Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Why? Because it’s all about family and food. Even if your “family” is a diverse collection of friends with vastly different traditions, the food takes center stage.
How I serve that food, however, is what really interests me.
Growing up, we could easily have up to 30 people—family and guests—seated at several tables for Thanksgiving. The adults claimed the formal dining table, some kids claimed the kitchen table, and other kids gathered ‘round a collection of card tables and TV trays. We ate on real plates with real silverware and actual glassware. The Detroit Lions played softly on every TV. The house was filled with laughter.
Looking back, I don’t know how my grandmother, mother and aunts pulled it off every year. But they did. Spectacularly.
I find myself wanting desperately to recreate that setting every fall. It’s not always possible now—family is scattered, in-laws make plans, children go out of town—but even on a small scale, the Thanksgiving setting can be stunning.
I start with a tablecloth. It doesn’t have to be seasonal or orange or feature pumpkins…it just needs to be cloth. If it’s a party of four, we go for cloth placemats. Then I add multiple plates. Yes, plates, plural. A salad plate also doubles as a bread plate and looks great perched atop the dinner plate. Silverware, glassware and napkins complete the settings.
Then, I add serving bowls, platters and tea lights. If the bowls coordinate with the dishes, great. If not, still fine. Once they’re filled with comfort food, no one will notice their design. A spoonful of buttery mashed potatoes needs no artifice. After that, I like to go wild.
I don’t favor that Thanksgiving centerpiece staple: the cornucopia. My mother and grandmother had one filled with the obligatory plastic fruit, but I’ve yet to find one that skews trendy and artsy. So I’m more likely to go with brass and candlesticks and all manner of dried flowers, felt pumpkins and pinecones.
Overall, the table setting should look like harvest. Fall. Bounty. It should glow, like chilly November evenings. It should whisper, “Welcome. Sit. Indulge.” If your guests feel that whisper, they’ll linger. And if they linger, you’ll hear all manner of stories and ideas and dreams.
And then the pies will come out. And the groans will commence. And you’ll know: This bounty, this beautiful, thankful bounty was indulged.
I’ve always been more of a side-dish fanatic.
Even when Wagu steak is the overpriced entree, I go for the fried corn, sautéed green beans, or cauliflower gratin. Fried chicken is a beautiful thing—and I’ve been known to tear into it whilst standing over the kitchen sink—but I can really fill up on the accompanying mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, or cornbread.
So when the chow fest known as Thanksgiving rolls around each November, my recipe research goes right to the sides.
Mind you, I’m all for most of the traditional dishes (except you: green bean casserole…gag), but my eyes light up when savvy cooks introduce clever cocktails, appetizers or desserts.
Anything pumpkin is on overdrive each fall, and in my mind you can’t go wrong with that orange goodness. (Consider the Pumpkin Martini. Yes—Martini! Or Pumpkin Creme Brûlée!) But so are the seasonal spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves. And they work in so many recipes. Breads, dips, desserts, cookies, coffees, even vegetables can all benefit from these spices.
Not a fan of anything using pumpkin or seasonal herbs? Then would you consider a charcuterie appetizer at your gathering? Caramel corn? How about a baked side with “au gratin” in the title? I love a tasty and overlooked Waldorf salad: It’s fruit, veggies and nuts, people! Yum.
Now, I will draw the line at bringing back the ol’ Jello ring. Remember that molded salad from your childhood? Ours had shaved carrots in it. Yes…carrots. Its time has passed. Except…I just spotted a recipe for a Sangria Ring. Hmm. Creative.
But you see what I mean here: There’s a lot of room for creativity to accompany your juicy turkey. Every holiday could benefit from a little stirring up in the kitchen. Do some online investigating. Pour through some old cookbooks. Surprise your guests. Surprise yourself.
And who knows? You might just create a new Thanksgiving tradition.
When I left the farm for college, lo’ these many decades ago, I swore I would never, ever, ever again in my life eat that farm staple: chili.
I’m cracking myself up just writing that. I mean, who doesn’t like chili?? Seriously. Area restaurants are renowned for their chili, for Pete’s sake!
