THANKSGIVING IS often a day when your house fills up with in-laws, outlaws and other forms of family life. This can result in much joy and some irritation.
There is, in my experience, no such thing as a stress-free Thanksgiving. But there are ways to keep the hostilities down and the mellowness up. Here are a few guidelines I have followed to ease the friction of the Thanksgiving gathering:
* Volunteer. Cooking the Thanksgiving meal is an immense amount of work and every cook who undertakes the task could use some help. You do not need to be talented to contribute. Anybody can peel potatoes, even teen-agers. So offer your services, and if the cook accepts, just pitch in. Get a pot and a potato peeler, get out of the cook's way, and get to work. Don't ask a thousand questions. Cooks are tighter than a drum on Thanksgiving. Simply shut up and peel.
* Flee. Often a key to a harmonious afternoon is to leave the house in the morning. It usually helps if you take others with you on your outing. Think, for instance, about taking every kid under the age of 12 to the park. Often, you can transform your absence into a plus by going to the grocery store. Everybody needs "one last thing" on Thanksgiving morning. If you fetch it, you will be loved.
* Time your entrance. If you are dining at the home of someone else, don't show up too early. Unless you get along exceptionally well with the hosts (that is, you have enjoyed each other's company when you were tired and dirty), don't go to their house early in the morning. Getting there an hour or two before dinner is plenty of time. If you show up before that, you run the risk of running out of small talk and actually having to watch the Macy's parade.
* Accept the fact that you are on the cook's clock. You may have grown up in a family that ate turkey at noon, but, unless you are the cook, those days are over. Like it or not, the cook, who has to oversee the preparation of the bird and its myriad companions, has the supreme authority on Thanksgiving. When the cook says, "Sit," you simply ask where.
* Just say "yes." When someone asks, "Should we have both sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes?" or "Should we have bread and rolls?" or "Do we really need five kinds of cranberries?" the correct answer is always, "Yes." People get offended if their favorite food is not allowed on the Thanksgiving table. It is not worth the aggravation to turn down a dish, unless, of course, it is the much-hated brussels sprouts.
* Have one sharp knife. The ordeal of carving the turkey, which has tested many a marriage, is made amazingly simple and feud-free if the carver wields a very sharp blade.
* Make too much. This is a feast of excess. Let there be leftovers.
* Serve plenty of pie. You have to have pumpkin (Miles Standish requires it), and mince is a tradition. When picking the additional pies, you may think wild thoughts, such as coconut cream, or a pie using Baltimore's favorite Thanksgiving ingredient, sauerkraut.
* Praise the cook, repeatedly. Get specific, mention the texture of the turkey, the giblets in the gravy, the fluffiness of the potatoes, the crust of the pie.
* Do the dishes. It is an ugly job, but it is the price eaters pay for enjoying the feast.
The keys to successful dish duty are working in shifts and soaking the pots. The first shift washes the glassware, the second works on the plates and silverware. The last shift tackles the pots, which have been soaking in soapy water for at least an hour.
The pot-scrubbing shift is tough duty, but when it is completed, you cut yourself another slice of pie, pat your stomach and feel mellow.