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Drama-Free Thanksgiving Tips


I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, we're talking turkey, Thanksgiving turkey and etiquette. We asked our listeners through Facebook about some of their toughest turkey day dilemmas. Here's one NPR listener, Melanie Bean(ph). One Thanksgiving, she and her sister were supposed to take a turkey out of the brine, add some ingredients and then put it back in. Sounds simple enough, but...

MELANIE BEAN: It fell on the floor in the garage and then she was trying to pick it up and, you know, it just kept, like, sliding all over the place and she finally got it. It's covered in dirt and dried leaves and everything, so I'm just standing there laughing at her while this is going on. We went in the house. We rinsed it off in the sink and then we just, you know, put it back in the brine and didn't say a word to anybody other than our husbands.

HEADLEE: So do you need help on dilemmas like this or slippery situations in Thanksgiving? Joining us to shed some light on the proper holiday etiquette, we have Karen Grigsby Bates. She's the co-author of the etiquette book, "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times" and an NPR correspondent, also the mom of one son. Steven Petrow is author of "Steven Petrow's Gay and Lesbian Manners" and he writes the column, "Civil Behavior," for the New York Times. And Leslie Morgan Steiner is one of our regular parenting contributors. She's the author of "Mommy Wars" and "Crazy Love" and a mom of three.

Welcome to all of you.


LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: A pleasure to be here.

HEADLEE: Karen...

STEVEN PETROW: Great to be here.

HEADLEE: Set the table for us. Why does Thanksgiving, which is supposed to be all about gratitude - right - and warmth and love - why does it seem to sometimes bring out the worst in families?

BATES: You know, you say Thanksgiving, Celeste, and I immediately go, ugh. And I think it's because it is so emotionally freighted. You know, everybody has this image in their head of that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving with the big turkey on the platter and Grandpa at the head of the table and Grandma smiling benignly and all the little kids scrubbed and lined up with their forks and knives, ready to dig in when the platters are passed.

And we don't really have - many of us don't have families like that anymore and I think it just builds up so much expectation of being perfect that any little thing, including any little emotional thing, can just bring the whole house of cards down and so my vow to myself is to have a more laid-back Thanksgiving every year. I've been inching towards it. It hasn't always worked, but I think it's a goal that I want to work towards.

HEADLEE: Well, is it happening this year or is there any issues that you're having to deal with?

BATES: Yeah. Actually, it is happening this year and we've sort of rebooted Thanksgiving. We're calling it Thanksgiving 2.0 because I've had Thanksgiving with the same group of friends for about 25 years and, last year, the people who helped originate the original Thanksgiving for us separated and got divorced and, like little kids, everybody who had been at the table said, oh, what'll we do now? Well, you know, you go to your individual house. You do whatever. You rescramble. You regroup.

And so I went back to the original purpose of our Thanksgiving, which was to have a whole bunch of what we casually call orphans, you know, people who are on call or who themselves are getting separated or who are away from their families and can't afford to go home, to the table. You know, it's a time of abundant food and you're bringing people who might not have other people around them to come and...


BATES: ...share with you.

HEADLEE: I understand that, but sometimes, you have to set some standards. Right? Leslie, I understand that you've actually put a ban on traveling to relatives' homes for Thanksgiving. Why is that?

STEINER: Well, I actually - several years ago when my kids were little, I stopped. I just kind of couldn't handle the travel anymore and I think it's the best way to ruin Thanksgiving, especially when you have kids under the age of, say, 10, is to get in a car or get on a train or a plane and go somewhere else. It just - the travel adds stress, especially if you come from a family where both parents are working. You're usually exhausted by Thanksgiving eve and to get there and then to be in an unusual place is always really hard, so we try to stay at home and keep it just like Karen said, really casual and low key.

HEADLEE: Well, Steven Petrow, you focus on etiquette that's related to gay and lesbian people, so are there specific challenges that relate to the LGBT community as opposed to others?