My only excuse for that rash statement has to be my lack of chili comparisons. At the tender, unsophisticated age of 18, I knew nothing about chili verde (pork, tomatillos, Hatch chilies), or chili con carne (Texas red chilies, stewed beef chunks), or Springfield (IL) chilli (two “l’s, ground beef, canned tomato sauce, Tabasco). I most certainly would never have heard the words “white chili” (poultry, white beans, cheese) even whispered in our farm kitchen. And don’t get me started on the crazy idea of throwing in some pasta in the Cincinnati style. Sacrilege!
Yet there I was in a restaurant, in my late-20s, ordering chili. It was an Indiana fall day—leaves changing, temperatures dropping. A co-worker said, “You have to try their chili. It’s killer.” And it just sounded good. It arrived in a heavy bowl, topped with shredded cheese and crackers on the side. I dug in and smiled. It tasted like harvest. It tasted like home.
Since then, I’ve been a loyal taster of restaurant chili. Generally, I like the hearty, meaty, Springfield kind. My husband Jimmy makes a delicious Texas variety. I specialize in a—wait for it—very non-farm white chili. It comes together fast and explodes with comforting flavor. I always serve a side of Jiffy-mix cornbread straight from the oven, slathered in butter.
Now, I’ve kept my youthful vow of never again eating other farm foods—succotash tops the list, followed closely by ketchup-based meatloaf, liver and onions, and vegetable stew. But savvy cooks and clever recipes have changed my mind about pot roast, scalloped potatoes, pork chops and…chili. Turns out, those farm staples just needed a “tweak”!
I hope chili is high on your meal-plan list these days. If it’s not, I encourage you to scan online recipes or take a look at mine on our YouTube channel. Try something simple, something different. Make enough to invite someone over, then turn on a football game and pop open a cold beverage. You really can’t beat a bowl of fall, farm goodness.
My Grandma Schaub was what we called an “everyday” grandma. She was part of her grandchildren’s near-daily lives—card game player, Jiffy muffin mix overseer, Bugle snack supplier, S&H stamp collector, raspberry/blueberry/strawberry picker...and tea party planner. That’s me in the photo above with cousins Kelly and Tina, and three lucky barn cats.
Grandma loved to have just the right dish for every occasion, which is probably where I inherited my dish obsession. She collected all kinds of glassware during winter garage sales in Florida. She never met a large vase she couldn’t fill from her own gardens. And if eBay had been a thing during her lifetime, she would have cleaned up.
She wasn’t precious about her nice things. When the extended family gathered each Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, we ate on bone china—multiple sets of it with matching serving pieces. She never said, “Now be careful with that…it’s expensive.” She just expected us to respect her things. And we did.
So I suppose that’s why I so enjoy using and loaning out my vast stockpile of beautiful tableware.
Years ago, a local middle school wanted to put on a High Tea, so I packed up every fancy cup, saucer and plate in my cabinets. The moms were nervous, but I assured them, “These kids will elevate their behavior to the beauty of the occasion.” And they did.
My wedding reception went old-school with cake, olives, nuts and a wine buffet. We used every glass luncheon plate I owned. The guests loved it! Not one piece was damaged.
Recently, friends decided to throw a bridal tea for their sister. I volunteered my entire glass, china and linen collection. The ladies stopped by, thoughtfully selected every item they might need, and left with a carload of beauties. Every piece came back in pristine condition.
Now, raise your hand if you were ever the guest or host of a childhood tea party. I see those hands! Weren’t they fun? Didn’t you feel special? Maybe even elegant?
Your delicate lovelies are meant to be enjoyed. Sure, they look great in the cabinets, but why have them if we’re not gonna use them? Yes, that china belonged to your beloved grandmother. I assure you, she wants you to actively enjoy it. I believe that tea set cost a fortune on eBay. Why did you pay that if no one gets to party with it?
Steep the tea! Fill the creamer! Set out the plates! Then call up some people who might need a little dose of loveliness in their lives. They’ll never forget your thoughtfulness and generosity.
I get asked on occasion if there are cardinal rules to hospitality. The answer is: Yes! And no.
