuffing, buttery mashed potatoes and roasted-garlic green beans. Even the cranberry sauce was from scratch — an exotic touch, given the canned jelly had been the usual choice in the past.
Gazing upon the mountain of food I had cranked out of our small townhouse kitchen felt like a massive victory, and a milestone in my burgeoning life as an obsessive cook. The expression on my mom’s face was a little less celebratory — I had left behind an equally daunting mountain of crusty pots and charred sheet pans, plus a fine sprinkling of flour and poultry grease seemingly on every horizontal surface.
It didn’t used to be like this. When I was young, living in California’s Central Valley and then a suburb outside of Dallas, we always gathered with fellow members of the Kim clan. But when we departed the mainland to embark on my parents’ dream of raising me in Hawaii, we seemingly severed our connection to aunts, uncles and cousins overnight. With my parents investing every penny they earned back into their sushi restaurant business, trips to the mainland for the holidays dwindled and disappeared. I knew that staying home for Thanksgiving meant keeping the business running and saving a couple grand on airfare. They reassured me — or really themselves, I think — by talking up the extravagant holiday trips we would take once our savings got fat.
As for those Thanksgivings at home, well… My mom is a brilliant cook, but the flavors of American Thanksgiving eluded her. She had never seen a turkey in Korea, let alone eaten one, and the concept of stuffing and brown gravy were about as foreign to her as fermented bean paste is to most Americans. So for years, the three of us just went out to restaurants, ranging from a favorite local diner to a swanky hotel buffet with a carving station. This was fine, until it wasn’t; in my teenage years I grew acutely aware of the fact that my family unit was a little different than that of all my friends. We just didn’t have anyone to gather at a big Thanksgiving table with. It was no fault of anyone or anything other than circumstance; turns out, 70-hour workweeks in a small business aren’t conducive to making close friends. Or keeping up with family in Texas, for that matter.
Call it good ol’ fashioned indoctrination, but not having a proper Thanksgiving dinner felt wrong, like spitting on Norman Rockwell’s utopic vision of American domesticity. I figured going through the trouble of making this feast would make me feel more rooted to the holiday. In the back of my mind, I also wanted to impress my parents — not with my cooking skills, really, but to show them that this distinctly American tradition could be exciting for them, too.
This year, a lot of people are struggling to get excited for Thanksgiving next week, which is natural considering the unprecedented barriers that stand between them and their loved ones. The pandemic has picked a really bad time to spike, and experts are sounding the alarm on the elevated risk that travel poses. The downside of behaving responsibly is that you’re celebrating Thanksgiving with just a handful of people (or just a partner, or outright solo).
I have to admit, it can feel austere — or even depressing — to cook such a small Thanksgiving dinner, considering how strongly the occasion fires up our emotional memories of bonding with a big crowd. But keeping it small doesn’t mean missing out on the core of the Thanksgiving dinner experience: The carnal pleasure of cramming roasted protein and fatty carbs into your maw while reflecting on the passing of the seasons.
Leaning into this central truth at age 14, I drew up plans for a full Thanksgiving dinner, assuming my parents would simply enjoy having a stack of leftovers filling the fridge. They didn’t, and I got my ass kicked by the additional prep work and the challenge of a small oven, which simply couldn’t accommodate a full bird and sides. That first dinner was a teachable moment, and I scaled everything back for the following years: Less turkey, fewer sides, more intentionality.
Instead of a whole bird, I looked for a whole skin-on turkey breast, which is the perfect size to feed a couple of people while still leaving leftovers for day-after sandwiches. (If you only find a skinless breast, be like the brilliant Melissa Clark and wrap that sucker in bacon.) If you’re looking for a more conventional blend of white and dark meat, roasting a few Cornish game hens — i.e., young chickens — can be a perfect solution, with each person getting their own little bird. My dad, the dark meat lover, would likely prefer that I just slow-roast a couple of turkey drumsticks until they’re mahogany and crisp.
These might seem like half-measures compared to strutting out with a whole bird on a platter, but frankly, with a little thought and decoration, these cuts can look just as beautiful in the center of a table. I especially love food wizard J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s tip to roast a turkey breast in a pan surrounded by stuffing, which is clever in both cooking technique and presentation.
As for the sides, simplify by narrowing the number of dishes and focusing on what you and your guests love to eat. My favorite cranberry sauce consists of just three ingredients, simmered in a pot: Cranberries, a can of Fresca and a few spoons of sugar to taste. Once I pour out the cranberries to cool, I rinse out the same pot with hot water and start making my gravy in it, frying flour with butter and onions until it turns a chestnut color, then adding chicken stock (any turkey drippings can be whisked in later, if you’re into that). Better yet, these sauces can be made in advance and held while you prep the other sides.
Meanwhile, instead of going through the trouble and mess of making mashed potatoes, I like to just rub a few Russets in oil and prick them all over with a fork, then roast them in the oven for an hour alongside the turkey; these baked potatoes are excellent served with just butter, sour cream and chives. Green beans or Brussels sprouts can also be cooked in the oven, if you have space; otherwise, a stovetop sauté works wonders. If you’re really in a rush, you can’t go wrong with a green salad studded with goat cheese, dried cranberries and a tangy vinaigrette.
All of this can be done within three hours, if you plan ahead, which means there’s plenty of time to have a cocktail and pick out a floral arrangement, bring out the nice china or just fuss over which music to put on. My parents loved a little Clifford Brown in the background of our meal; putting on that CD and making the effort to decorate seemed to declare to the house that Thanksgiving Was Now in Session. These touches made the holiday more of an event, and while it can feel lonesome to downshift from a gathering with 20 to a dinner with three, there’s real happiness to be found in the more personal conversations and mellow comfort that comes with smaller crews. (Some people even praise the upside of avoiding family drama and awkward social energies, which might be a bonus in an, uhhh… contentious election year.)
I’ll be spending Thanksgiving 2020 in Northern California with my girlfriend and her parents; we’re collaborating on a porchetta, just to rebel against the turkey-industrial complex for once. But I wish I could spend next week with my parents and cook them dinner, just like it’s 2005 all over again. I never thought I could grow so nostalgic for a meal that was never much of a highlight in my family. Hell, my mom admits that she still doesn’t really like Thanksgiving food, which is maybe the sweetest thing of all.
“What I like is spending time with you, eating something you made with care,” she tells me over the phone. “It hardly matters what’s on the plate, doesn’t it?”