It’s the night before Thanksgiving, and on Picardy Place in Charlotte, something momentous is about to happen:
Sometime between 6:30 and 7, a president will get up and issue an official proclamation. And then everyone will tuck into steamed oysters.
It’s really a presidential impersonator, dressed as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. Some years, they have all three. But the oysters, the tradition and the occasion are very real.
The Picardy Place Thanksgiving Eve “read and roast” is one of the ways we found people dealing with the pre-Thanksgiving dinner dilemma: Your kitchen and refrigerator are crammed with preparation for a big meal just when you get hit with a houseful of guests who need to be fed Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
This year, we wondered: How do you feed them before you stuff them?
Feeding the masses
Lydia Stuckey had a good teacher for this. For 20 years, she was the personal assistant for renowned poet Maya Angelou, who died last year in Winston-Salem. A legendary cook and hostess, Angelou had an extended network of friends who came every year for a long weekend of feasting.
“It was Thanksgiving every day, according to her,” says Stuckey. “When she sat down, it was to a full table. It was always presented.”
Stuckey helped coordinate it all, learning Angelou’s recipes and cooking style. This year, she thought a few people might still want to come, and she was planning to open her own home to 20 or so.
She was stunned when she heard from a flood of people who couldn’t face the last Thursday in November without coming to Winston-Salem. She’s now getting ready to host 70 people over the long weekend.
She’ll feed them the way Angelou did: On Wednesday night, for “check in and chill,” she’ll put out a boiled, glazed ham with potato salad. People can make sandwiches for dinner, or ham biscuits at breakfast. If there’s leftover potato salad, it will go on the Thanksgiving table.
The trick is to have plenty of food and plenty of choices, she says.
“Dr. Angelou, in her wonderfulness, made us family. Dr. Angelou adopted us. We’re calling ourselves the Thanksgiving family reunion.”
Plan, plan, plan
Nina Toth of Charlotte has a lot of experience feeding big groups. There’s her husband, her two young children, her parents, her sister, her husband’s four brothers and their families ...
Where does she start? With a yellow notepad.
“I write everything down,” she says. The meals, the to-do lists broken down by day, everything she needs to get, everything she already has.
Then she gets a girlfriend to go over the menu with her.
“If you’re having a lot of people for multiple meals, it’s good to have another set of eyes. She’ll notice if I have too many starches.”
For breakfast, she uses casseroles, particularly the kind you can assemble the night before and bake the next morning. She might put out a bagel spread and make big batches of bacon in the oven. If people sleep in, they can rewarm breakfast for themselves while she’s getting ready for the big meal.
One of her favorite discoveries: an extra set of flatware she picked up at a black Friday sale.
“I feel like people like to eat off real silverware, but they don’t mind paper plates. So I have enough that people can eat throughout the day with real silverware.”
Come out of your shell
The Picardy Place oyster roast started as a simple way to kick off the long holiday weekend, says Will Hinson, one of the originators. Until Hinson and his wife, Allegra, moved to Sharon Road last year, they lived in the same house he grew up in on Picardy Place in the Club Colony neighborhood near Myers Park High School.
Picardy Place is one of those streets where everyone knows everyone. And an oyster roast is an informal way to get together. Even out-of-town guests get to mingle.
“That Wednesday night is always an interesting night,” Hinson says. “You have a lot of people coming to town, you have a lot of people leaving town. Everybody’s ready for a drink, for happy hour.”
They usually just set up a fish fryer with a steamer insert on someone’s driveway and pile in the oysters. Nothing fancy – rolls of paper towels, saltine crackers, maybe some basic cocktail sauce. Everybody brings what they want to drink.
“The intention is, come down, have a few oysters, go out to dinner. But no, they always hang around and eat oysters until they’re gone. Some years, it goes on until 10 o’clock.”