Hospitality is a gift. But it’s a learned gift. My hospitality skills started in childhood, improved in young adulthood, and are constantly evolving in mid-life. (See my early-June blogpost “Let those candles burn” for a one-time, legendary C grade in hosting.)
The basic starting point for successful hospitality simply involves friendliness, generosity and an inviting environment for letting the good times roll. After that, we’re just tweaking! Read on for my personal rules to make any guest feel special and any gathering successful.
Rule #1: Get yourself ready looooong before there’s even a chance your first guest will arrive. No one wants to ring your doorbell and be greeted by silence because you’re blow drying your hair upstairs. You can still be prepping in the kitchen, but you must personally be dressed and ready.
Rule #2: If you’re not extremely confident in your cooking (i.e., you don’t cater meals or people don’t rave about your kitchen skills), stick to one of your best main dishes. Ask your guests to bring sides. In fact, when guests say, “What can I bring?” …be ready with suggestions.
Rule #3: Have an appetizer standing by for guests who trickle in. In the mid-South, nothing starts on time. In fact, a starting time is just a “suggestion.” My go-to appetizer is a plate of olives, cheese and crackers—simple!—served with a pre-dinner cocktail. Add in lovely cocktail napkins for extra pizazz.
Rule #4: Dial down the spices. Your family may think “the hotter the better!” …but nothing will stop a party in its tracks like choking guests. Follow the recipe’s spice guidelines and have hotter spices at the table for individual tastes. You can always add spice later, but you cannot take it away.
Rule #5: Unless you’re hosting an outdoor picnic or gathering around the fire pit, use real dishes, silverware and glassware. I cannot stress this rule enough. I had to stop myself just now from using all caps and type-shouting it. Almost 70% of homes in America have a dishwasher—and I’d wager you’re living in one of them. Load it up and let it run!
Rule #6: And while I’m ranting… Use placemats or a tablecloth, and napkins that are not paper towels. Yes—even if your guests will be sitting at the kitchen counter. Yes—even if you’re moving the party to the deck. These affordable items are everywhere—estate/garage sales, discount stores, groceries. And repeat after me: Paper towels are not napkins. Say it again! Paper towels are not napkins. Chant it. Live it.
Rule #7: Unless you want your guests to clear out so you can go to bed, resist the urge to start cleaning up in the midst of the party. This is a tough one for me, but my husband Jimmy is great at reminding me to sit down and enjoy our guests. The dishes will still be there when our company leaves.
So there you have it: 7 basic hospitality rules. I have other, pickier rules—but those are specific to the type of party and guest and season. I guarantee if you follow these rules, every gathering you host will at least start out as a success. I mean, no one can predict what your crazy uncle might blurt out during dinner…am I right?
I am constantly surprised at how easy it is to improve someone’s day.
I’ve discovered that if I listen, really listen, I’ll find all kinds of opportunities to make a difference. And you can, too.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘But I have work. And chores. And errands. And kids. And a list.’ Yes you do. And so do I. But I vowed 20 years ago the LIST would never be more important than a person.
Now, this was a bold move for me because I looooooove my lists. I thrive on lists. Sometimes I add items to a list after completion just so I can gleefully cross them off. Truth! One particularly hectic time last month, I had a list for every day of the week. And I crossed off each bullet-pointed task on those lists like a crazed list Nazi.
Oh—and I also love a detailed calendar with days broken down hourly. I document appointments and addresses and notes and phone numbers—in pencil—like I’m a dignitary’s social secretary. Tucked between those calendar pages are my lists. I checked just now and counted six lists nestled in this week’s pages. Six!
Yesterday’s list was long, but I got a last-minute request to ferry a friend from a doctor’s appointment to home. That errand came with an invitation for lunch and coffee and, undoubtedly, snorts of laughter. I put the list aside and had a delightful few hours with a wise and funny woman.
Monday’s list was even longer, but I had a hurting friend who needed some joy. So I put the list aside, loaded up my car with fall flowers, and planted every one of them in her porch pots as she sat with me and gushed over their beauty. Two hours: worth it.
