BRUNSWICK — It’s a week before the big day. Not Thanksgiving Day, but the day before Thanksgiving, when home cooks are prepping, chopping and generally scrambling to lay the groundwork for the biggest meal of the year.

Emily Butters, sitting in her pumpkin-colored dining room with her handwritten menu in front of her, is excited but nervous. She has never cooked a turkey before, but in a (very) short eight days will be hosting and cooking her first Thanksgiving dinner. Seven guests are coming.

She imagines the worst but, ever the optimist, tries not to let her nerves get the best of her.

“Actually, I think the worst-case scenario is the oven breaks,” Butters, 35, said. “Or you drop the turkey on the floor, and the dog gets to it.”

She might as well throw in a couple of wild cards: Luke, Butter’s 3-year-old, who likes to remove drawer pulls and doorknobs around the house, and Frances, the daughter Butters gave birth to just five months ago.

“We’ll see what Forrest does,” she said, referring to her husband, Forrest Butler. “That will be the real test – how much child care is happening by not me, and that will determine the success of the day. We’ll see.”

Emily and Forrest have been together for 10 years, married for five. They are the co-owners of Royal Rose Syrups, a cocktail syrup company based in Brunswick that they founded together in 2010. The couple usually spend Thanksgiving at her mother’s home in Massachusetts.

“She is a really good cook,” Butters said. “We’d have the classics and then – because she’s Italian – sometimes she’ll make stuffed shells or a first course that’s a little different.”

Butters and her husband have lived in Brunswick for just over a year, and thought it might be nice to change things up by hosting Thanksgiving in their new home. Hosting has another advantage: no traveling with the kids.

Their guests will be Butters’ mother and father, her younger sister from New York and possibly her sister’s boyfriend, two of Butler’s friends, and an employee who just moved to Maine from Maryland. Luke and Frances are so small Butters isn’t counting them on the official guest list.

GENERATION NEXT

Passing the responsibility for Thanksgiving dinner from one generation to the next is a cultural benchmark for American families. Butters’ mother, Jo-An Desanctis, admits she is “a little conflicted” about it.

“I’m happy to not have that responsibility because it is a big responsibility,” she said. “At the same time, I’m getting tired. I’m at that stage where it’s time to turn over the reins.”

Desanctis says she has “total confidence” that her daughter can pull it off. She is “a great cook” who has “a lot of natural talent.”

Butters has written her menu and ordered the turkey, a “natural” 14-pounder from a local market. Now she is grappling with the big questions: To brine or not to brine? A wet brine or a dry brine?

She’s considering splaying the turkey because it will cook faster, has less chance of drying out, and she doesn’t care about stuffing it, although her mother would like her to reconsider that last point.

Butters is most confident about making the gravy, since she’s had plenty of practice making gravy for chicken and pork roasts. Butler will be making the stuffing to go inside either the bird or the pan, depending on who wins the “to stuff or not to stuff” debate. One reason the couple is excited about taking over Thanksgiving is it will give Butler a chance to make some of the Thanksgiving favorites he grew up with in his African-American family: cornbread stuffing, candied yams and sweet potato pie.

Butters loves the idea of embracing her husband’s culinary traditions, but is less enthusiastic about how it might work in practice. Like a lot of husbands, when Butler cooks, according to his wife, he uses every pan in the kitchen. “I’m being super chill about it, on the surface,” she joked.

The menu includes cranberry chutney, adapted from a plum chutney Indian recipe Butters likes; kale and apple salad from a recipe by Northern Spy restaurant in New York; and a carrots and fennel side dish made with orange zest and herbs that can be made on the stovetop, saving room for other things in Butters’ small oven.

“I really like fennel,” Butters said. “I think I would be nice to have something that’s light and refreshing tasting.”

She’ll get dinner rolls from a local bakery, and Butler has expressed a desire to make bacon-wrapped dates as an appetizer.

Butters estimates she’s made only half of the menu before, and she’s considering a “dry run” on the stuffing since stuffing is such an important part of the Thanksgiving meal.

The kale and apple salad, which also contains roasted squash and aged cheddar, is a concession to her sister.

“Last year, she requested there be healthy foods only, and everyone was secretly upset,” Butters said. “You can’t hijack the holiday.”

To drink, she’ll have beer, wine and the Ginger Rose Punch featured on their business’ website.

Butters' list of dishes – a work in progress, with cross-outs and all – she plans to make for Thanksgiving.

