Pass a Drumstick, and an Olive Branch
By KIM SEVERSON
COOKS can control the Thanksgiving menu, but when the dishes leave the kitchen, things can unravel fast.
Family grudges buried by time and distance resurface. New girlfriends meet ex-husbands. Prius drivers make small talk with S.U.V. owners. And vegans spend the meal defending themselves.
It's enough to break a cook's heart. We seek the culture of the table as much as a well-made stuffing. We want the pace of the meal to be dreamy, the conversation indelible. Nirvana is a table trimmed with our best platters and a room brimming with friends, family and warm feelings.
The problem: Americans, as a whole, have lost touch with the ritual of the shared homemade meal. Although we eat at home a lot, the food often is from restaurants or the prepared foods section of the grocery store. Families eat in shifts and leave the television on. The sandwich has become the most popular dinner entree.
No wonder we have no idea how to behave at Thanksgiving.
I have a friend whose Thanksgiving meal went south just after her grandmother called her brother a cowardly Communist. Another friend's nightmare began when her mother's new boyfriend started talking about breasts, and he wasn't referencing the turkey.
"There are a lot of impossible, unspoken rules on Thanksgiving," said JoAnn Loulan, an author and family therapist who practices in the San Francisco Bay Area. "We're supposed to be thankful and eat a lot and drink a lot and be nice to each other. Teenagers are supposed to stop being sullen. Matriarchs are supposed to make a perfect turkey and some man is supposed to know how to carve it."
The day is so emotionally charged that Ms. Loulan is only half-joking when she suggests a potentially lucrative line for her practice: the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving chat room, an online marathon therapy session. Or, we could all save a little money and learn a few simple rules of etiquette instead. We're not talking about the rules that make everyone nervous, like where to put your napkin and which fork to use, but the rules that make the day soft and smooth and comfortable. Kind of like Valium, without the side effects.
"The meaning of manners is really about being kind to people, about being nice," said Nicole DeVault, a New York etiquette instructor who for years served as the manners consultant for the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
At the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., plenty of pre-Thanksgiving queries come in from people who hope to brush up on manners at the last minute. That kind of panic only adds to the pressure, said Peggy Post. She married into the family of Emily Post and recently published "Excuse Me, but I Was Next ...: How to Handle the Top 100 Manners Dilemmas" (HarperCollins, 2006).
A better approach is simply to make sure every action takes into consideration how another may feel, Mrs. Post said. It's just what our parents told us all along: do unto others.
"The whole point is to make people feel comfortable, but to do what makes sense," she said. "Etiquette is about applying consideration and respect and common sense."
Susan Phillips Cohen, a social worker who lives in Brooklyn, relies on ritual and tradition to establish the tenor of her table. This year she will be one of a dozen or so people at her sister-in-law's house in Staten Island. They will use the family china and make beloved dishes from childhood. That way guests can be reminded of the rules that go along with the holiday.
"Rituals are what help you get over difficult times, and they keep a lid on things, if you're that kind of family," she said. "There's a code. We understand that we should try, that we should make the effort. Even if we haven't been formally taught, we pick them up through the years."
That's why, before you know it, you find yourself reassuring the worried host that the turkey is most certainly not dry and leaping up to do the dishes.
One of Ms. Phillips Cohen's favorite tricks for creating harmony is to give people something to do. It's an axiom a professor of social work taught her years ago: action absorbs anxiety.
Just make sure it is a task someone can do well, advises Serena Bass, the Manhattan caterer. With nearly 25 years of experience catering events that included AOL's holiday party and the actress Claire Danes's birthday party, Ms. Bass has learned a little something about making parties work.
"People like to be told what to do, but they also like to feel successful at it," she said. "So give them something they can do well. And remember that if you don't assign a job to every person, they'll amble off and get into trouble."
And what if the conversation starts to turn sour? A host should know how to steer a conversation away from political implosions, personal attacks and off-color jokes.
"You have to use humor and think on your feet," Mrs. DeVault said. If someone says something that seems designed to anger people, acknowledge the guest's opinion, then make a joke about it and ease the conversation in another direction.
Mrs. Post is a little more proactive. She suggests polite but pointed private discussions ahead of time with potential troublemakers. And while it is not necessarily impolite to discuss politics or religion, a host should be prepared to defend a guest who falls under attack or appears uncomfortable.
Mrs. Post suggests language like this: "I really feel like this discussion is going nowhere and I'm sure poor Harry didn't expect this."
Then follow a time-honored custom: change the subject.
A good host must also handle with aplomb the guests who drift away from the table before dinner is over. Younger children can be dismissed to watch a special DVD or do an art project, but adults tempted away by the football game "must know they have to sit-stay," Ms. Bass said. "Once they go out for a cigarette or they start texting, it's all over."
Clarity is key, she said. Announce ahead of time what the plan for the meal is. For example, say that appetizers will be served while the game is on, but the TV will be turned off for the meal. Better yet, offer to record the game and show it later.
Then, when the main part of the meal is over, ask one or two people by name to help clear, and ask the rest of the group to ready themselves for dessert.
So much for the hosts. But what about the guests? Ms. Loulan, the therapist, suggests bringing your boundaries to dinner. Make a plan for how you are going to handle uncomfortable situations. Give yourself permission to leave the room or to leave dinner early - as long as you prepare a thoughtful, polite excuse.
"If you can't stay, call a friend to come and get you at a set time," she said. "You know what's going to happen, so act like it and make a plan to take care of yourself."
For all of us, whether guest or host, the best tip of all might be one from Gregory McNamee, who has written dozens of books, including works on the folklore of South Africa and the natural history of an Arizona river. His latest is "Moveable Feasts: The History, Science and Lore of Food" (Praeger Publishers, 2006).
For thousands of years communal meals have been a key to building cultures. So relax and take the long view, he advises. Thanksgiving is just one more meal, and a bad one isn't going to make or break civilization.
Besides, historians have recently concluded that the premise of Thanksgiving might be a lie.
"It turns out," he said, "that the Indians were not so forthcoming, and the Pilgrims were not so grateful."