As anyone who has participated in Thanksgiving cooking can tell you, while the holiday comes with high culinary expectations, things definitely don’t always go as planned. Sometimes you can prepare everything perfectly, only to burn a dish while reheating it. A small miscalculation could leave you with the daunting task of defrosting the turkey in no time. Or perhaps unexpected circumstances force you to quickly adapt to alternate proofing and baking methods. Wait, what is spatchcocking?! And on top of the culinary challenges, there’s all the social stuff – you want to impress! You want to try something new! You want to do something good enough that you don’t regret stuffing your mouth to avoid the awkward questions that come with having your whole family in one room.
Since it’s best to learn from the mistakes of others, we asked the staff at Slate to regal us with their most ignominious Thanksgiving culinary disasters. Good luck to all those brave enough to step into the Thanksgiving kitchen and make turkey day (sort of) delicious for the rest of us.
The frosting fiasco
Like the man said (on Slate), I hate cake. So I always fantasize about imposing a cake at my Thanksgiving gatherings. A few years ago when I was a host, I did it: I made what is probably a perfect recipe, Applesauce Pie with Cream Cheese and Honey Glaze, from the NYT Cooking Section, and served it on the dessert table. But she didn’t have enough fridge space to let it sit overnight (it was, obviously, Thanksgiving), for her frosting to smooth out and fuse with her cake. I also overbake it for about 5 minutes, because I was overwhelmed with other recipes that needed my attention, so it was dry. I had that problem with the cake where you cut into it and you can see the little air pocket between the frosting and the cake. It’s not pretty, it’s not good. I was the only one with a slice; we composted it three days later. —cardigan onion
blue cheese blues
Many, many years ago, one of the first times I contributed to a Thanksgiving dinner, I made what I thought would be an interesting success. My family had unadventurous tastes, but I thought I could present them with something delicious and be celebrated for years to come. I don’t remember what recipe I used, but I made a blue cheese and pear quiche. Turns out no one in my family likes blue cheese…including me. I usually test recipes before the big day now.
a thaw deal
For my first Thanksgiving as an “adult” (23 years old) and away from home, I desperately wanted to have a Thanksgiving with friends that felt cozy and sophisticated. So, I volunteered to make the turkey for my crew. I had never attempted to cook a turkey before, but I felt confident watching my mother do it over the years. However, he clearly wasn’t attentive enough as a child, because he didn’t know that you had to thaw the bird days in advance and clean the insides. Fast forward to me microwaving the whole turkey on Thanksgiving morning with the giblets and everything still inside. It was an extremely tight fit that didn’t spin at all and only cooked select parts of the outside so they turned grey. Somehow I passed out the rest of the process, but somehow managed to cook it completely in the oven and mostly edible, and, miraculously, no one died. I am now a vegetarian. —caitlin schneider
My ex-husband and I have always made a “theme” for Thanksgiving: Traditional (whole bird), Ramen (shredded turkey), Mexican (sliced turkey with Pipián sauce), you get the idea. One year we decided to go French and I planned to confit the turkey legs. Delicious, right?
Well, it was, but I wasn’t sure it was possible because I bought a whole bird from a local butcher and, being the knife-skilled braggart that I was at the time, thought I’d slaughter the raw bird myself. . Cutting up a turkey is NOT like cutting up a chicken. I remember starting to work on detaching a leg from the body and it was like the turkey was alive, moving all over the place as I tried to fight and dismantle it at the same time. Two and a half hours later, with a bit of teamwork, I had the bird cut well enough. But it will not be repeated! This year, I’m making a spatchcocked turkey, and had my backbone removed at the butcher by a professional. It’s been over a decade and I’m much wiser – no need to try to brag anymore! —Hillary Frey
A funky dip
This isn’t so much a failure as a lesson learned, but once, in high school, I attended a party and ate one of the best dips I’ve ever had. I made it a point to find the person who brought the sauce and asked him to give me the recipe, for which I was a bit embarrassed. The reason is that the secret to this sauce, which I call pepperjack sauce to make it look appealing, is that it’s really just a lot of mayonnaise (one cup) and also sour cream (16 ounces). Add two shredded blocks of pepperjack (and a few garlic cloves and tablespoons of flour—now you can make this sauce, too!) and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Is it delicious and somehow tastes light and almost fluffy? Except…it’s not actually light or fluffy at all. It’s a huge serving of mostly mayonnaise. It is WRONG to serve with your cheese plate before Thanksgiving! Save it for the Super Bowl. —susan matthews
A secret (too) well kept
When I was a freshman at NYU, I thought I’d be an adult and skip the family Thanksgiving in DC to go to dinner with my classmates in Park Slope. I was making dessert: my grandmother’s legendary sponge cake recipe. I made the dough and realized that I couldn’t remember its secret ingredient, the one that was so secret it was never written on the recipe card. So I poured in a teaspoon of whatever bottled McCormick brown extract I had on hand. It turned out to be mint. The cake came out with a green tint and smelled like mint liqueur. It wasn’t exactly something you’d want to serve at a festive table, so I ended up eating most of it. —Alice Mongomery
For many years, I’ve cooked a vegetarian Thanksgiving, and the sensational one was a mushroom and thyme sauce made with dried porcini mushrooms, soy sauce, and light cream. Even as a certified meat eater these days, I adore this sauce – it’s very, very good. One year when it came together I went to try it for the first time and instead of the usual waves of flavor it was totally inedible. I tried it over and over again, shuddering more and more. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I did. Then I took a closer look at the “light cream”. In fact, I had used my father-in-law’s really disgusting fake vanilla cream. RIP to that sauce, which went straight down the drain but will unfortunately be remembered forever. —Jeff Gaffe