Want to host better dinner parties? Take notes from these Thanksgiving cookbooks

If you can tackle the biggest food holiday of the year, you can absolutely handle hosting a dinner party

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published November 19, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

Autumn meal with pumpkin pie, butternut squash soup and pumpkin chocolate cake (Getty Images/MEDITERRANEAN)
Autumn meal with pumpkin pie, butternut squash soup and pumpkin chocolate cake (Getty Images/MEDITERRANEAN)

The kitchen in my graduate school apartment was far from perfect — a thin galley corridor where stubby gray carpet gave way to yellowing linoleum, on top of which sat a temperamental oven and one stovetop burner that would respond to any coaxing with only a gasping, gassy hiss — but I trusted Sam Sifton when he wrote, over a decade ago, that there was no reason to fear. This could be the site of my best Thanksgiving yet. 

In the introduction to his 2012 cookbook, "Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well," Sifton, the longtime food editor at “The New York Times,” painted a gorgeous picture of what the holiday can be: A fire has been stoked in the fireplace, its gentle crackle occasionally cutting through the muted crowd sound of the football game on TV. The kids are spread out on the floor doing jigsaw puzzles, while your cousin from Erie isn’t crying in the hallway this year. In the kitchen, the menu is set — a seasonal array of pies, stuffing that will make guests swoon, bacon and chipotle-dressed butternut squash, an expertly roasted turkey

“This is not a fantasy,” Sifton promised. “If you prepare, it will happen.” 

Now, I knew that my celebration, held for about a dozen members of my student cohort before we all went home to have “real Thanksgiving” with our families, was going to look a little different than Sifton’s picturesque scene. Instead of a fireplace, I had a YouTube video of a log burning on-loop . Instead of kids on the floor, one of my classmates asked if she could bring her diabetic cat to the party. Regardless, prepare I did. 

I followed all Sifton’s instructions and most of his recipes, some of which I scanned at the university library and glued to notecards for easier transport to the supermarket. I took the imperative “there should be napkins, too, real ones” seriously and raided the nearby Goodwill’s linen section, lucking into a dozen identical crisp white serviettes. Yes, I learned to make decadent mashed potatoes, the aforementioned swoon-worthy stuffing and turkey (and a pretty damn good one at that). But most importantly, I really absorbed Sifton’s message that good entertaining is worth putting in real effort. 

“Shortcuts are anathema to Thanksgiving, which is a holiday that celebrates not just our bounty but also our slow, careful preparation of it,” Sifton wrote. “There is no room in Thanksgiving for the false wisdom of compromise — for ways to celebrate the holiday without cooking, or by cranking open cans of gravy to pour over a store-roasted turkey re-heated in the microwave. Thanksgiving is no place for irony. We are simply going to cook.” 

That book changed how I look at Thanksgiving, and that Thanksgiving changed how I view entertaining. That’s why, if anyone were ever to ask me how to make hosting a dinner party any time of year a more seamless experience, I’d tell them to pick up a Thanksgiving-specific cookbook. 

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Sifton’s “Thanksgiving” is perhaps my favorite in the genre, which is of course comparatively slim compared to the cookbook market overall, but there are a lot of gems: Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything: Thanksgiving” includes a great primer on timing out the big meal, advocating for some preparation in advance, as well as offering the sage advice that even the most impatient guests can be pacified with a good sour cream dip; “Vegan Holiday Cooking From Candle Cafe” clearly makes the case for letting seasonal ingredients be the focus of the night, whether cooking for vegans or omnivores; Diane Morgan’s “The Thanksgiving Table” reinforces my love of a good planning spreadsheet. 

Just as cookbooks that are focused on one ingredient — say, a single lemon, fig or tomato — tantalize readers with the idea that they will be taught to eek the absolute most out of that ingredient, Thanksgiving-centered cookbooks also hold a certain loftier promise than simply guiding cooks through making lump-free gravy. 

If you can tackle the biggest food holiday of the year — one rife with cultural and culinary expectations — you can absolutely handle gathering some friends for a Tuesday pasta night, if that’s the kind of thing you want to do. And as someone who once, as an awkward tween obsessed with Food Network, saw dinner parties as the hallmark of sophisticated adulthood, that was something I very much wanted to do. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love the myth that entertaining can be effortless. There’s something almost achingly whimsical about the idea of waking up one morning and calling your most interesting friends and asking them to bring their most interesting friends to your place that night. You head to the surprisingly bountiful farmer’s market which definitely isn’t picked over in spite of the fact that you don’t believe in getting up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday just for a chance at a $17 bundle of microherbs. Despite having no plan, the menu simply presents itself. It’s simultaneously easy, yet intricate and leaves you enough time for a full bubble bath before slipping into a similarly effortless outfit before your guests arrive. 

But in reality, a lack of planning and preparation will more likely leave a hostess rushing at the last minute to Trader Joe’s to try to clear out the frozen appetizers section. 

The bulk of Thanksgiving cookbooks fly in the face of the effortlessness myth; hosting a multi-course meal with, as Sifton puts it, an “animal carcass the size of a toddler” at the center is no joke. It takes organization, technique and effort, just as all dinner parties do. It also takes a desire to actually be a host, to relish the magic that can happen — that you can create — when you get the right people around the table to share a meal together. 

In “Thanksgiving,” Sam Sifton offers this guide: “There is going to be a proper dinner table even if it turns out to be a slab of plywood over some milk crates, covered by a sheet. There are going to be proper place settings for each person and glasses for water and wine. There are going to be candles. There will be dessert.”

In the case of my first Thanksgiving, the dinner table was a card table long enough to fit twelve, covered in a thrifted table cloth. It was a deep forest green and managed to warm up the gray living room. I lit candles and made twee little place cards wrapped with twine, a sage leaf and baby’s breath. Somebody brought a decent bottle of white wine and set up a game of “Scrabble.” And while we ate, we watched the virtual fire crackle and pop. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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