Friday’s list is ridiculous, but a friend is moving. She’s excited and sad and overwhelmed and exhausted. So I will attack that list until 2:00, when the moving truck arrives at the new house, and it’s time to unload and unpack and organize. That should put a spark into the process. It will be multiple hours of hard work and immense satisfaction. Ahhh…
So I invite you to start listening more to needs, spoken and unspoken, around you—real opportunities to say “no” to the list and “yes” to people. You may discover, as I did, that a line through a completed task has nowhere near the delight as a smile of gratitude.
I don’t know how many fall chrysanthemums—45? 60?—I'd dutifully tossed when they’d bloomed out each October before someone suggested I transplant them into the landscape. Uh…what??
Yes—hardy mums are…wait for it…hardy! As in, you can move them into the ground in September, October, November each year and they will happily return each spring double or triple their original size. I kid you not.
I tested this theory a few years ago by transplanting two bright yellow mums between two deep yellow lantanas that surprised me when they returned in spring. And sure enough—it was a wash of shockingly yellow blooms that fall, greeting me each time I pulled into the driveway.
I distinctly remember thinking Southerners were ridiculous for planting fall pansies my first year in the mid-South. I may have even snorted. I mean, flowers don’t survive the winter! Hello! Uh…they actually do.
So now I’m a mum-planting, pansy-planting maniac. I mean, who can turn away from a purple pansy fighting its way through ice and snow in the short, grey days of February? Not I! And who could possibly be discouraged by seeing new growth at the base of that brittle, dead-looking mum in April? Only the Scroogiest Scrooge.
This year, I’m enjoying perennial blooms in yellow, orange, maroon, purple, and white. They even bloom at different times—like I planned that! But I didn’t. But I let people assume so. Even though I didn’t. Que será, right?
Those $5-$10 mums have more than earned their keep in my gardens. And they will in your gardens, too. So when the last blooms have shriveled up into brown or black nubs, give your potted mums a long and fruitful life in a sunny part of your landscape. Then fill those empty pots with a $10 flat of pansies. You won’t regret it. I promise you.
A friend made a last-minute popover recently and said, “Does your house always look like this?”
I looked around for something weird. “Like what?”
“Like this.” She waved her hand in a broad gesture. “Clean and tidy!”
Ah. I smiled a little. Yes. Yes it does. But only when I have a 10—(or more)—minute warning.
I usually clean the house on Mondays. Top to bottom. Change the sheets, vacuum, dust, wipe down counters, scrub toilets, and water plants. I start dinner in the crockpot. If I have extra time, I’ll try to organize the always-present pile of recipes, bills, magazines and other paperwork. It kicks off the week in a positive way. And then, all I have to do the other six days is maintain.
But you know how it goes: The tidiness starts to loosen up a bit two days later. I mean, I don’t live in a museum with a full-time cleaning crew. Real life happens! The countertops get sticky in odd places. Dirt gets tracked in. Toilet paper gets down to four squares. Spiders weave webs in the corners overnight.
So when the phone rings and a friend says, “Hey—are you home? I’m in the area and thought I’d stop by”…I go into 10-minute-cleanup mode.
Most guests are happy to stay in the open-floor-plan living/dining/kitchen area. Couch cushions, blankets, slippers, and reading material are a very quick tidy-up: 2 minutes, tops. The dark wood floors ALWAYS need a sweep: 30 seconds. After I hide the pile of paperwork in the laundry room and store away errant cups, silverware and other dishes in the dishwasher, I wipe down the counters: 1 minute. The downstairs powder room always needs something—and sometimes more than “something”—so I give that area a solid minute.
That usually leaves me about five minutes to put out coffee, cookies/pastries, fruit, napkins—whatever I have on hand—for an impromptu casual chat. Guests never turn down that hosting gesture, and are usually delighted!
You know why? Because that 10 minutes of tearing around, getting things in order and putting out refreshments makes guests feel special. And they might just stay a little longer. We might get to laugh a little harder. I might learn something important—something life-changing.
To me, that’s far more important than any errand I needed to run, any news story I needed to read, any item on my to-do list. And I hope you’ll come to the same conclusion the next time a friend calls and says, “You home? I’m in the neighborhood…”
I started seriously gardening when my friend Fran volunteered to dig up my mom’s peony bulbs at my townhouse to transplant to my new house.
