In the old days — just last year — Thanksgiving was the family reunion of holidays. It was the one time of year you’d see an aunt with whom your primary form of communication is typically Facebook likes and Instagram comments and, in some cases, your first time meeting new additions to the family. Elaborate special-occasion dishes, such as 20-pound turkeys, dessert-like sweet potato casseroles layered with gooey marshmallows and caramelized brown sugar, and an assortment of pies filled with seasonal fruits seemed to do the trick in bringing families together.
This year, though, the promise of overindulgent dishes may not be enough to gather families amid a global pandemic. Given all the limitations on traveling and gathering these days, many of us will be limiting our dinners to immediate family and a select few loved ones this year.
A more intimate setting does have its benefits. For one thing: A limited guest list lessens the chances of family feuds over conflicting political views in an already tense social climate. It also allows dinner hosts to reinvent ways to articulate — through food — their gratitude for those they love the most. Here, four local chefs and food entrepreneurs share their Thanksgiving tips.
Tip 1: Make it a family affair
Cameron Rolka has mastered the art of the tiny dinner experience as executive chef of Mink, Corktown’s 12-seat izakaya. The best part of the intimate setting is that it allows people to engage with each other. “We cook everything right in front of our guests, so there’s a communal aspect,” he says. “We converse with them while we cook; it’s almost like they’re a part of the creation of the food.” Rolka recommends taking the same approach for Thanksgiving dinner by incorporating unexpected dishes that allow family members to be a part of the cooking experience. “Something that could be fun to experiment with for a small group of people during Thanksgiving is shucking oysters. It would probably be new for people, but it’s something you can do together and enjoy as an appetizer.” If yours is a hunting family like Rolka’s, a fun family outing is another option. “We like to go hunting and then make a venison backstrap or something. Not everyone likes turkey, so it’s nice to have a second protein that’s easy to prepare. Plus, it’s a family activity, and it’s nice to bring food to the table that you’ve produced yourself. It’s something to be thankful for, for sure.”
Tip 2: Prepare a culinary landscape
Chef Max Hardy has been at the helm of his share of unique small dining businesses. He’s personalized dishes for clients as a private chef to the stars and served as executive chef of River Bistro, the former soul food restaurant on Detroit’s west side, and now Coop, an island-inspired stall at Detroit Shipping Co. Intimate dinner settings, Hardy says, offer the opportunity for experimentation and imaginative menus. “This year, we can switch it up a little,” he says. If you’re travel-starved and seeking a taste of a far-flung destination, consider dishes with international flair. “I haven’t had a chance to travel to the Bahamas, where my family is from, so something like a seafood Thanksgiving would be fun.” Hardy recommends putting a spin on traditional stuffing by adding crab, shrimp, and lobster for a tropical twist.
Tip 3: Bring the bar home
Out of a cozy space in Midtown Detroit, Jane Larson and Kevin Peterson offer customers a unique experience with Castalia, a rustic craft cocktail lounge that builds beverages off of scents from the duo’s fragrance line, Sfumato. Though the pandemic has necessitated the temporary closure of Castalia’s interior (patrons are currently being served on the patio), the intimate environment, which accommodates 18 guests maximum, offers the opportunity for impeccable attention to detail. For a more intimate Thanksgiving dinner, Larson recommends recreating the feel of a swanky cocktail bar by purchasing premade cocktails from local bars like Castalia and getting creative with the details. “With a smaller group, you can use a mold to make those oversized or sphere ice cubes that you see at cocktail bars,” she says. She also recommends bringing out special-occasion dishware. “Pull out all of your best glassware and plates. You wouldn’t want to use vintage glasses that you can’t throw into the dishwasher when you’re having a big gathering, because then you end up with all of this glassware that you have to hand-wash. But it’s a great idea for smaller settings.”
Tip 4: Break traditions this Thanksgiving
Jenn Tilton is a pro at home cooking. As a home chef, she’s developed hundreds of recipes for Indulge by Jenn, her former food blog featuring mouthwatering images of sweet treats. She’s also worked as a pastry chef at Morning Glory Coffee and Pastries, Royal Park Hotel, and The Townsend Bakery. “Let’s face it: Most of our Thanksgiving foods are simply on the menu because of tradition,” she says. “However, now is the time to change it up!” Tilton suggests switching up the sweets this year with a fun dessert bar. “Offer three cobbler flavors with different toppings,” she says, recommending dense whipped cream, rich ice cream, caramel or chocolate sauce, and elements of crunch, such as mixed nuts or sprinkles. “You can also create a homemade package of sweet treats — such as a mini pie, a box of chocolate-dipped dried fruit, or mini cookies — which each guest could take home with them.”