My Thanksgiving Battle Plan

Preparing for Thanksgiving dinner is like getting ready to go into battle. It’s all about putting together your marching orders, gathering your troops and executing the plan.

But weirdly, I kind of like it, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve been doing it for years.

The first time I hosted Thanksgiving was about 20 years ago and I think I fed around that many people. My mom came over the day before with a couple of my sisters and we all worked side-by-side peeling pounds of potatoes and chopping apples and celery for the stuffing. I didn’t grow up doing these kinds of things with my family — Thanksgiving dinner just kind of appeared – so it was a great team-building exercise, watching my mother stir the butter into the bread crumbs and monitoring the amount of half and half we poured into the potatoes. When we sat down to dinner the next day, we were pleased with the creaminess of the potatoes and nodded to each other as we tasted the apples and sausage in the stuffing. We gave each other a collective pat on the back.

Now that my girls are older, they have become my Thanksgiving soldiers. Our chopping and stirring is in lockstep. There’s no one I’d rather go into battle with than those girls.

Over the years I’ve kept copious notes of my Thanksgiving prep efforts. What worked and didn’t work. Different centerpieces that I tried. The Paula Deen sweet potatoes that made everyone swoon in 2006 and how a homemade pie crust would have been a better match than the Pillsbury affair I paired with the delicious filling in the apple crumble I made in 2007.

This year, we’ll be making dinner for a much smaller crowd than usual. On Thanksgiving it will be my kids and their dad sitting around the table and honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather gather and give thanks with. Unless Oprah wants to come. There’s always room for Oprah.

There are a few staples in my Thanksgiving menu. My stuffing is always a sausage and apple combo (the carmelized onions are the secret-sauce); Barefoot Contessa’s pumpkin banana mousse tart is so delicious you forget pumpkin is involved; and it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without cauliflower served with a white béchamel sauce on the side.

 I’m kind of obsessed with this blogger lately so thinking I might try these brussels sprouts she wrote about recently and even though the aforementioned Whiskey-Apple Crumble Pie is pretty delicious served warm with vanilla ice cream, I’m tempted to try Melissa Clark’s Apple Gingersnap Crumble. This sweet potato casserole is also kind of calling my name.

One thing that I’d never change are my mashed potatoes because not only are they consistently perfect (using a ricer ensures the smooth consistency), they can be made the day before. Go ahead, give them a try. And happy Thanksgiving.

Mrs. Pezzuti’s Mashed Potatoes

5 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes

8 oz. cream cheese

1 c. half and half

1 stick butter

1tsp. onion salt **

1 tsp. seasoned salt **

1 tsp. salt **

¼ tsp. pepper **

Peel potatoes cook until tender and drain. (Here’s where the ricer comes in.) Beat softened cream cheese, seasonings, and hot potatoes and butter with hand mixer. Blend well and add half and half.

Put in a buttered 2-quart casserole (preferable a shallow one). Brush top with butter.

Bake at 350-degrees for 30 minutes (can be made 1 to 2 days ahead and refrigerated). Place on foil on cookie sheet, may bubble over.

*If making in advance, give ample time for reheating, taking dish out of fridge well in advance and heating in oven for at least 30 minutes.

**Season according to taste. I use a lot more than what the recipe calls for.

[This is pretty much the same recipe if you’re the sort who needs a video.]

What are your Thanksgiving staples? Share in the comments below!








Post-Thanksgiving Thanks

Both of my daughters told me at different times last night, after the Thanksgiving remains had been boxed and bagged on shelves in the frig and every spoon and pot lid had been washed and left to dry, that it had been a better day than they had expected.

“Why was that?” I asked.

“Because you were much calmer than you usually are when we have people over,” said one girl.

“You didn’t act like a freak,” observed the other.

And it’s totally true.

I’d offered to host Thanksgiving for my family this year, willingly and despite the fact that I’m preparing to move in the next month and that I just had the good fortune to return from a trip to Disney World with my 12yo son a few days before. So, I knew what I was getting into and the challenge going into it was how was I going to keep it all in perspective?

Historically, this is how I acted before any event I hosted:

When I was still married, I’d make my husband crazy as I tried to channel Martha Stewart in the linoleum-lined kitchen of our first house, barking orders at him while I baked and broiled and slathered things in tapenades and aioli and actively ignored the needs of any infants or toddlers living under our roof.

