Helping with holiday meals can be hazardous. In my experience most of the damage is inflicted on your ego rather than your body. But ego is important. It is one of few body parts that can simultaneously be described as "fat" and "healthy."
One common mistake at holiday meals is to try to help out by lighting a fire in the fireplace. A crackling fire has traditional appeal. It establishes a warm mood. It makes people feel cheery. Besides, it gives the lay-abouts something to do.
But what often happens is that Thanksgiving is the first attempt at fire-making of the incineration season. This means that the wood is wet, the fireplace flue is congested, and the fire starters are out of practice.
So instead of a roaring fire, what you can get is a buzzing smoke detector, a dining room full of smoke, and a cook screaming at the fireplace crew.
To avoid this happening to you, my advice is avoid fireplace duty altogether. However, if the host insists on flames, here are additional words of advice for would-be holiday fire builders: "Practice! Practice! Practice!" And "fire extinguisher, fire extinguisher, fire extinguisher."
One additional trick: To get the air moving up the flue, burn a sheet of rolled up newspaper in the fireplace. Save this page, it may save your marriage.
Another common mistake holiday helpers make is getting too dressed up too early in the day. Once you get all decked out in a coat and tie, or a fancy dress, there is little real work you can do. All you can do is sit around and talk. Generations of well-dressed office workers have proved this.
So if you want to perform a real service, then start the day wearing a sweat suit. It is ideal garb for all premeal activities, like taking the screaming kids to the playground for three hours, or escorting the hyper dog on a 5-mile run, or getting yourself out of a house full of relatives. Later in the day you can, if tradition and your mama dictate, change into a more conventional dinner-table attire.
But before peeling off your sweats, be sure to offer to take the legs off the turkey. Forgetting to remove the turkey legs is another common holiday helper mistake, one I made for years. Before I learned the secret of going legless, the task of carving the turkey was traumatic. There were all those curves and sharp angles to slice around.
But once the legs are off that critter, carving the bird is as straightforward as mowing wheat in Kansas. You simply move your cutter back and forth across the level field.
The most opportune time to get the legs off a bird is before it is cooked. Using the sharpest knife you can find, you slice through the skin joining the leg to the breast, then snap each leg free.
You follow virtually the same procedure for taking the legs off a cooked bird. But there is one big difference: That bird be hot! Its legs can burn you. Its juice can hurt you. So to perform the leg removal procedure, you should wear insulated mittens and some clothes you don't mind getting dirty. Such as a sweat suit.
Finally, if you want to be a big hit at a holiday meal, have a toast ready. Generally speaking, the cook has slaved away preparing the feast and appreciates a person who can say something poetic, other than "ready, set go," about the occasion.
Most families already have a prayer or invocation before they start shoveling, but a good toast is a rarity.
Here are three, which I stole from "A Gentleman's Guide to Toasting," edited by Jack Fulmer and published by Jack Daniel Distillery.
The first is a toast to Thanksgiving: "Here's to the feast that has plenty of meat, and very little tablecloth."
The second, a toast of good cheer, is credited to author John Egerton: "Cool breeze, warm fire, full moon, easy chair, empty plates, sweet songs, tall tales, short sips, long life."
And the last is a toast I find fitting for most any occasion, and if you fiddle with the pronouns, it is appropriate for any person.
"Here's to the man who is wisest and best. Here's to the man who with judgment is blest.
Here's to the man who's smart as can be. Here's to the man who agrees with me!"