Eating for Less at Thanksgiving

I laugh when I see those yearly articles in the newspaper announcing that the price of Thanksgiving dinner is getting beyond what Americans can afford.  This year they are trying  to convince us that the cost per head will run about $4.50 each. I think I can do it for half that or less. No doubt the problem is all the prepackaged this, that, and the other thing.  We don’t do that at our house unless it is cheaper to do so — which is probably one of the reasons I hate cooking Thanksgiving dinner.  Hidden in the following advice for a cheap Thanksgiving, you will find some other reasons as well.

Here is Lee Ann’s sage list for how to do an economical Thanksgiving dinner that tastes good:

Save on water bills by serving all cooked components of the meal right in the pots they were heated in.  It will conserve on dishwater, which translates into $$$ you keep in your pocket.  And you won’t labor over washing so many dishes, either.  This is only a bonus if you are the only dishwashing appliance your house contains (which is my sad condition).

I actually tried serving a la pot for Thanksgiving the first year we were married.  It is the way I normally serve dinner at our house 364 days a year, when we don’t have guests looking on.  I am not one with an appetite for elegance.  However, my mother does hunger for elegance – at least when she eats at my house.  Ever since the first year, I have opted for paying the extra dishwater money.  It saves on disapproving mother-lectures.

Skip the real potatoes and go for the instant mashers.  Buy them cheap at Aldi or Sav-a-Lot.  For that matter, buy everything cheap at one of those two outlets.

My mother, the Thanksgiving connoisseur by which all things must be measured, informed me all through my growing-up years that instant mashed potatoes were “pig slop.”  Well, no, she didn’t really say that, but it was implied.  She never went back a second time to any restaurant that served instant potatoes.

I am the adventurous and sometimes lazy type, though, and thought, “What could be so bad about potatoes that look like bleached wood chips, only cost $.99, and cook up in five minutes?”

The secret to good instant mashers that your kids and your persnickety mother will love is using twice the amount of milk called for, instead of all that water.  Use more flakes, too.  If the potatoes are so runny that they drip off your spoon, Mom will know!  They need to be thick.

The first year I dared to serve them for Thanksgiving, my mother could not tell she was getting instants.  She oohed and aahed over those potatoes.  I confessed their true nature, and the second year she asked, in the days leading up to the big event, if we could have those lovely instant spuds again.

Don’t buy Stove-Top Stuffing.  Make your own.  If you like the stove-top taste and convenience, you will need to have a kid or husband who will not eat the heels of the bread loaf.  Do not throw the heels out for the squirrels.  Peanuts are much more healthful for the little varmints.  Dry those bread heels, break them up into cubes and stick them in air-tight containers until you are ready to use them (unless you enjoy the added protein and flavor of weevils).

If you need a recipe for the proper amount of water and seasonings to make this one turn out right, I’m sure someone listed in Google can help you out.  If not, I’ve got a great recipe.  Call me for blow-by-blow coaching at 1-900-STUFFIN before 5:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.  After 5:00 we will be in the midst of eating, and it will cost you twice the price.

In truth, I only do the homemade stove-top stuff when it’s just my immediate family.  When extended relatives are with us, we do real stuffing in the oven.  My mom does not agree that I do real stuffing, since I refuse to stick it in the turkey’s insides.  I suppose she is right.  If it isn’t stuffing something, technically it isn’t “stuffing” (although if the meal turns out right, some of the relatives will certainly be stuffed when it’s over).  Oh, let’s just call it dressing, then, to keep the peace.

I don’t stuff the turkey’s former intestinal cavity because the idea is repulsive to me.  Think what was in there before!  Besides, if you put the dressing in there, it absorbs blood and fat, all of which I can skim off before using the juice in the dressing I cook in a casserole dish.  Stuffing bird is also a lot more work.  Scraping it out is a lot of work, too.

My mom says my dressing is not as good as hers because I do not stick it in the intestinal cavity.  Perhaps she likes the taste of bone marrow and blood and fat in her dressing.  She has also expressed a loathing for the bits of celery I add in.  I have learned to compromise with her by chopping the celery in large pieces so that she can pick them out before slopping the gravy over the top.

