How does one eat a Thanksgiving meal? On its face this might seem like a ridiculous question, and also everywhere else too. I mean, who doesn’t know how to eat? (Excepting the British, of course.) Thanksgiving is marked, more than anything else, by its abundance of tasty foodstuffs; practically speaking, it is a holiday devoted to eating. You load up your plate, you hoover down its contents, you wash them down with booze—what’s so hard about that?
What’s hard about it is doing it well: moving on from Thanksgiving at the end of the weekend with no lingering regrets (no food-related ones, anyway—how you’ll deal with the eventual fallout from drunkenly roundhouse-kicking your Uncle Ted through the patio door over possession of the remote control is a problem that falls outside of the purview of this column). After all, holiday shopping season begins tomorrow: You can’t have your mad, bloodsoaked quest for the sweetest bargain in tablet computing interrupted by nagging sadness that you overstuffed yourself with dinner rolls and didn’t save any room for pie, can you? No. You cannot.
Fear not, eaters, for your handy eating enthusiast has undertaken the challenge of perfecting the craft of Thanksgiving eating, and also of transcribing it for you so that you can print it out and hold it up to your face and consult it closely while shuffling around the buffet table in a way that is not at all weird and needless and disturbing, no matter what anyone says.
The first step is to gather a token amount of turkey onto your bare plate—one good-sized slice of breast meat, a couple of hunks of dark meat. Don’t overdo it here: The last thing anybody wants on Thanksgiving is to mistakenly allow the turkey to occupy any more precious digestive volume than absolutely necessary. You want just enough on there so that later, when Grandma hits you with the inevitable, “Aren’t you going to have some turkey, dearie?” you can use your fork to pry a visible corner of meat to the surface of your gravy-coated carb-mound and make a guttural murmuring vocalization without looking up from your plate or taking a break from chewing Things That Are Not Turkey.
From this point it is important to think strategically. Even if, as the very wisest do, you have brought along the upturned lid of an old-fashioned aluminum garbage can for use as your Thanksgiving plate, it’s still unlikely that you’ll have room on it for satisfactory portions of all the various foodstuffs available to you, and so you must plan accordingly. Thanksgiving amateurs make the grave mistake of immediately going for huge portions of their favorites (stuffing, mashed potatoes, green-bean casserole, more stuffing)—they cock a speculative eyebrow at the Brussels sprouts all glistening and caramelized and they think Gee, I really want some Brussels sprouts, but it just doesn’t look like I’ll have room on my plate for them. Ah well, I’ll just hit ‘em on the rebound. Folly! Folly and self-deception! Even the nosepickingest Thanksgiving dunce knows good and goddamned well that by the time he’s worked his way through a heaped plate of potatoes and stuffing and biscuits and green-bean casserole, he’s not going to be hungry enough to find Brussels sprouts appetizing anymore and will skip over them altogether on his way to a wedge of pumpkin pie somehow exceeding 360 degrees, and then on the way home later he is going to think, “Aw, man, I never had any of Bernice’s Brussels sprouts,” as he dozes off with his foot on the accelerator and pinwheels his car into a gorge.
Slightly more sophisticated Thanksgiving eaters address this problem by filling their plate with tiny, single-bite-sized portions of all the various dishes on the table. This, I’m very sorry to report, is also stupid and illegal, because it dramatically increases the odds that you will finish this single plate of food and be too full to consume a sufficiently immodest quantity of greasy, gravy-soaked carbohydrates. What’s the point of even having Thanksgiving if you’re only going to eat a reasonable, not-at-all-dangerous amount of stuffing? The answer: There is no point in doing that.
No, the truly advanced, seeing-things-in-four-dimensions-like-some-kind-of-Matrix-agent Thanksgiving eater understands that the key to assembling your Thanksgiving plate is to put yourself in a position both to A) eat at least a little bit of everything available, and B) eat a horrifying amount of the really heavy goopy starchy exciting things. The way to do this is as follows:
You’ve got your token turkey portion on there; now, pick one or two (but no more than two) of the absolute Thanksgiving staples (from the following list: mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes/yams, green-bean casserole), and get a generous scoop of each onto your plate. You’re doing this just in case a meteor should lay waste to civilization in between your first and second servings, so that you can go sizzling into the void knowing you didn’t miss out on the good stuff. Leave behind the rest. That’s right: leave ‘em behind. There’s no way to hit all the bases on the first go-round and also get enough of the best stuff to be truly satisfied; the wise thing to do is hit some of the best stuff on the second go-round.
Now, fill the rest of your plate with tiny portions of the things that are exciting and appetizing now, but which you know will diminish in appeal once your stomach is what would be considered critically distended on any other day but qualifies only as half-full on Thanksgiving. Here we’re talking about things like: Brussels sprouts, rolls/biscuits, rice, any other vegetation, anything that is neither soaked nor coated in liquefied fat of some form or another. Go really tiny, here: one sprout, half a roll, a single grain of rice. Think strategically. The staples you forewent on your first pass are still waiting for you.
Hose it all down with gravy, and now, eat quickly. None of this 20-chews-per-bite crap. Get busy. Your goal is to taste all of this food, sure, but just as importantly, you need to get it into your body and get your plate refilled before the mechanisms that millions of years of evolution have granted you for the sole purpose of detecting a hazardous state of crapulence have had a chance to warn you away from shaving decades off of your lifespan.
Ah. Done. And, look! The staples you passed up on the first go-round are still there, and still appetizing! It’s a Thanksgiving miracle! Refill that damn plate, and get eating. You’ve successfully tricked your body and mind into creating an alarmingly false sense of hunger (and digestive capacity) where none actually exists; take advantage! Big, grotesque piles of the starchy tentpole Thanksgiving foodstuffs: potatoes, stuffing, casserole, sweet potatoes. Gravy by the cup. Down the hatch.
It’s clear by the time you finish this second helping that you are going to need some time to digest, if not an immediate airlift to the nearest hospital. Take a break to “watch football,”which is bit of Thanksgiving jargon that means “plopping down into a cozy chair, crossing one’s feet, and slipping into a transient physiological state indistinguishable from actual death, which persists for at least 45 minutes but for no longer than two hours.” After this, you should be ready for several slices of pie.
This column originally ran on November 22, 2012.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.