A few years ago, neighbor John Colbert, a former history teacher, got the idea of adding a historical perspective, by dressing as George Washington to deliver Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving proclamation. Over the years, others have joined in – Charles Dalton as Abraham Lincoln, Colbert as Teddy Roosevelt (he’s more “Teddy-shaped,” he admits) and John Nestico as Washington. Several years ago, Colbert’s daughter Livvy, now 15, came as Patsy Custis, Washington’s adopted granddaughter.
Using historic proclamations turns the event into a real kickoff for the holiday and adds to the occasion.
“We try to keep it as simple as possible and not make it a meal anyone has to prepare,” says Hinson.
“It’s happy hour, it’s oysters. People kind of love it.”
Tips from an organized hostess
Nina Toth of Charlotte shared some of her favorite tricks for feeding a houseful:
▪ Put the slow cooker to work. Use it as much as you can to free up the oven.
▪ People don’t mind heavy-duty paper plates if you have lots of real flatware.
▪ Set up drinks somewhere else, in a cooler or an aluminum tub. That cuts down on people going in and out of your refrigerator.
▪ Get a friend to plan menus with you. Look them over for each other, so you don’t miss anything.
▪ Use the online-shopping option at supermarkets and set up a second order just before the big meal. That way, you’ve gone through some of the food before you have to make room for the rest.
Coca-Cola Glazed Ham
Maya Angelou liked a York-style ham she learned in London, which is boiled and then glazed. We found a version from Nigella Lawson that’s similar. Look for a bone-in smoked ham that isn’t pre-sliced. From foodnetwork.com.
1 (4 1/2- to 5-pound) bone-in ham
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1 (2-liter) bottle cola
Handful of whole cloves
1 heaping tablespoon molasses
2 teaspoons dry mustard, such as Coleman’s
2 tablespoons demerara (raw cane sugar) or light brown sugar
Place the ham, onion and cola in a large pot or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook about 2 hours.
Turn off heat and let the ham cool. Remove to a cutting board and trim the skin, leaving a thin layer of fat. Using a knife, score the fat diagonally into large diamonds. Insert a clove in the center of each diamond. Spread the molasses over the surface. Combine the mustard and sugar, then pat it over the outside, so it sticks to the molasses.
Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Line a roasting pan with foil. Place the ham in the roasting pan and bake about 10 minutes until the glaze is burnished and bubbly.
Advance preparation: If you braise the ham in advance, refrigerate it until about an hour before serving. Glaze according to the directions, then let sit about 30 minutes. Place in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes to glaze.
Yield: 8 to 12 servings.
Maple-Glazed Oven-Fried Bacon
Adapted from “Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done,” from Cook’s Illustrated (America’s Test Kitchen, 2015). If you’re making breakfast for a crowd, make the bacon in the oven. It stays flat and gets crisp. To make it even better, add a little maple syrup at the very end.
1 pound of bacon (usually 16 slices)
About 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
Adjust oven rack to the center position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the bacon slices in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. (You may need to use two sheets to hold them all, but remember that they will shrink as they cook, so you can put them close together.)
Bake until the fat begins to render, about 5 to 6 minutes. Turn the sheet (or sheets) and continue cooking until the bacon is crisp and brown, about 5 minutes for thin bacon or 8 minutes for thick. Before it’s completely crisp, remove from oven, carefully pour off most of the grease (a turkey baster is an easy way to do this) and drizzle each slice with about a teaspoon of maple syrup. Return to the oven and bake 2 or 3 minutes, until the syrup begins to bubble and the bacon is as crisp as you like.
YIELD: 6 to 8 servings.
Sausage and Croissant Breakfast Casserole
From Southern Living.
1 pound hot ground pork sausage
1 1/4 cups shredded Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
6 green onions, sliced
1 (13.22-ounce) package mini croissants (about 24), torn in pieces
Vegetable cooking spray
3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Gruyere
Cook the sausage in a skillet over medium-high heat, stirring to crumble. Drain. Toss together sausage, Parmesan, salt, green onions and torn croissants. Arrange in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.
Whisk together the milk, cream and eggs. Pour over the sausage and croissants. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Uncover casserole and spread the Gruyere over the top. Bake 45 minutes, or until puffy and golden. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting into squares.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.