My colleague Bryan Lowder has a must-read piece in Slate today arguing that Thanksgiving dinner should be served at dinnertime. This is apparently a controversial opinion, even though it sounds like common sense. Lowder mentions several excellent reasons for carving the turkey on the late side, including the many hours required to prepare a proper Thanksgiving meal, the fact that eating early throws our digestive clocks out of whack, and the aesthetic allure of candlelight. But there’s another very important reason to eat in the evening instead of the early afternoon: alcohol.
Many people have valid reasons not to drink alcohol on Thanksgiving, but for the tippling majority, wine is a crucial part of the meal. Nothing makes you feel thankful as efficiently as the buzz of a Beaujolais, and sometimes your glass of red is the only thing keeping you from wanting to crawl out of your skin when Uncle Hank starts warning you about “the knockout game.” Of course, wine drunk unwisely can also turn longstanding tensions into outright hostility. For this reason, too, it’s important to drink the right way on Thanksgiving, a day when drinking “responsibly” refers as much to preserving tenuous familial peace as to knowing when it’s time to surrender your car keys. If you don’t serve dinner at a reasonably late hour, you’re setting yourself up for hazardously inefficient drinking.
Here’s how Thanksgiving Day drinking ought to go. You should finish all tasks requiring a chef’s knife and a cutting board well before you uncork your first bottle. When it’s late afternoon or early evening, and mealtime is about an hour off, you can start sipping a glass of the libation of your choice. Maybe you have one more glass before you sit down to eat, making sure to nibble on cheese and crackers to keep it from going to your head too quickly. In any case, the alcohol whets your appetite for the feast to come, brightens your spirits, and lowers your inhibitions ever so slightly, paving the way for an off-the-cuff witticism when everyone takes turns saying what they’re thankful for. You have another glass or two during dinner, and by the time it’s mid-evening you feel physically and emotionally fulfilled. You now have a few hours to digest—perhaps with the help of a snifter of Calvados, in the spirit of the season—and you drink some water before you go to bed to ward off a hangover. You sleep soundly for 10 to 12 hours and wake up feeling refreshed and ready for leftovers.
Now here’s how Thanksgiving Day drinking goes when you eat dinner in the early afternoon. If you try to have a glass of wine on an empty stomach before the meal begins, you’ll get real tipsy real fast. The meal itself will slow that process down—but you then have a good 9 to 12 hours to kill before it’s bedtime. Perhaps you’ll try to keep your buzz going by drinking more after the meal has ended, but you’ll be so stuffed that the alcohol will make its way into your bloodstream at a snail’s pace, leaving you feeling an unpleasant sobriety. You’ll drink more—too much more. Your judgment will start to falter. Maybe you’ll take a nap, screwing up your circadian cycle for the next week or so, or maybe you’ll start noshing even though you’re not really hungry anymore. In any case, once it gets dark, you’ll find yourself cranky, disoriented, and beginning to feel achy and hung over. These conditions are not conducive to family harmony. These conditions are conducive to family conflagration.
So I urge you, if you plan to indulge in alcohol tomorrow, to take Lowder’s very good advice and serve the meal late. When you reach the end of the day with your sanity (and your buzz) still intact, you'll have one have one last thing to be thankful for.