Things didn’t really improve after I got divorced as I just transferred all that pre-party rage onto my children. Somehow, at the end of the night after all the guests had gone home, no one ever concurred with my assessment that all the crazy had been worth it. It seemed anyone who’d lived through my entertaining mania would much rather have been locked in solitary confinement or water boarded than forced to withstand my verbal flagellations.

But I am tired of trying to pretend to be perfect and apparently, after reading all the reactions to that zany video I posted on Facebook, I haven’t been the only one trying to make people think that we don’t sit on our sofas or sleep in our beds or generally live in our house. So many women saw themselves in that crazy Gayle character as she raced around her house with a vacuum barking that she wanted to have the place “looking like Disney on Ice in one minute.” We saw how ridiculous we were.

I mean, it was just my family coming to dinner; my mom, a few siblings and their families. Did I really need to impress them with elaborate desserts and centerpieces? Did I really care about finding the perfect sweet potato recipe that would complete their meal?

In the end, I let go of everything. Instead of making every last dish on the table, I delegated much of the cooking. I set the kids’ table up in the den that is now lined with moving boxes filled with the books that used to line the shelves. I ignored the fairly large dust bunny that remained behind the powder room door even after my oldest son vacuumed the entire first floor. And when, just as my brother was preparing to carve the turkey, I discovered I’d forgotten to take the stuffing out of the frig to heat for dinner, I simply threw into the microwave to heat and broiled in the oven to crisp up the top. It wasn’t perfect but it got the job done. Oh, and we didn’t even have sweet potatoes on the menu this year.

As many of you who stop by here know, I super-love the writer Elizabeth Gilbert. I can’t get enough of her thoughts and voice. And I’m reminded this post-Thanksgiving morning of her pronouncement that “done is better than good.” Sometimes we get so snagged by trying to be perfect that we’re prevented from doing anything at all. Or, I’d like to add, we focus on stuffing and dust bunnies and not the stuff that really matters.

Repeat after me.

Repeat after me.


Instead, yesterday I enjoyed sneaking my two nieces some shiny chocolate coins I’d set out in my fanciest china bowls on the kids’ table for them to nibble before dinner. I watched as my four children took turns holding their two-month old cousin and then marveled as my oldest son cradled the baby in his arms and cooed and made faces that brought a big, dimple-cheeked smile to the baby’s face. And when the meal was over and I could not shovel one more forkful of mashed potatoes into my face, I sat and enjoyed chatting with my family instead of jumping up and clearing the dishes from the table.

And when two of my siblings, whose appetites I’d taken into consideration when I ordered my giant bird, failed to show up for the meal without a call or a text, I let that go, too. In the end, I’m sorry they missed such a nice afternoon surrounded by our family.

I asked my friend Dan – you know, that Girl-Whisperer guy – what his favorite part of Thanksgiving was as we worked out the other day and instead of the turkey or a certain pie, he told me he was looking forward to the prayer before the meal he would serve at his house. He’s been through a lot this year, like radiation and chemo and kind of dying, and said he had a lot to be thankful for and was going to write something to share before the meal with his family. He wanted them to know how much they meant to him.

I thought about that prayer a lot, too, while getting ready to host my own Thanksgiving feast. I thought about how lucky I was to have all that I do, like my family and my health and the means to afford a heritage turkey that had been hand-fed golden corn kernels and some gourmet gravy to go along with him.

Now I only hope I bring the same zen approach to my upcoming move because the pile of boxes in my garage make my heart race a little bit every time I walk past them to get to my car. I’ll just need to get that done, too.

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My Top 5 Days of the Year

They’re the days that I look forward to. The ones that make slogging through the other 360 kind of worth it. And today was one of them.