PETROW: There absolutely are, but I also want to say that, even though I don't have kids of my own, I have four wonderful nieces and nephews that I won't be seeing this Thanksgiving because, like Leslie, I don't believe in traveling anymore, either, at the holidays.

But, you know, one of the themes that comes up around this holiday is - is it the right time to come out to mom and dad or to grandma and grandpa at Thanksgiving? And I've had a number of questions in the last month about that. And, you know, my answer is, you know, as some of the other guests were saying, this holiday is already so freighted, we're so stressed, sometimes economically, every which way, to throw that into the Thanksgiving cocktail is a little bit explosive.

HEADLEE: Mm-hmm.

PETROW: And so my advice here is, after the big meal - maybe on Friday or Saturday, when you're still around - that's the time to have a private conversation with your folks or with your grandfolks. And...

HEADLEE: You know, Steven, it's interesting that you mention this because this came up from a question from one of our listeners. Take a listen of Louis Stocking of Kalamazoo, Michigan talking about Thanksgiving a few years ago with his extended family.

LOUIS STOCKING: They were making racist comments about black people, using the N-word. And I told them that I didn't appreciate that being a gay man and a minority myself, I wouldn't appreciate it if you guys were talking about gay men. They didn't know I was gay and it offended them, and my aunt told me I was no longer welcome at their dinners.

HEADLEE: So at what point, Steven, are the differences just too great between family members and you don't eat together anymore?

PETROW: Yeah, that's a really telling story and, you know, I feel for that gentleman. And in a situation like that, I think actually he did the absolute right thing. We can't be silent when any group is being maligned, whether it's at a dinner table or a political town hall. And so in that case, you know, he was right to speak up because then everyone thinks that you agree with them and that's how sort of bullying continues to go. So I was looking at a little bit of a different situation where you control it more.


PETROW: But you want to be sensitive to your relatives and you also need to stay true to yourself. And that's a difficult balance and at the holidays it's even harder.

HEADLEE: Yeah. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our parenting panel is dishing out some advice on Thanksgiving manners. I'm joined by etiquette experts Steven Petrow and Karen Grigsby Bates, as well as regular Moms contributor Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Let's get to another question from an NPR listener. This is Jessica Whalley Davis of North Carolina. This year she's invited to her stepmother-in-law's house for Thanksgiving. This is the first time she's been invited there and she has a question.

JESSICA WHALLEY DAVIS: We were really excited about the invite until about two or three days ago when I got an email from her with a list of three things to fix with recipes attached. One of the things was a sweet potato casserole covered with marshmallows - just not for me. And I was wondering if I should actually approach her or possibly my father-in-law about this or if I should just let it go and just cook the stuff and pretend like it's no big deal.

HEADLEE: Karen, let me take that straight to you. Jessica also says her siblings got their own recipe lists from the hostess as well. How does she handle that?

KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: Well, I think the hostess probably was remiss in not having sent a list, if she really had that, you know, way earlier than three days ahead of time. Do you know what the grocery stores look like three days before Thanksgiving? It's insane. I think in this instance my inclination would be make the stuff, bring it, don't eat it. You know, there's a time afterwards to say, you know what, it was great being here and we'd love to come next year - if you would - and maybe we'll do something a little bit different.

I know people who have outright revolted. I remember one Thanksgiving when the host said we just, you know, Americans eat too much fat and too much carbs and too much everything else, so we're going to have a lean, healthy Thanksgiving. And he sent out notes about what needed, what each person should bring, you know, in a potluck, and how it should be cooked, and to a person they all send back a note going, please, it's Thanksgiving.

HEADLEE: Well, Leslie, let me get to you because you're shaking your head. I mean to what extent to indulge a hostess? I have, I cook my stuffing my own way. Do I have to use someone else's recipe?

STEINER: You know, me personally, I wouldn't. I would come up with something alternative, sort of roughly the same type of dish and bring that. But the reason that I'm cracking up about this is that people have such a set idea of what is the right thing to eat for Thanksgiving.

BATES: Mm-hmm.