Butters’ list of dishes – a work in progress, with cross-outs and all – she plans to make for Thanksgiving.

PIES AND PLATES

When it comes to Thanksgiving, dessert is almost as important as the turkey. When Butters talks about her mother’s Thanksgivings, she lists a dessert spread that would make anyone salivate: chocolate cake with raspberry sauce, chocolate mousse, cheesecake, ricotta pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie and cookies.

Desanctis worked for many years as a lawyer, then opened a wholesale bakery in West Concord, Massachusetts. As Desanctis says, “Dessert is my bag.”

Butters has asked her to bring cookies. Desanctis is thinking bourbon balls and Italian cookies, including biscotti. Butters is also counting on her husband’s sweet potato pie and a pumpkin pie that a guest will bring.

Thanksgiving isn’t just some other dinner party. There are table settings and decorations to think about, too.

“I was googling stuff this morning,” Butters said. “I don’t know what to do.”

She has melamine plates and other white plates, but can’t decide which to use. There’s not enough silverware – her mother offered to buy her more, but she demurred for now – “and then it would be nice if we had some chargers or something.”

One thing the couple does have is a cabinet full of nice glassware, which they use to photograph drinks made with their Royal Rose syrups, and a nice punchbowl, perfect for that Ginger Rose Punch.

Also on Butters’ shopping list for the weekend: a few mini-pumpkins, tea lights, a table runner and placemats.

The more she talks, the more she starts sounding a little panicked.

“Maybe this weekend Forrest can help me,” she said. “He’ll help. He’s good at – no, he’s not actually, he thinks he is. He’s into design and stuff but I don’t think he’d be very good at the Thanksgiving table setting. What am I thinking? He can’t help. He’ll be watching the kids.”

Emily Butters of Brunswick after shopping at Trader Joe's in Portland for Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. She and her husband expect nine adults and two children at their holiday table.

Emily Butters of Brunswick after shopping at Trader Joe’s in Portland for Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. She and her husband expect nine adults and two children at their holiday table.

ADD TO CART

Saturday rolls around, and Butters heads to Trader Joe’s in Portland to do her shopping. She arrives early enough that, miraculously, the parking lot is not yet full and being circled by cars like vultures, as is usual the weekend before a big holiday.

The store smells like cinnamon. Butters rolls her red cart toward the produce section, her handwritten shopping list resting in the seat of the cart. Mashed potatoes have been added to her menu, as well as a cocktail shrimp appetizer.

She picks up a couple of green peppers, celery and herbs. She spies multi-colored carrots and grabs them. “That will look good,” she says.

“Is it wrong to get cut butternut squash?” she asks, holding up a bag of the pre-cut vegetables. She decides to pass, and later picks up a whole squash for $2.99, noting “you can’t beat that price here.”

The candied yams have been eliminated from the menu by now, so Butters heads for the kale. She decides to buy that later, so it will be fresh, then searches in vain for the “cloth-aged” cheddar she needs for the kale salad. She picks a brand that just says “aged” on the label, unsure if it’s the same thing.

“I haven’t decided if we should do a cheese plate,” she said. “I’m still planning.” Along the way, she picks up a few things that have nothing to do with Thanksgiving dinner – steel-cut oats for her husband, a box of bran flakes for her mother.

She discovers the store doesn’t carry evaporated milk, and only finds the frozen pie crusts with the help of an employee. She also strikes out on poultry seasoning, dried sage and the Jiffy cornbread mix needed for the stuffing. And she still needs to find a meat thermometer.

But at the checkout counter, Butters is more than satisfied. The bill comes to a reasonable $138.77 (sans turkey), and she was in and out of the store in a half-hour.

“It just goes to show you how important it is to have a list,” she said.

As for décor, since Wednesday Butters has remembered she has eight white plates at home, so she bought two more at Target. She also purchased some “cheap, but fun” flatware there, but Butler didn’t like it so he exchanged them. Butters didn’t like his choice either, so she returned them and is shopping around a little more. She ordered placemats online.

With five days still to go, there are still ingredients to buy and loose ends to tie up. But no matter what happens Thursday, Butters will be fine with it.

“The worst-case scenario is that everything is horrible, and even that’s not a big deal,” she said.

Her mother, who will be splitting her time between helping in the kitchen and cooing over grandchildren, agrees. Despite the pressure that comes with worrying about the gravy turning out just right, Desanctis said, “We’ll all be together. That’s what’s important.”

 


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