  1. My Birthday: Even though I am now closer to 50 than 45 and some people I know are shocked by my alleged ability to reproduce, I still totally love my birthday. I love the attention, that my kids are generally on their best behavior and that presents are involved. I am all about the swag.
  2. Christmas Day: I grumble throughout the season, complaining about the decorating, the holiday cards, the cost of the whole shebang. But on Christmas morning I wake up as excited as I did when I was a kid although now I love watching the kids open all the gifts I spent so much time shopping for and picking out and wrapping. I don’t even care any more about what I get, which is good because I think last year or the year before I got garbage pails. Legit. Two new garbage pails with bows. But I needed them and they were bought with an incredible amount of love and I think of that every time I drop a big bag of cat poop into one.
  3. December 26: It’s the one day of the year I don’t feel guilty about sitting in my pajamas all day and doing nothing. I am also all about doing nothing. Okay, maybe I eat a lot of stuff like this.
  4. Thanksgiving: I am obsessed with the parade and get goosebumps every time Al Roker cuts the ribbon at the start. Cheesy, I know. But the best part of the day is working for hours with my daughters as we peel the potatoes, slice the apples and wrestle the giant turkey into the pan. We are an amazing team. The second best part? Leftovers.
  5. The Day My Pool is Closed for the Season: Really, the reason for this whole post. It happened this morning, when a pool guy named Steve showed up with a handful of ninjas and had the sucker shut down and covered in about an hour. I love looking out the window every chance I get and seeing the big green cover stretched across the gaping money hole called a pool. “Didn’t you enjoy it this year?” asked The Girl Whisperer as I was celebrating the closing between push ups and I did have to pause and remember some of the good times we had in the thing this summer. The times we all sat in the hot tub and sipped wine and a certain night not too long ago when the girls and I stripped off our clothes and jumped into the deep end and screamed at how cold the water felt on our bare skin. And then how the girls screamed when I got out to jump in again. The horror.
  6. photo 2-3
    ‘Tis a beautiful site.

Top 5 Things Bloggers Are Thankful For

IMG_0290‘Tis the season for giving thanks, and all that, and for my first Thanksgiving as an official blogger, I’d like to share what’s brought me joy this year:

  1. Sweatpants: For the five years he lived in the house I live in now, my ex-husband shared a walk-in closet with me. He had one side and I had the other and everything seemed to fit inside it perfectly. But once he moved out, and took all his jackets and ties with him, my belongings seemed to multiply exponentially. Now, the closet is jam-packed with more blouses, skirts and scarves than you could shake a stick at. But if you stopped by my house on any given day, you’d find me perched at my kitchen island in front of my laptop sporting some type of loungewear. What better way to accommodate an insanely sedentary lifestyle than with elastic? Things have taken a downhill turn though lately, and I find myself  just staying in my pajamas until midday, which is embarrassing when, like, the neighbor’s dad stops by to get her housekey or the FedEx guy wants you to sign for something. No one wants to see a grown woman in red flannel PJs covered in some Asian-inspired print involving tigers after noon. It’s upsetting.
  2. When kids say the darndest things: Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve come to subscribe to Nora Ephron’s edict that “Everything is copy.” Now, whenever a jewel comes out of one of my kids’ mouth – like when my 10 year old told me I was being a “perv” or that I should follow Jennifer Aniston’s “tips” – I quickly write it down on whatever Post-It Note or envelope is lying around. I even carry a notebook around in my purse in case someone utters something blog-worthy on the go. I’ve gotten so good at recording their bon mots that the kids have started to get a little suspicious when I ask them the most innocuous of questions. Yesterday, I asked my oldest guy what his favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal was and he went to answer, and then stopped, and said, “Mom, I feel like I’m on a reality show.” Look out, Kardashians.
  3. Shoutouts from big sites: Let’s face it: We bloggers are a dime a dozen. There are countless women sitting in their kitchens right now – banging away on their laptops –oversharing snippets of coversations with their children or adventures on the speed-dating scene. So to rise out of obscurity, you really need to hustle and sometimes, that just seems like a lot of work. All that tweeting and hashtagging. Who’s got the time, what with all the laundry and dishes lying around here. So it’s practically a blogging miracle when a major parenting blog posts a link to your blog out of the clear blue sky. It brings with it a nice boost in traffic and readers from outside the small town (population: 6,000) that you live in. People in like, Nevada and Texas and even dudes. Who would have thunk it?
  4. Other Bloggers: Even though there are a million of us, bloggers are a supportive community and are generous with sharing ideas and readers. Since I launched at the beginning of the year, I’ve gotten to know a couple of bloggers live and in person (holla Miss Emily at Em-i-lis and Brooke at Carpool Candy) and a few I’ve connected with in the virtual sense (Connie at I Suck as a Parent, Lisa at The Canadian Chronicles and Dorothy at Crazy for Crust).  I am excited to return to the big Blogher conference this summer as an experienced blogger, rather than the wet-behind-the-ears newbie, and meet all the great writers I’ve discovered online this year. It’s like a giant, virtual sorority.
  5. Our Readers: Let’s face it, just like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, bloggers would be silent without their readers. I love running into people around town who tell me they connected with my struggle with the Catholic Church or found hope in my tales of being a single mom. It’s so good to know that we’re not alone. That we’re not crazy. And that another mom somewhere is plowing through a box of Cheez-Its in bed. There’s safety in numbers. So I’m wishing all of my readers a safe and happy Thanksgiving filled with lots of stuffing, gravy and family on its best behavior (but bring your notebook, just in case).





