COOKS can control the Thanksgiving menu, but when the dishes leave the kitchen, things can unravel fast.
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 friendâ€™s nightmare began when her motherâ€™s new boyfriend started talking about breasts, and he wasnâ€™t referencing the turkey.
â€œThere are a lot of impossible, unspoken rules on Thanksgiving,â€ said JoAnn Loulan, an author and family therapist who practices in the San Francisco Bay Area. â€œWeâ€™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.â€
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. Weâ€™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.
â€œThe meaning of manners is really about being kind to people, about being nice,â€ 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 â€œExcuse Me, but I Was Next …: How to Handle the Top 100 Manners Dilemmasâ€ (HarperCollins, 2006).
A better approach is simply to make sure every action takes into consideration how another may feel, Mrs. Post said. Itâ€™s just what our parents told us all along: do unto others.
â€œThe whole point is to make people feel comfortable, but to do what makes sense,â€ she said. â€œEtiquette is about applying consideration and respect and common sense.â€
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-lawâ€™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.
â€œRituals are what help you get over difficult times, and they keep a lid on things, if youâ€™re that kind of family,â€ she said. â€œThereâ€™s a code. We understand that we should try, that we should make the effort. Even if we havenâ€™t been formally taught, we pick them up through the years.â€
Thatâ€™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 Cohenâ€™s favorite tricks for creating harmony is to give people something to do. Itâ€™s an axiom a professor of social work taught her years ago: action absorbs anxiety.
â€œYou have to use humor and think on your feet,â€ Mrs. DeVault said. If someone says something that seems designed to anger people, acknowledge the guestâ€™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: â€œI really feel like this discussion is going nowhere and Iâ€™m sure poor Harry didnâ€™t expect this.â€
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 â€œmust know they have to sit-stay,â€ Ms. Bass said. â€œOnce they go out for a cigarette or they start texting, itâ€™s all over.â€
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 â€” as long as you prepare a thoughtful, polite excuse.
â€œIf you canâ€™t stay, call a friend to come and get you at a set time,â€ she said. â€œYou know whatâ€™s going to happen, so act like it and make a plan to take care of yourself.â€
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 â€œMoveable Feasts: The History, Science and Lore of Foodâ€ (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 isnâ€™t going to make or break civilization.
Besides, historians have recently concluded that the premise of Thanksgiving might be a lie.
â€œIt turns out,â€ he said, â€œthat the Indians were not so forthcoming, and the Pilgrims were not so grateful.â€ Source: NY Times