I was so tired from the seemingly endless packing and moving process, I couldn’t stomach the thought of digging bulbs. So Fran took charge. She grabbed the shovel and dug up the peonies, the hostas (also from Mom’s collection), and the azalea. She put them in pots or bags or anything that would hold dirt, and then she helped me transplant them in the new beds.
And then the serious gardening began.
The back and sides of the new house were blank canvases. “What should I plant?” I asked Fran. “What do you like?” Fran countered. I liked hydrangeas. So we installed two Annabelle hydrangeas in a petite, two-foot-wide, mostly shady bed along the back of the house. They looked lonely there, so we added the hostas and azalea. It was lovely. That was Year #1.
When the spring of Year #2 approached, I was ready to attack the sloping back yard. I wanted to create a visual break between our neighbors’ yards and ours, so I ordered six Green Giant arborvitae from a local VFW sale. I didn’t know anything about planting trees, so I hired a guy. I watched him set out a trio of the trees on each side, dig the holes, amend the soil, fertilize and backfill, and thought, I can do that.
Then I started clearing out the edge of the woods. I wanted that “park” look, instead of the scrub of privet and wild vine and ragweed. It was sweaty, brutal work, but I hacked away until I had a two-foot border. “You know what would look great there?” asked Fran. “Forsythia.” So I bought three and we got them in the ground. And I learned a lot about native planting.
And then we really went wild. We added a ninebark and two burning bushes. Fran shared some ajuga, sundrops, and grasses from her gardens. Another friend shared native ferns and anemones and various perennials that quickly fill in. And I learned serious gardeners love to share plants they know do well in Tennessee’s clay soil.
Jimmy now winces a little when he sees Fran pull into the driveway with a load of plants. “I guess I’ll get the shovel,” he mumbles. Under our direction, he digs holes, unearths rocks, saws off limbs, and trims back hollies gone rogue. It’s not his favorite thing, but he beams a little when guests gasp over the lush and bountiful blooms. He’s learned that beauty matters.
In just five years, I’ve developed nine different garden beds. They take a LOT of work—weeding, watering, trimming, fertilizing, googling, treating for slugs and beetles and mildew and black spots. I’m constantly learning, constantly expanding. I’m not afraid to move things. I’m not afraid to fail.
And it all started with a friend and a shovel. Thanks, Fran. We now live in a garden oasis because of you. As you like to say, “There’s always room for more.”
The No. 1 response I get from people who are hesitant to host a dinner party is: “I don’t cook as well as you do.” Well…I beg to differ!
Almost everyone has a “signature dish”—a one-pot or crockpot or casserole-dish meal they absolutely ROCK. It might be lasagna. It could be chili. Maybe a simple pasta dish or soup or Sunday roast or pot pie. There’s high potential it’s a family recipe passed down through generations, so it doesn’t feel “special” enough for a dinner party. But let me assure you: It is!
Most guests are simply delighted to be invited to dinner. They don’t have to cook or clean up afterwards. They’re served in a comfortable setting, under no pressure to plow through their meal so the server can clear the table and seat the next patrons waiting in the lobby. They don’t have to scan the menu to see what they can afford. They don’t have to leave a tip.
Doesn’t that sound like a winning scenario??
The No. 2 response I get from people who are hesitant to host is: “I don’t have fancy things.” Well. Do you have a tablecloth or table mats? Do you have everyday dishes? Water glasses? Paper napkins? Do you have enough silverware for everyone? If not, could you borrow some? I’ve done that!
And guess what? Most dinner guests are absolutely delighted to contribute to the meal. When they say the magic words—“What can I bring?”—be ready with a little tidbit you know about their cooking skills. Do they make a killer dessert? Suggest that. Do they have good cheese instincts? Good enough to put together a little charcuterie board? Score! Are they bread makers? Dip makers? Deviled-egg makers? Take that opportunity to let them shine! If they’re not particularly handy in the kitchen, do they have an excellent wine collection? They’d probably love to share a bottle or two.
See what we did there? We put together a delightful evening with one phone call. It’s really that simple. So go through your worn, tattered recipes and select the one you know is a winner. Then pick up the phone and invite over a lovely person or couple or family today. You won’t regret it.