A Date with Gratitude

I’m sure I have mentioned this along the way, but when I first met my husband, all I knew how to make was quiche. Because I became interested, I started making recipes from magazines and took some cooking classes. Tackling the holidays, however, is a WHOLE  other story!

Over the years, with lots of trials and errors, not to mention many phone calls to my mother or mother in law, I can crank out the holiday bird and, as my granny would say, all the fixins. But, I know how daunting it can be, especially to not have your turkey be DRY!

So I applaud Mandy, our PLANK editor, for her first foray into this … not only for her leap of faith, but also for doing it all so beautifully! Thank goodness she photographed the process and results so we can share the ride. I do think she should have added her friends’ food coma shot!!

A Date with Gratitude

by Mandy Denaux

Last Thursday, I had a first date with Tom. Now before you go and get excited (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m looking at you), it wasn’t the kind of date you’re thinking. No, I had a date with Tom … my very first turkey.

When I decided to host my first Thanksgiving festivity, it was with the idea that I would not be cooking the turkey – I’m not much of a turkey eater, much less cooker, and the thought of cooking an entire bird was intimidating.

Instead, I placed an order with my local grocer and began plotting all the delicious sides and trimmings. But as the day got closer, the less excited I was about my store-cooked turkey. After all, this was my first time hosting a holiday dinner, and I’d planned everything else so carefully … why would I leave the main dish up to some random cook in the Gelson’s deli? And also, and more importantly, what would my grandmother think?

So, as I purchased the roaster needed to heat my prepared bird, I began to wonder if I shouldn’t just take the leap and do the whole thing. I sent a quick text to Mary Beth – honestly, I was looking for someone to say “No, don’t do it, it’s not worth the hassle.” But as you can imagine, that was not her answer. Instead I got “it’s not that hard, you should do it,” followed by a quick list of instructions.

I should add here that I love to cook. Cook or bake, recipe or not, I’m in! I love following the handed down recipes of my family, as well as creating new concoctions of my own. But this cooking a whole bird thing was definitely uncharted territory for me … one that would be aided by a deep dive into Google and YouTube.

A few years ago, during my first Whole30 experience, I learned the tremendous rewards of brining poultry; and while it’s not something I do often, I knew that if I was going to take on this bird, it was going to be with the help of brine. I searched the web and finally landed on a simple brine recommended by Martha Stewart (I mean, can you really go wrong there?). Then I found a list of the 50 best turkey recipes. 50?!? I scanned them and ultimately landed on a simple, traditional style recipe.

So, with an ever-expanding grocery list in hand, I headed out to select my guy.

From selection to perfection, haha. (l-r) Picking out the smallest turkey I could find; Preparing the brine; It’s in the bag (and in a bucket) for 24 hours; Rubbed my guy down with a butter/spice mixture; Look at him!

As for the rest of my meal … well, I’m sure my Southern family would be very disappointed. That’s because, while I decided to prepare a traditional turkey, nothing else on my menu resembled anything that would have been served at the Thanksgivings of my childhood.

Those of you who have read my previous blogs know that I’ve been focused on healthier eating. With that in mind, I wanted to prepare a yummy feast that would please, but one that wouldn’t send the scale back in the opposite direction. So, instead of dressing/stuffing, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes, I opted for healthier options that still brought out the flavors that you’d associate with Thanksgiving.

In the end, I ended up with a bit of a mixed bag … with the main meal being healthy, the appetizers covering the spectrum from healthy to not and the desserts being served in full goodness.

photos of all the food served
(t-b) Butternut Squash Hummus; Roasted Vegetables; Brussels Sprout Bake; Cauliflower Stuffing; Deviled Eggs; Cranberry Sauce; Cauliflower Mash

To get started, I served a few appetizers, including:

  • Fresh vegetables and Butternut Squash Hummus 
  • Cheese plate with crackers
  • Baked Brie (nothing healthy about this, but it’s simple and always a huge party hit)
  • Deviled Eggs – these were always a part of my family celebrations, but I did my own little take. My family wouldn’t care for these, but my guests thought they were delicious.

For the main meal …

And finally, my favorite part of any meal … dessert. We were certainly not short on the sweets!

  • Yams Delight – this is a recipe that was passed down to my mother, and she’s made it for every Thanksgiving and Christmas I can remember. For me, this tastes like home for the holidays! (link to recipe)
  • Mary Beth’s apple pie – this is was maybe the fifth time I’ve made Mary Beth’s pie and it is always a hit!
  • Other contributions – my neighbors were kind of enough to bring a delicious blueberry crumble and a friend shared her delicious peanut butter avalanche bark (I’ve made this before and if you ever need to take a dessert for a party, this super easy)

I know, I know – that’s a ton of food. And I should probably mention here that I live in the TINIEST bungalow … one that doesn’t have room for a dining room table. So, with the help of the unseasonably warm Southern California weather, I hosted this event in my courtyard. And, I’m pretty pleased with how the alfresco dining experience turned out!

