The first Thanksgiving dinner I ever cooked, in 1981, was ridiculously easy. My consort and I, three months into cohabitation, went to the supermarket on the fourth Wednesday in November and bought a 10-pound turkey, a box of Bell's famous seasoning and a loaf of Italian bread for the stuffing, a few potatoes to mash, two sweet potatoes to bake, a half-can of cranberry sauce, and a frozen pumpkin pie. The next day we mixed it all together with the butter, celery, and onions we had on hand and treated ourselves to the meal it was meant to be—a loving celebration. In our innocence, we cheated with convenience foods and won.
Thanksgiving has only gotten easier for me since then, even though we now have more mouths to feed and make almost everything from scratch. I have a few shortcuts to help move things along—the smartest being to check my control freakiness at the kitchen door and let guests bring appetizers and dessert—but mostly I get up on the big day and relax. No matter what insanity food magazines and television feed Americans each November, Thanksgiving is the most manageable meal of the year.
There is no good reason to torture yourself brining a turkey for three days, or flogging yourself to bake three pies when the very idea of tackling one crust makes you want to take a carving knife to Betty Crocker. Nor is it necessary to slave over 16 side dishes, like smoked-oyster sticky rice stuffing in lotus leaf or avocado relish with caramelized onions, each more overwrought than the last. Start with good ingredients, keep it simple, and there is no way to go wrong. And if one element on an overloaded plate is not up to Martha Stewart's standards, gravy hides all sins.
Cooking the turkey terrifies people the most, but think of it as a big chicken that is just as easy to cook. In fact, you can stick an unstuffed bird in a 500-degree oven and cook it to succulent perfection in about an hour, although you would need a serious exhaust fan and a disabled smoke detector. And given that this is the centerpiece of the meal, it does deserve a little more attention (not to the point of paralysis).
Invest in a heritage turkey—a breed that hasn't been genetically modified to be all breast at a young age—and about three hours at 350 degrees will deliver what the food glossies promise with much more futzing. The meat, especially the dark meat, has exceptional flavor because these turkeys live natural lives, running and jumping.
If you choose a regular turkey—meaning organic or free-range, not a tasteless, drugged-up bird from a factory farm—it will benefit from brining, which makes the meat juicy and flavorful. You can achieve this same effect, though, with less time and labor, and without the refrigerator-hogging pot to brine in: Simply mix one part sugar to two parts kosher salt, add dried thyme and chili powder, rub the mixture evenly over the skin, and let the turkey sit, naked, in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, brush off the salt and roast as usual.