STEINER: And we all think that we're right. And in my family we go really simple. We just have like a turkey and mashed potatoes and a few other things. And so it's always is hilarious to me when people get very wildly creative with Thanksgiving.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take a question. There's a question that relates to this. Steve...

PETROW: Can I jump in here, Leslie?

HEADLEE: Yeah. Let me have you take a listen Steven, to this question...


HEADLEE: ...from Amber Townsend of New York Valley, New York, because it relates to this very issue, Steven.


HEADLEE: She says: What do you do when you're vegan and you're invited to a omnivore dinner by the same people who make snide comments if you bring your own food because you know there won't be food for you? What do you think, Steven?


PETROW: Well, that's a great question. And, you know, I think the headline for the this whole conversation is: Even though we associate Thanksgiving with food, it's really not about the food. It's about being together. It's about giving thanks. I love the ritual that some of my friends do, where we go around the table and we say what we're thankful for in the past year. You know, to this specific question I think, you know, we need to remember, you know, it's not about the turkey per se. And if you're having, you know, if you're having vegan guests, of course they should be comfortable at the table. They should feel free to offer to bring something. No one ever goes hungry at the holiday table either. So, you know, if you don't have a substitute for the turkey, if there are plenty of sides, you know, you'll be fine. And, you know, the vegans are very good - as I understand it, you know, speaking up for themselves - on all these issues.

HEADLEE: You know, I've got to say there's some incredulous looks in my control room here...

PETROW: Oh really?

HEADLEE: ...over the fact that it's not about food. And I want to get Leslie and Karen in on this because, you know, food is incredible. It's a big deal at these holiday dinners.

BATES: I once - this is Leslie. I once tried to convince my kids that it wasn't about the food and we went to friend's house and they had a completely different kind of turkey, and they had sweet potato - mashed potatoes - instead of regular potatoes, and my kids, they really almost killed me on the ride home. And I had to that year, it's my favorite Thanksgiving ever, we had to promise the kids that we would repeat Thanksgiving on Saturday...

HEADLEE: Oh my Lord.


STEINER: And I cooked everything the way they wanted to, and we had relatives, get wonderful relatives who came again and ate a second Thanksgiving.

HEADLEE: Oh my gosh.

STEINER: So in my family at least, Thanksgiving is all about the food.

HEADLEE: You do realize there's 4,500 calories in the average Thanksgiving dinner?


HEADLEE: But you only eat at once a year, so it's OK.



PETROW: And Leslie, when I said it was not about the food, I just have to tell you this story. So in my family I am known as the pecan pie king or queen, and I make every year.


PETROW: And one year there was a new relative and she dared to bring her own pecan pie. And then she was pregnant and she told the story of where she went to get the pecans from her grandmother's tree and so on and so forth. It was such a sob story and so then my family voted on which was the better pie and...


PETROW: ...this new person won. So it was about the food. I had to let go. I had to let go.

BATES: It's about the memories attached to the food, which I think is why people are so rigid about what they will and won't eat. You know, it's like, yes, you love the green bean casserole. But part of the reason you love the green bean casserole is because it's your grandmother's recipe that's been handed down that...


BATES: ...all the women in your family make. Or that, you know, there's always stuffing with sausage and mushrooms in it because this is how it was done, you know, back in the dawn of time and turkey shall ever be stuffed with - actually it shouldn't be stuffed.


BATES: But, you know, served a long - so people, it's probably not the right time to experiment. Because people tell you, oh yeah, we want to do something different this year. They lie. They don't.


BATES: They want the same thing. And Leslie is right.

HEADLEE: Right. There's things I'll eat on Thanksgiving and Christmas I will eat no other time.

BATES: Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: But let me bring it back to a more serious note. Leslie, you mentioned - you've mentioned on this program that alcoholism runs in your family. We're wondering, what is your advice to handle a relative or a friend who attends a holiday dinner and is maybe acting inappropriate, has had too much to drink? What do you do?

