It’s time to make our Thanksgiving entry in our “Aunt Myrna Book.” We do a similar post-mortem after every significant feast, party, or other major entertainment event. The idea is to write up a fairly detailed analysis of how the preparation measured up to the reality. My aunt Myrna has hosted countless enormous holiday gatherings, which always come across as being methodically planned and orchestrated, and we got the idea for this book from her.
In this faux leather-bound journal, stored among our cookbooks, we list all recipes, and quantities, wines, attendees, and anything else notable related to the event, and then quantify the leftovers. Like, “Cranberry Sauce. 2X Joy of Cooking recipe was 4X too much.” Or “Chocolate Mousse. 2X Maida Heatter recipe; big hit, barely enough!” It’s helpful in planning for similar events next time, and avoiding an overabundance of leftovers.
Some lessons, though, I don’t ever seem to learn. For example, I always make too many tartlets and too much cranberry sauce. Okay, I always make too many desserts. Still, though, it’s good to go into event preparation having an inkling of how things will turn out, and it takes a bit of the anxiety out of estimating quantities. I don’t worry as much, these days, about running out of food.
I'll summarize a few lessons learned. Of course, each crowd will have its own tendencies to eat or drink more or less of this or that. But here are a few observations about our crowd, focused on the items generally under my domain:
1. A quart of cranberry sauce seems to be enough for any size crowd. Certainly, for twelve people. People use it as a decoration rather than a side dish. Not me; I like a lot of it. But most just take a token spoonful.
2. People seldom eat entire tartlets, if they are served as optional, on a platter. They cut them in half or even quarters. One tartlet per person is enough, if there are other desserts. But they add a nice vibe to the table, so I’ll keep making too many of them. And it wouldn't work to be more prescriptive ("you must eat this exact tartlet") because the whole point of tartlets is to give people flavor options.
3. Chocolate mousse is always a big hit, and it freezes well beforehand. People sneak spoonfuls of the leftovers from the refrigerator.
4. People say they love lemon curd, but they actually barely eat any of it. Someone might eat a quarter of a lemon curd tartlet. They’ll ooh and ahh and say it’s the best they ever tasted, but they rarely take a whole tartlet. They will, however, eat leftover chocolate mousse for breakfast the next day.
5. For coffee in an afternoon party, we seem to consume about 2/3 cup per person, with a 3:1 ration of caffeinated to decaf. So, for 60 people, we expect to serve 40 cups: 30 caffeine, 10 decaf.
6. For wine at an elaborate dinner party with reasonably well-behaved people, where the focus isn’t drinking, it looks like we expect to go through about half as many bottles as people. This strikes me as a little low, but that’s what our current Aunt Myrna Book data suggests. An emerging theory is that you have to include children and perhaps dogs in this equation, especially if it is a sleepover. While they don’t drink the wine, they probably encourage others to drink more. And of course, certain guests predictably require additional lubrication. You know who you are….
7. Any quantity of medlar-based recipes seems to be exactly right.
Now, just because something doesn’t get entirely consumed doesn’t mean that it was a waste. Most things freeze well enough, and leftovers are appreciated especially when we are a little burned out from a lot of cooking. Also, I’ve come to look at some things more as décor/ambiance than part of the meal. Different flavors of tartlets, for example, which are an easy byproduct of pie, add a dimension of fun to the dessert course, just pushing things over the edge, into chaos. Like, I made an apple/cranberry pie, served alongside both pure apple and pure cranberry tartlets. There’s a good dirty joke in there, somewhere. Such things keep me amused during the preparation phase, and they add to the vibe of the event.
Many of our wacky wildcard recipes fall into this category, serving double-duty as food and vibe. They are generally remembered as much for the affect as for the taste: the custard-stuffed whole pumpkin (George Washington’s favorite dessert), meringue mushrooms (now, a house staple), and anything to do with medlars.
At any rate, I’d be interested in your own party wisdom. Feel free to post any observations.