I’ve always believed that good packaging and the smallest details matter, in all things. So I focused considerable effort on the atmosphere part of this party.

I have two outdoor tables, which when combined with extensions make for one very long table. I covered that with handwoven table clothes that I got in Mexico, then decorated that with fresh flowers, mercury glass votives and a cute, but simple cloth napkin setting I found on Pinterest.

Then, in addition to the table candles and lights that I have strung over the table and throughout the courtyard, I also placed candles on every other available surface. It may have been 91 degrees, but the warm glow and beautiful Thanksgiving playlist (thanks Amazon Music) that filled the courtyard made it almost feel like fall.

photos of how the courtyard looked
(l-r) Alfresco Thanksgiving table; my Pinterest place setting; wine & cheese to kick things off; and my full friends relaxing in the double rocker after dinner.

I’ll be honest, this was a TON of work – I started prepping Tuesday, baked and roasted on Wednesday and cooked ALL day on Thursday. And while it turned out to be every bit the pretty picture I’d imagined, it was certainly not without challenges.

Remember my tiny bungalow… well it comes with a kitchen of comparable size, which means I had to stop and do dishes three times during the day on Thursday. And if you think the kitchen is small, you should see the refrigerator – it’s not even 5 feet tall! This meant quite the juggling act when it came to storing all the food (especially when you consider the turkey had to brine in a bucket) and a well-coreographed dance of what was getting prepped/cooked when.

Of course this was complicated by the fact that my eyes were clearly bigger than my stomach (or in this case storage). In hindsight, I bit off more than I should have chewed with that menu … and probably could have done with half as many appetizers and two fewer main dishes. I mean I wasn’t feeding an army.

And then there’s cost – cooking a meal like this can be expensive on it’s own, but I didn’t have a roaster, enough place settings of my dishes, enough silverware, a platter big enough for the turkey or enough chairs for my guests. And I wanted grey napkins, more glass votives and tons of fresh flowers. The wants probably greatly outweighed the needs, but again, this was my first holiday hosting, and I wanted it to be special. That said, I found ways to be thrifty – I shopped places like Home Goods for my roaster and platter, Ross for some inexpensive serving bowls, and I found a ton of things on sale. And, when my guests asked what they could bring … I assigned them the wine!

When it was all said and done … I’d do it again and again. Because I loved it! I loved planning it and I love preparing it. I loved trying my hand at new recipes and sharing some of my favorites. I even loved setting the table! I loved it so much, in fact, that I did it again on Friday with “Leftover Giving” – a celebration for friends who couldn’t make it on Thursday … one that I’m sure will become a new tradition.

In the end, I think I created a memorable evening full of good food and gratitude for my friends; and most of all, I hope I hosted a Thanksgiving affair that would have made my grandmother proud.



  1. Hoooooooly pilgrims, Batman. I was there to hear about it as it happened, and I’m STILL blown away. I’m so impressed and proud of you! I wish I could have been there to help you. And to eat up! Except the yams. That’s a no for me. Nooooope. But give me all of the rest of it. Especially the deviled eggs. Your table was gorgeous, and the program management, as it were, was IMO, your greatest accomplishment, cuz that was unreal. I know that house, and Im good at making things happen with limited resources, yet I am boggled at how you made it work. What I’m not surprised about is the menu. You have a real talent for food. Putting ingredients together from your own head and imagining the result and always being right about it. I can practically taste the cauliower mash.

    My family’s turkey day is always spent at the Lincolnshire Marriott. Big buffet, no fuss, no muss, go home, all done. Sounds boring and cold, I know. But the following month is huge. Christmas AND Hanukkah AND husband’s birthday AND our anniversary (20 years this December 6th) AND all of it is my responsibility and mostly at my house. So I see Thanksgiving as my calm before the storm. But I’m inspired to take some of these recipes and some of the b’ful decorating and run with them for our Xmas this year! Cuz how can I not?!

    Bful job, Mander.

  2. Kayla Sheaffer

    Could it be…Could I actually be posting my first Plank comment in two years??? It’s what being in the hospital 13xs in the last 2 years does to you…So happy I could spend Thanksgiving with the family this year sans the hospital bed! Man I’ve got a lot of Planks to make up for! Here goes!