November is the Cruelest Month for Moms

DSC04220Anyone who agrees with T.S. Eliot’s assessment that “April is the cruelest month” has obviously never spent time trying to be a mom in New Jersey during November.

This week alone, my fifth grader has three days off. Three days. I didn’t even know about one of them until this weekend.

Out of the possible 20 full days of school this month, in our district the kids have five of them off and there will be early dismissals for another four of those days to accommodate conferences at the end of the month.

What am I doing with my 10-year-old all those hours when he should be sitting at a desk in a classroom learning about ancient civilizations or fractions or something?

As a former school board member, I understand the challenges of scheduling all those things that need to be squeezed in throughout the year, like professional development for teachers and holidays, and still end up with the mandatory 180 school days. It’s like squeezing Jello into a tube and having it ooze out the other end.

For the first time since I can remember, the kids have off Tuesday for Election Day.  In our town, residents use the two schools as polling places. In the old days, that used to coexist with the school day, with voters filing into the schools’ libraries to cast their votes. But now, no one wants folks to be able to just wander in off the streets into the schools in the wake of Newtown.

I get that.

Then at the end of this week, school is closed Thursday and Friday for the annual NJEA Convention, something I’ve had to attend in Atlantic City for mandatory board member training but have never really heard of any teachers I know attending. That used to make me crazy when the kids were younger, probably because I just wanted them out of my hair and to stop asking me what’s for dinner. But now with just two kids at home, I’m feeling kinder and gentler about the whole thing. It’s really just an excuse for the good people of New Jersey to take their kids to Orlando for a long weekend.

Then we have half days for conferences beginning the Friday before Thanksgiving and leading up to Turkey Day and Black Friday. That is what we call it now, isn’t it? It’s its own weird holiday celebrating consumerism.


If I was to stop trying to be funny for a second, I’d admit that I don’t mind having the kids around. Really. Not usually.

But I’ve got this day job that helps pay a portion of two college tuitions and the off-the-charts taxes I need to fork over to Uncle Sam quarterly.

I just don’t have the time to police the TV watching/XBOX playing/YouTube searching that some people I know like to spend as much of their free time as possible pursuing.

As fate would have it, I’m heading out of town for the long weekend to meet up with college friends and party like it’s 1988. Well, minus the beer bongs, cigarettes and fraternity boys. Pretty much we’ll sit around drinking wine and howling about the old days. I’ll come home with a sore jaw from laughing so much.

And this is a good thing, because even though I’m agitated about the November school calendar for my younger children, I have yet to come to terms with the full week off the college kids have for Thanksgiving.

Ah. Let the holidays begin.





Traditions: Old and New


The Devil wears Hanna Andersson. And Barney is just a gift. Circa 1994.

I was agitated earlier this week when I got a text from my ex-husband announcing it was his year to spend Thanksgiving with our four children.

I had already committed to hosting the holiday at my house for my side of the family and was looking forward to the planning and execution of the dinner alongside my girls. We’ve had fun over the years peeling potatoes and baking turkey cakes side by side in our kitchen. I love how well we work together, how one of the girls slices the apples while another prepares the filling and then I sprinkle the sugary crumble on top.

It’s the ultimate team-building exercise.

But one of the things about divorce is that you wind up with a script of how things should go down henceforth. Somewhere in a drawer in my room there is a document that details who gets the kids when, in alternating odd and even years.

