10 ways to triumph over Thanksgiving tribulations

By Robin Watson
Special to The Detroit News

John and Debbie Dawe will never forget the Thanksgiving dinner they hosted in Pinckney. Debbie had to work, so John was in charge of the turkey. She left a stick of butter on the stove and told him to baste the bird every half-hour.

That butter was for all the basting, but John used the whole thing on the first round. Four more sticks of butter (one per baste) later, the bird was done. It was also swimming in fat that cascaded all over the hot oven when the pan slipped as John removed it.

“Smoke was billowing from the open windows and patio door,” Debbie recalls. “On a positive note, the turkey was really, really moist.”

Such stories are the stuff of family legends. Carol Miller, a supervisor at the Naperville, Illinois-based Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, has probably heard them all. For 36 years, she’s guided callers through every kind of quandary, from “Where do I insert the thermometer?” to “Can I brine the turkey in the washing machine?”

The following are some common challenges and how to overcome them.

It can be a long, treacherous way from the freezer to the dinner table sometimes.

 Failure to communicate

Consider the woman who (pre-cellphones) stashed her thawed turkey in the car trunk because it was cold out and the fridge was full. Her husband, unaware of this passenger, drove off Thanksgiving morning and she had no idea where the turkey was.

Fix: Make lists. Check them twice. Spell out even the most basic instructions.

 Sometimes “frozen” is more than a movie.

You wouldn’t be the first to forget to take the bird out of the freezer.

Fix: Let it go. Let it go. According to Michigan State University Extension, it’s safe to roast frozen, unstuffed turkeys, but the cooking time will be about 50% longer.

You forgot the cavity search

That little packet of giblets — heart, liver, neck — sometimes gets overlooked.

Fixes: If the bag is paper (most are), you’re fine. Remove the cooked giblets and use for gravy and/or stock. But, if the bag is plastic, discard bird and bag: the heated plastic can contaminate the turkey.

 Your oven dies

Even ovens that start out normally may fail during cooking. And newness is no guarantee — as one Plymouth hostess learned when the prestige oven in her swanky, remodeled kitchen failed, mid-roast. “You didn’t see anything!” she hissed to the guest who caught her stuffing the bird into the oversize-microwave.

Fixes: Miller suggests breaking out the grill. Or, carve the bird into sections to microwave, saute, stovetop braise, and/or cook in a slow-cooker or instant pot.

Done and doneness

Digital thermometers and timers can fail, too. One Michigan man, relying on a thermometer he later learned was malfunctioning, rejected a relative’s assessment that the turkey was done and roasted the bird for an additional — and ruinous — two hours. An experienced baker turned out a brick-hard loaf of bread because her thermometer was inadvertently set to Celsius.

Fixes: Make sure thermometers and timers are working and set correctly. Change batteries if you haven’t for awhile. Set the timers on mobile devices as backup. Use common sense and your senses to determine doneness.

Your gravy isn’t groovy

It’s both the lifeblood of the meal and a stumbling block for many.

Fixes: Sieve lumps out or blitz gravy with a stick blender. Thin gloppy gravy by whisking in water, turkey stock or even port. Gravy’s too thin? Whisk in bits of beurre manie (equal parts flour and softened butter). Enhance color by adding Worcestershire sauce or liquid smoke. Boost flavor with a scoop of demi-glace, extra salt and pepper. Skim fat from greasy gravy or use a fat separator.

Your rolls are rocks

Buying or DIYing too far ahead can be counterproductive.

Fix: Revive rolls by sprinkling them lightly with water, wrapping them in foil and reheating at 350 degrees until soft.

Your pies aren’t perfect

According to a Sara Lee Desserts brand survey, 62% of Americans make more mistakes with pies than with the turkey.

Fixes: Brulee cracked pumpkin-pies — just sprinkle with superfine sugar and torch until caramelized. Deconstruct the pie and turn it into trifle by layering edible pieces with sweetened whipped cream, or swirl with softened vanilla ice cream and refreeze. Pipe custard into the gap between top crust and fruit filling, then refrigerate until custard is set. Cover anything unattractive with whipped cream.

You forgot to …

It’s easy to make mistakes when rushing, as one highly skilled cook learned when the lid to her professional-model Waring centrifugal juicer wasn’t secured. Pureeing leftover berries from Thanksgiving dessert transformed her kitchen into a “CSI”-like crime scene.

Fixes: Slow down a little. Read and reread directions, secure lids, etc.

10. Guess who’s coming to dinner

A common call, Miller notes, concerns guests who come two hours early. Or two hours late. Or not at all.

Fixes: Ply early guests with appetizers, she advises, or hold a “backwards Thanksgiving” and serve dessert first. For late guests or no-shows, call a helpline and ask about holding times and temperatures specific to your turkey and situation.

Holiday Helplines

Butterball Turkey Talk-Line

(800) 288-8372 or text (844) 877-3456


Ask Alexa: She’s programmed with answers to the Talk-Line’s top 20 questions.

Online tips and tricks:

USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline

(888) 674-6854


Ocean Spray Holiday Helpline

(800) 662-3263

Sara Lee Pie Hotline

(888) 914-1247

 Holiday Hacks for Serving


·       Forget matchy-matchy. Mingle stainless flatware with silverplate or sterling. Mix china patterns. Use china with everyday dishes

·       Go for convenience. “Traditions change, and younger hosts may do paper plates and paper towels instead of grandma’s china and cloth napkins,” Miller says. To dress things up, advises Grand Rapids-based stylist Michelle Callaghan-Hale, use craft scissors to give paper-towel napkins fancy edges, then tie with ribbon.

·       Serve pudding, mousse or ice cream in small jars or coupe-style champagne glasses.

·       Serve soup in shot glasses, rocks glasses, tea cups and/or coffee mugs.

 Serving pieces

·       Use pie plates as serving bowls.

·       Place nuts and small snacks in muffin pans.

·       Wedge cheese slices and chunks in olive dishes.

·       Use Mason jars for relish-tray components, pickled veggies and cranberry sauce.

·       No large platters? “Use wooden cutting boards,” Callaghan-Hale says. “Top with parchment paper and write labels with a sharpie — e.g., the names of various cheeses.” Or, cover cookie sheets with colorful cloth napkins or paper bags cut to fit.

·       Not enough place mats? Callaghan-Hale suggests parchment paper on which children can doodle at the kids’ table.

·       No footed cake plates? Turn a bowl upside down and rest a dinner plate on it, right-side up, Callaghan-Hale suggests. For extra stability, glue the plate to the bowl.