STEINER: Well, in my family, you know, it's a mixed blessing. We have, because we have a lot of heavy drinkers, we have a lot of festive holidays, but there can be really ugly drama. And you can't control somebody else's drinking on Thanksgiving or any other time. But what I can do is I can prepare my kids for dealing with somebody who is drunk. And I know it sounds like a difficult thing to talk to kids about, but in our family what my husband and I do, we just have a little, you know, refresher course before Thanksgiving...


STEINER: ...and say now you remember so-and-so sometimes drinks too much. Come get us if you feel uncomfortable. And we remind the kids to try not to be alone with the person, because it's really scary from a kid's perspective when an adult gets out of control. And I know from having so many alcoholics in my family that you can't stop people from drinking, but you can kind of avoid them and take care of yourself and take care of your kids in that situation.

HEADLEE: You know, Karen, if it's OK, I want to ask a personal question, because I am part black and I don't look it. So I often hear comments at a holiday dinner that I don't think people would say if they knew my racial background. I wonder...

BATES: Been there, heard that.

HEADLEE: Yeah. How do you deal with somebody at the house who is making bigoted or inappropriate comments?

BATES: Hmm. My inclination is to firmly say, gee, you know, it's very interesting that you think all black people have had the welfare experience because growing up in my black family - and then usually you get a...



BATES: Because - are you black? And then the second question is: Well, you can't be black. Yeah. Actually, I can be.

HEADLEE: No, I get the: I'm not racist though.

BATES: I'm not racist. Some of my best friends are. So I think that my inclination is to - as Steven said - address it right then. Nip it in the bud because then if you don't, other people feel comfortable sort of piling on and saying other things, either in jest or not so much in jest. And they need to know, you know, I'm here and I'm going to check you on that. It doesn't have to turn - you don't have to go all Luther on them, but you do need to be able to say, look, you're wrong and you're offensive. It's a tough spot for your host to be in, because then the host will often come up to you and go, I am so sorry. I don't know where that came from, whatever. It's not your fault. You know, you don't program your people to behave the way that they behave. But I also don't have to sit here and take that. And if it gets to be too obnoxious, to just say look, dinner was lovely. It's been a long evening - even if it hasn't - and I'm going to go now...


HEADLEE: Feels like it, right?

BATES: ...and remove yourself. It feels like a long evening. I've had enough of it. Bye-bye

HEADLEE: All right. We have about - let me give each of you about 20 seconds and let you wrap up. Maybe your 20 second best advice to have a good Thanksgiving holiday this year. Let me begin with you, Steven Petrow,

PETROW: Well, I think it's about the expectations game that we've talked about, and you know, keep them in check. Keep it simple. Make lists. And, you know, and plan to, you know, to really enjoy the day with the people that you care for and use the day as an opportunity to really think about what are the wonderful things in your life, who are the wonderful people sharing this food with you.


PETROW: And I think if we stay to that core, we'll be fine.


BATES: I would say yes, like Steven, make lists. Do as much as possible ahead of time so you can enjoy your guests. And remember that even if the evening turns out to be trying, as Scarlett said, tomorrow is another day and leftovers are wonderful things.


BATES: You can have a whole new group of people over to eat with you.

HEADLEE: Like Leslie. Leslie, your 28 seconds advice?

STEINER: What I did this year that's different is that I asked each of my kids what they were looking forward to about Thanksgiving.

BATES: Oh, nice.

STEINER: So that I could make sure they got what they wanted. And my 10-year-old, you know, she just got this big smile on her face and she said, oh, your mashed potatoes, Mom, I love them so much. And I'm a terrible cook, so I just, it was really heartwarming to think there's at least one thing I make that she loves.

HEADLEE: That's Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of "Mommy Wars" and "Crazy Love." She was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Karen Grigsby Bates is the author of the etiquette book "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times." She's also an NPR correspondent, joined us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. And Steven Petrow, author of "Steven Petro's Gay and Lesbian Manners." He writes the column "Civil Behavior" for The New York Times, joined us from WUNC in Chapel Hill.

Thank you all. Happy Thanksgiving.

That's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.