    Mandy! Awesome! You did it! And boy did those desserts sound AMAZING! (need that peanut butter recipe mmm) I loved your honesty in how hard it was but how rewarding it can be to take on such a task knowing the bungalow isn’t supplied with tons of space and chair/frig issues. Sounds quaint personally, especially in your backyard where it sounds like the decorations added to the ambiance of it all. I can understand the struggle to keep those traditional staples in that you were raised on but I also applaud new recipes that may become new traditions! For example, I come from a huge family and everyone had to do their own thing this year and it made us all a little melancholy, but I loved talking with my cousins about one of my aunt’s awesome dishes that we would all be missing which was the very popular cranberry orange zest relish. My word this is so delicious and so missed as my aunt moved from California a few years ago. The craziest thing is how we all were missing that dish but it really wasn’t introduced to our Thanksgiving dinners until a few years ago! So no matter what you chose, whether it be traditional or new, never be afraid to do it because trial and error is worth the effort! My FAVORITE thing you did was Leftovers Giving! That’s brilliant Mandy! In the end remember you accomplished two bashes for the price of one, and probably laughing your tookis off as you made memories with friends forever!

  3. Stacey AKA BraveWidowMama


    Your meal looks great! The best turkey I ever made was a “brined” turkey. That, and a good thermometer is my secret…

  4. I know Mandy is a great cook as she prepared a beautuful “southern” meal for us Aussies two years ago. It was such a treat. We don’t have Thanksgiving here in Australia but many of these dishes we have Christmas Day for lunch-including the turkey. My aunt never has Christmas without the deviled eggs either. One of the challenges for me was that with nearly grown children, the custom of hosting Christmas has only recently fallen on me due to senior relatives taking the mantle. So I was about your age Mandy when I hosted my first and I bought the shops out in tableware and turkeys and food. It was super stressful. Now it is easier but the stress us still there-will it be as good as my mothers….This blog bought back marvelous (scary) memories of my first hostings (albeit Christmas) and warm memories of your wonderful hospitality. Thank you.

  5. I’m so happy you shared this!! It all looks delicious and I like the whole30 approved recipes. After a couple of years, the turkey is easy. I still make gravy though, which helps if you make any blunders.

  6. Barbara levy


    Thank you so much for sharing your recipes. I love reading MBE’s recipes but they are totally out of me league. I would be thrilled if someone made any one of her recipes for me, but they just have too many steps.

    I am just back from a 4 week vacation and have little to nothing in my refrigerator. As I was making my list to go shopping I decided I needed a blog break. Glad I checked the blog,

    So far I am buying ingredients for grilled veggies, califlower mash, and Jerusalem tomato and cucumber salad (just back from Israel and this was on my list already).

    I always lose weight on vacation and am determined to keep it off by doing Whole30.

    I also wanted to give a huge shout out to Mandy for leading a group this summer to lose weight using My Fitness pal. So my gratitude goes out to both MaryBeth and Mandy for sharing this blog with fans.


  7. Claudine

    I can’t believe you are still calling them Yams Delight because they are YAMS DIVINE!!! Thanks for rescuing my Thanksgiving..and for managing this turkey every day. 🙂

  8. I commend you for taking on the whole meal. I have prepared Thanksgiving dinner for 54 years. At first it was just our small family and I did it all. Now the family has grown quite large with kids, grandkids, great grandkids, spouses, significant others, good friends. Everyone brings something but I do most of it. I still get stressed out every year. Is everything going to be ready at the same time. Do I have enough of everything and on and on! Your recipes sound really good and I am going to try some of them. I love brussel sprouts so I will definitely try that one. Your table looked beautiful. I don’t have a lot of room so we do buffet style and sit wherever!!!

  9. ILoveMySnK

    Ok if I’m being honest, I really am not a fan of Thanksgiving especially since it’s just become me and my little family. I stress A LOT over it but why?🤷‍♀️ The kids are in their picky phases so will pick and complain and ask a thousand times if they can be all done… The hubs just wants good food and food that’s not cold. That I struggle with. Timing is my enemy. A lot of times it’s issues with the turkey being done (or not). If I could just buy a pre-cooked turkey I would feel better but they cost a small fortune (etc etc other reasons).
    Maybe by the time the kids are grown, I’ll have it all figured out and be the grandma that is a really good cook…. Ok even I laughed at that.
    Great job Mandy. That took some guts and looks like you pulled it off flawlessly! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

    • Barbara levy

      To IoveMySnK,

      When we first moved out of state our Thanksgivings became very small too. What we did was take in 3 soldiers that just finished basic training, they were wonderful gentlemen who were away from home for the first time. They loved being around my kids and spent hours playing games with the kids.
      These were memorable times, perhaps there are folks you could ask to join your celebration.


  10. Elizabeth

    I loved reading this. I was even nervous for you because I truly know how much work it can be. People always say who cares about this or who cares about that, but the simple and true answer is this…me! I care about the details that make things special and unique, and often times time consuming. It’s who I am and I think it’s total worth it. Your table was gorgeous and I was truly impressed with the healthier food choices (p.s. don’t let my mom near that food or you will find a stick of butter melted over each one prior to serving).

  11. I remember my first turkey too! At least you had Google! Congrats on a successful first hosting and here’s to many more 🙂 It all looked beautiful and delicious and thanks for the recipes – I haven’t looked but I’m assuming they’re play by play for us simple-minded cooks 😛

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