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Thanksgiving Stories From the Experts

Listen to favorite tales from professional chefs and home cooks in this special episode

People toasting with glasses at Thanksgiving

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WC: Hi, I’m Wilma Consul with An AARP Take on Today. We know you’re getting ready for this week’s big holiday. So first, thanks for listening. Some of you might be driving to see family, but I bet most of you are either in the market or in the kitchen, preparing a feast that you want everyone to remember.

I’m not cooking this year, but I talked to two chefs whose work I so respect and admire. And they’ll give us a great tip in making your Thanksgiving meal a success.

Patrice O.: My name is Patrice Olivon. I've been a chef for too many years now, maybe almost 50 years. I was trained in France.

Oh, cooking at the White House, it was like going on stage. When you have to serve the president and his family or cook for a party, or when it comes time, this is a performance, and if you did not rehearse or do your mis-en-place right, then you're in trouble. So, it is exciting because working over there, you have to expect anything. The president could be by himself. And then certainly, he's got four guests is coming up and he's got to have dinner in 10 minutes, so you better be prepared for those kinds of things. For the people who cook at home and for Thanksgiving, it's always a pressure. You make sure that you're not going to forget anything. You have enough food... Then people are going to enjoy it. But don't forget about one thing. Don't forget to enjoy yourself. How many Thanksgivings you spend too much time in the kitchen and not with the guests or your family? Then when the party is finished, you cleaning up, so there is no enjoyable moment in there. What I suggest you do is, you know we have a famous word in the profession that a kitchen mis- en-place... which mean prepping everything that you need for the dish. But think about Thanksgiving. There's so much dishes you can do the day before, right? Even if you do a pecan pie, you do the day before, great.

You do it the day before. If you're going to have mashed potatoes, do it the day before and the green beans and all this. Keep the Turkey to cook that day because putting Turkey in the oven and basting once in a while, it's not a big deal. Plus it makes the smell in the house, right? Everybody wants to see the Turkey and then the rest, the side and the everything else should be ready. So that's what I suggest you do is make sure that the Thursday of Thanksgiving, you only have to cook the Turkey and drink beer. Maybe... Or Champagne.

It's the first Thanksgiving that we're doing with my daughter in college, so she's coming of course for Thanksgiving break. So we decide to do something special, which mean I'm not going to cook a special for me. Right? We actually going to Lancaster. We rented a cottage with the Amish and we're going to stay there and eat an Amish family for Thanksgiving and then come back the next day. I think that would be very special to see, you know, down to a farm Amish farm and eating that with the Amish people.

WC: Do you know what's going to be on the table?

Patrice O.: I don't care what it's going to be on the table. I'm sure it's going to be good. I'm not a picky eater and that family is not either and I'm sure it'd be okay. I have no doubt so I think it's going to be a great experience.

Janice McClain: Thank you. It was really an honor. Thanks for asking. I'm Janice McLean and I'm executive chef of Season's Culinary at Soundbites Cafe at NPR.

I was one of those little girls with the Easy-Bake Oven and subjected my family to all the little things that you pushed through on the little trays and they bake on the light bulb. And they had to be awful, but everybody ate them and smiled and said how good they were. And that was the first thing and then off I go.

Oh, Thanksgiving is all about being organized and I'm a huge list person. So you write yourself a list and you figure out what can you do ahead. You look at your dishes the weekend before and make sure they're all clean. Don't be washing your good china or the serving pieces that day. The cranberry sauce can be made four days ahead. I like to get a small bird ahead because the gravy is so important to me. So I want roasted bones so I roast that bird and break down the carcass and have the stock already made before Thanksgiving. Go to the farmer's market the Sunday before and get all your veggies and just have a really good game plan and have it all written down. And then I have a fun chart called gravy math. Fine Cooking, put it out years ago. I can shoot you a copy. It's great.

WC: Yeah, what is it?

Janice McClain: It's gravy math. So how much stock, how much flour, how much, and it's in a grid. I mean I love the organization. My husband scanned it in because we send it to friends whenever, you know, sometimes I become dial-a-chef.

It's one of my favorite meals. It's so traditional. I mean you don't mess with it. You know, this is not the meal that you go and make that nouveau thing that you saw New York. No, no, no, no, no, no. ON Thanksgiving you have turkey, you have stuffing. I like bread stuffing other people like cornbread stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, I do three kinds of cranberries because I love them. The turkey is okay. But to me it's a vehicle to get the gravy and the stuffing. And I end up eating one slice of turkey. But it was so much fun last week, one of the departments ordered a Thanksgiving meal and I had two 20 pound birds and I was standing there to table and I'm going, "I have done this every year, this time of year, since 1993." How cool is that? And I still get joy from doing it.

WC: Washington, D.C. is home to many cultures. And sometimes, we see this on the Thanksgiving tables.

Natalia: I'm Natalia Graham. I'm originally from Kyrgyzstan, central Asia and I came here to US in 2001. And I lived all this time in Washington DC.

So I they came here first year, my husband is a really good cook, so he bake turkey, which was really new for me. I never tried turkey before. It was my first time. It was very delicious. And then he made his own cranberry sauce. Was actually two, one was cooked and another one was just a relish. So grinded fresh cranberries with orange and walnuts. So it's very tasty and with stuffing, stuffing also was a very new dish for me. I had no idea that people can actually put bread like this and cook with vegetables. So it's like little weird and it's still, it's not my favorite, but it's okay. So sweet potatoes, I really like sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, or the kind of like casserole dish.

WC: Do you put any central Asian spin on the Thanksgiving table?

