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All About Food: Tales of the Thanksgiving rush

November 16, 2011|By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz
  • Thanksgiving turkey with all the fixings made at the Bristol Farms in Newport Beach.
Thanksgiving turkey with all the fixings made at the Bristol… (STEVEN GEORGES,…)

"The funny thing about Thanksgiving, or any huge meal, is that you spend 12 hours shopping for it and then chopping and cooking and braising and blanching. Then it takes 20 minutes to eat it and everybody sort of sits around in a food coma, and then it takes four hours to clean it up."

 

— Ted Allen

We all know that it's difficult enough to put Thanksgiving dinner together for 10 or 20 people, but imagine if you were cooking for 500.

That's what we did every year for 18 years when we owned A La Carte in Laguna Beach, a small gourmet take-out restaurant and catering business. No matter how many times we did it, it never got any easier.

For Thanksgiving we offered a complete dinner for 10 (or the parts thereof), and what made it so good was that everything was made from scratch: no shortcuts, no cans, no powdered mashed potatoes, no gravy mixes, no pre-made commercial pie crusts. The quantity of food that we had to make was enormous and incredibly labor-intensive.

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For example, we made hundreds of quarts of gravy. All year we froze the juices from the turkey breasts that we cooked for sandwiches in anticipation of the big day. We made fruit nut stuffing, sausage mushroom stuffing, fresh cranberry orange relish, garlic mashed potatoes and Grand Marnier-souffleed sweet potatoes.

Yes, we hand-peeled all those, too, and you had to do it while they were hot!

We always offered two kinds of pie: pumpkin, of course, and for the second, cranberry apple almond streusel.

We cooked the fresh turkeys the day before, having figured out the way to prepare them so that people could briefly reheat them the next day and they would still taste juicy and just cooked, while giving off that wonderful holiday aroma.

After the exhausting task of getting all that food ready came the equally exhausting and infinitely more complicated job of distributing the right orders to the right people. This involved counting and recounting the orders, endless master lists, final counts, and then final-final counts. No matter what we did or what system we used, there were always mistakes (and sometimes disasters that we somehow managed to remedy).

Most of the problems involved shortages, because people were given the wrong items, or the wrong quantity when picking up their orders. In the final nightmarish hour, we were able to count what we had left in the shop and compare it to what we had left on order.

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