But in the five years since we’ve been apart, I haven’t really had to consult our divorce agreement for holiday issues. Things always just seem to work out around Easter and we pretty much stick to the Christmas script we always followed.

And Thanksgiving hadn’t been controversial because he’s been spending it with his girlfriend’s family. But apparently he wants to loop the kids into that this year.

At first I thought, “Well that sucks. Why would the kids want to go there?”

But after a couple of things that happened this week, I’ve decided it’s not really a big deal. It’s just one day. One meal.

I went to join my knitting group for a spell on Wednesday — and I use the term “knitting” very loosely because while we used to actually work with yarn and needles, now we mostly just really like each other and show up sans equipment to catch up over coffee for an hour or so.

We got to talking about Thanksgiving plans, as women of a certain age invariably do. Who’s hosting, who’s coming. How many.

My one friend, who’s about 10 or so years ahead of me in the mom game, announced that she and her husband were going to travel to Boston to spend the holiday with their son and his wife.

This is not the first time in recent years that they have traveled to spend a holiday with one of their three children. Last year they drove to the Hudson River Valley to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant where one of their sons works and this Christmas, they’re heading to Vermont with another son.

But it’s not what she expected, she said, all those years ago when the kids were small and they would gather with extended family in their home. It was their tradition.

“I always thought it would be that way,” she said to us gathered around the kitchen table littered with coffee cups and cell phones.

“But then, once you spend a holiday without all of your kids, you realize that you can get through it,” she said. “That it’s not the worst thing.”

And that really stuck with me.

When you get divorced, of course one of the things you focus on is the possibility that at some point, you might be spending a holiday without your children. You freak that all those traditions you carefully cultivated over the years won’t continue.

And sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not.

I’ve spent a few Easters without the kids and that was rough. I flew to California to spend the holiday with one sister and her family and remember just how sad I was to be without the kids that day. How sad it was to not be stuffing millions of jellybeans and pieces of chocolate into plastic eggs or finding the perfect hiding spot for a basket.

But the kids were off on some beach vacation with their dad and how could I begrudge them that? There should be some upside to having divorced parents and if that’s a trip to the Bahamas, so be it.

Yesterday was the first Halloween in my like 18-or-so years of trick-or-treating with kids that I didn’t have to actually hit the pavement. I was prepared to follow my 10 year old down the darkened streets of our little town while he and his posse ran from house to house filling their pillowcases with treats. But it never happened.

He had hooked up with kids in another neighborhood and by the time I got over there, the dads had been dispatched to oversee the kids while the moms were busy inside a nearby house setting out the fancy pigs in a blanket and Capri Sun pouches to distract the kids from candy upon their return.

I stood around the kitchen and drank a spicy blood orange margarita and chatted with the other moms until the kids started to trickle back in. They compared hauls and then ran around outside, playing manhunt in the soft October night air.

I finally pried my son away from the fun, gathering his yellow nylon costume off the pile of other discarded superhero suits on the floor, and on the drive home, he told me, “That was the best Halloween ever.”


Twin princesses wearing sensible turtlenecks.

And I thought of all the Halloweens of years past, holding little hands walking up to neighbors’ doors and encouraging my little Buzz or Woody to say “Trick or treat” and thank you upon receipt of said treat. Of being part of the stroller brigade later, when the older kids could zip independently from door to door while we moms waited in the darkness by the curb with the younger siblings in tow.

And later still, when everyone wanted to walk around with their own set of friends, I’d be off in a million different directions, trying to keep tabs on who was with whom and where.

It’s evolving, this parenting thing. One minute you’re shouting at your little Tinkerbell to keep up with the group of trick or treaters and not run in the street and the next, she’s getting on a train to the city to see the Halloween parade and eat Indian food.

And whether you get to that point slowly over time or a divorce or other catastrophic life event helps accelerate the process, at some point, we all get there.

Traditions are broken or need to be changed. But that’s just how it goes.

I think the key is flexibility, and remembering what’s important. What really counts.

Because while those big holidays are great and go down in the photo albums and memory books for the ages, it’s the slow slog over all the days and weeks and years that really matters. Being there for the kids on a Tuesday afternoon in September when one is feeling the pain of a failed romance or a Friday morning in December when another thinks she can’t go on one more day.

That’s the tradition I hope I’ve created for my children that neither divorce nor growing older will ever break.