Natalia: I do actually make red beet salad, which includes also pickles, very small chopped onions. We also can put fermented cabbage, so it's not that sweet. And sometimes I make carrot salad. So you just julienne carrots and you marinate it with spices, cayenne pepper and coriander and olive oil and little between vinegar.

WC: In Southeast D.C., a few seniors just finished a Zumba Gold class at the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center. Smiling and still sweaty, they talk about how they’re going to spend time with loved ones.

Ingrid: Oh, I'm in good spot. We’re in Congress Heights Wellness Center in Washington DC.

WC: When did you come to the United States?

Ingrid: I came here I think it was 31 years ago from?

WC: From?

Ingrid: From Trinidad.

WC: Do you have Thanksgiving in Trinidad?

Ingrid: No. Trinidad is so... What's word... Religious. Everyday like it's Thanksgiving.

WC: 31 years later, do you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Ingrid: Yes, I do because we have, I've got grandchildren here. We've got friends... Caribbean people, but we all be celebrate it. We are here. We might as well.

WC: Being from the Caribbean and having Caribbean people. Tell me what the Thanksgiving table looks like.

Ingrid: We don't go up for the turkey too much. We eat our beef, chicken, callaloo which is spinach and okra in coconut milk. You have rice and peas, fried plantain, and then we have the rum cakes.

WC: Can you tell me what Thanksgiving means to you now?

Ingrid: Really? I think it's a waste of food. I see so much food. Everybody wants to [inaudible] and it's just a waste. Everybody with this 2000 pounds turkey and then they keep it in the fridge and then it's thrown out. I don't like it. It's not the right reason.

Darlyn: Darlyn Ray from Washington DC.

WC: Tell me what the Thanksgiving table looks like in your house?

Darlyn: Well, it's always my kids and my grandkids and my family. We had the traditional Turkey, ham, macaroni cheese, potato salad, greens, biscuits, and cranberry sauce here.

WC: Do you cook most of it?

Darlyn: Mostly I, me and my daughter.

WC: What does Thanksgiving mean to you?

Darlyn: Well, as the tradition I started this years ago before we even eat, we'd stand around the table and say what we're thankful for. So... We're grateful just to be here, just to have a family to eat with and grandkids.

WC: In a Virginia suburb, about a thirty-minute drive from D.C., a holiday tradition bloomed from a marriage between a Virginian and a Hawaiian.

Gigi: Gigi Hoopii and I'm from McLean, Virginia.

Isaac: Isaac Hoopii from Waianae, Oahu.

WC: How long have you been married?

Gigi: Too long.

Isaac: Gigi.

Gigi: We forget. It's either, it's either 28 or 29 years. We can't remember. We usually have nice Thanksgiving tablecloth. I have china with fruit and vegetables on it. It's very like Thanksgivingy. And we use the crystal and the silver. It's more a fancy.

WC: Your Hawaiian Isaac.

Isaac: Yes.

WC: So is there any Hawaiian in there? And then is there any, you know, how does the two cultures melding on the table?

Gigi: For Thanksgiving? Not too much Hawaiian.

Isaac: It's more about gathering and not even the presentation itself. It's about how everybody just meet up, giving thanks.

Gigi: But we do have guests come invite and everything. We've had people bring lomi-lomi salmon and which is very good with turkey by the way.

Isaac: So on the Hawaiian culture we always open up our doors to people that don't have a place to give Thanksgiving and have them share that with us.

Gigi: Well that's your Hawaiian Aloha and my Virginia hospitality and that's why it works so well.

It's both dear.

WC: What's your most memorable Thanksgiving?

Gigi: My family is very traditional and we do pretty much the same things every single year.

Isaac: And from the Hawaiian side, the local side, we went home one Thanksgiving and we had to go on to auntie's house, have Thanksgiving, my sister made Thanksgiving, and my other sister had Thanksgiving. So you had to eat like three times.

WC: Oh lord.

Isaac: But all the spreads is totally different. But you know the local ways that you cannot say no to them and you have to at least show up and have a feast with them. So.

WC: So what's the local spread look like?

Isaac: Besides the turkey? Everything else-

Gigi: Macaroni salad and they put black olives on it and it's special for Thanksgiving.

Isaac: And of course Kapolei and Lomi salmon and smoke meat and...

Gigi: And it was the same thing at each Thanksgiving dinner and by the end of the day we're just like, "Oh, we can't do this again."

Isaac: You know, pork and beans with hot dogs, I mean just a normal spread of everybody has, every family has its own different type of local spread.

WC: And what is it that you're trying to, because now you have your grandsons, what is the tradition that you're trying to teach them?

Gigi: Probably mostly just family getting together. The importance of the grandparents and the great-grandparents. We recently lost my mother and so this Thanksgiving will probably be somewhat difficult. And at Thanksgiving in our house we decorate for Thanksgiving and all along the mantle we have a, it's like a clothesline and little clothespins and we have these leaves and everybody who comes to the house writes what they're thankful for. And they can hang it up on the clotheslines and it's fun to see what they write that they're thankful for every year.

Isaac: Sharing a lot of quality time. Like Gigi said, her mom passed on, but now the traditions carry on through her in which we're going to try and pass onto our kids and our kids pass it on to their kids, our grandkids. And giving thanks.

WC: Well thank you.

Gigi: Happy Thanksgiving from the Virginia hospitality side and the Hawaiian aloha.

WC: We hope you enjored this week’s episode. From the rest of the staff of Take on Today, we wish you a wonderful holiday with your family and friends.

Favorite Thanksgiving stories from professional chefs and home cooks who bring fresh flavors to the table.

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