Make your own low-fat gravy.  That runny stuff out of the can is expensive, and it has no substance to it.  When you make your own, make sure it has a few stick-to-your-ribs lumps in it, so that everyone knows it did not come from a can.  Seriously, I don’t have too much trouble with lumps.  If you go to my web site, I’ll give you some tips on perfectly lumpless gravy that will wow even your in-laws —

Sara Lee makes pies cheaper than you can — but only at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I used to do pies from scratch.  The mess is deplorable.  Sometimes, so is the result.  I don’t know who Mrs. Smith or Sara Lee are, but they do a bang-up job on pie.  I can only hope their pie ingredients do not come from China.  Melamine or chicken doo-doo in my pie crust does not sound like my idea of a good time.

Volunteer your mom to make the fresh cranberry sauce.  I don’t care too much if my cranberries come out of an Ocean Spray can, but the extended relatives do.  I can’t make the fresh sauce right.  You see, I follow the instructions on the bag, and when I use only the cup of sugar the recipe calls for, it puckers the elderly relatives’ mouths.  My mom is not afraid to put three cups of sugar in, and when she does that, she is happy with the way they taste.  I should do it her way, but it grosses me out, throwing all that sugar in.  So I let her do it and try not to think about all the sugar beets that died for me while eating it.

That, my friends, is how I save money and family relationships at Thanksgiving.  

The Cremains

My father passed away a week and a half ago.  This was decidedly not a funny event in my life, but my older daughter and her two children came for the funeral, and life in our little cottage with the three of them added in for the past week has provided plenty of funny things to write about.  I will be busy in the next week or two, recounting it all.

My father wished to be cremated.  In discussing the memorial service preparations with the funeral director, I learned a new word.  When you are cremated, not buried, they do not call the body the remains.  They call it “the cremains.”

I did a little cremating myself tonight, and I almost served it up as supper.  Apparently, I am not very good at multi-tasking, especially if part of that multi-tasking involves talking and cooking at the same time.  I had come up with a lovely, creative plan to feed the tribe: boiled potatoes with broccoli tossed in, with cheese and cream of chicken soup slopped all over it, and the whole thing thrown into a casserole dish and baked in the oven.  And bacon.  It was going to have bacon in it for flavor.  It was guaranteed to be a real winner.  How could one go wrong with all that good stuff blended together?

Everything was steaming along just fine, until my daughter wandered into the kitchen.  We got into a theological discussion.  We ALWAYS get into a theological discussion.  This is what we enjoy talking about.  A conversation between us is not complete without solving all the doctrinal controversies of our day.

The bacon that was nearly done to perfection one moment became charcoal the next.  I had left it sizzling on too high a temperature, and poof! Cremains.  I was disgusted with myself.  I haven’t smoked up the kitchen like that since I burned the chicken soup dry a few years ago.  We were teetering on the verge of a grease fire for a few minutes.  Everyone came to the rescue.  My husband bounded into the room to turn the kitchen fan on, disconnect the smoke alarm, and deliver a lecture.  Beebee ran to get fresh bacon.  She did not relish the idea of the cremains being tossed in with the rest of the casserole, and insisted that since at first I did not succeed, I should try, try again.

I did try.  But first I needed to get rid of the grease from the burnt batch of bacon.  By this time, it had cooled a bit, so I dumped it into a plastic yogurt cup and left it to solidify.  Things were starting to look a little better.  We had disposed of the porker cremains in a suitable urn (the wastebasket), and the second batch was busy poppin’ and a-cracklin’ in the fry pan.

“Mom! — Oh, never mind.  Just don’t look.  Don’t look.”  Susan calmly pushed me out of the way so that she could get to the stove, while I thought, “Now what am I burning??!!!”

It wasn’t burning.  It was melting.  The bacon grease was still too hot, and it had melted that plastic yogurt cup down to half its size.  It looked a bit like Frosty the Snowman in the middle of a spring thaw.  Fortunately, the cup collapsed from the top down, rather than springing a leak in its bottom.  Susan deposited the awful little mess in the wastebasket, next to the cremains.  How fitting.  The crispified pork rinds reunited with the fat they had left behind.  Very touching.

We managed to get the second batch of bacon done and in the casserole with the spuds and green stuff.  Other than scorching the cheese on top, we had no more mishaps in getting supper on the table.

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