What should you bring to Thanksgiving dinner? A food and wine guide
You’re off the hook—somebody else is hosting Thanksgiving dinner. After graciously accepting the invitation, you ask the socially correct follow-up question: “What can I bring?”
Sometimes the hosts will tell you straight: bring a salad, a dessert, your famous green beans, or a bottle of Pinot Noir. Sometimes they’ll insist that you should bring nothing at all, “just yourself”. Sometimes they mean it. Sometimes they don’t.
Too often it’s unclear exactly what your hosts expect, and most guests feel uncomfortable showing up empty-handed. Here’s a quick guide on what to present at the door.
If the host insists dinner is taken care of, a bottle of wine is almost always appreciated. Michaela Morris, co-owner of the consulting business house wine, says you can either select wine to match the meal or just bring a bottle for the hosts to enjoy later.
“You have to expect that it’s up to the host whether they open it or not,” Morris explains in a phone interview. The host may already have particular wines selected for the meal, so it’s completely their right to let yours languish on the sideboard.
Hence, it’s best not to give an expensive bottle from your cellar or something sentimental you picked up on vacation; you may be disappointed when you leave without tasting it. “I’ve made that mistake,” Morris admits, “so now I just don’t bring wines like that over.” Remember that the wine is “a gift, like anything. You don’t give somebody a sweater and then expect that you’re going to wear it.”
So which bottle should you bring and how much should you spend? “Never be embarrassed about what your budget is,” Morris says, noting the average price for a bottle of wine purchased in B.C. is $15. She advises visiting a trusted store, telling them what the bottle is for and how much you want to spend, and asking for a wine that overdelivers for the price. If you can get a good background story about the wine, “you’re adding value to your gift right there.” Or bring a bottle that you’ve tried and enjoyed to share your tastes with your host.
Morris says sparkling wine is always a good bet. The host can serve it before dinner, or find an occasion to pop it later. From France, she recommends a 2006 Antech Crémant de Limoux, which is “fantastic for $25”. From Spain, good choices include Parés Baltà Organic Brut Cava ($19.99) and Codorníu Cuvée Raventós Brut Cava ($18.99).
What if the host specifically asks you to bring wine to drink with the meal? Feel out the menu. “The good thing about Thanksgiving is that most people have a traditional turkey dinner,” she says, which includes a variety of flavours from bitter Brussels sprouts to sweet yams. This suits unoaked, aromatic, and fruity whites, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, and Torrontés. Morris singles out a 2010 German Dr. Loosen Riesling ($18.99) and a 2010 Bartier Bros. bottle from the Okanagan called the Cowboy ($26 at private wine stores only). A red wine with soft tannins, bright fruit, and good acidity would also work, such as a Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Grenache. She picks a 2008 Yering Station Little Yering Pinot Noir from Australia ($15.99) and a 2009 G. Descombes Morgon from France ($28.50).
If you’ve been asked to contribute a dish to the meal, David Robertson, chef and co-owner of the Dirty Apron Cooking School, says this is not the time to experiment. “Stick with what you know and make something you’ve done before,” he advises in a phone interview. In November, the Dirty Apron will be offering festive-feast classes for novices to practise for Christmas, and he calls the roasted-squash-and-apple soup featured in those “pretty bulletproof”. (You can find the recipe here.) If you’d rather buy something, he suggests charcuterie and cheese, which you can assemble on a platter with some tapenade and a baguette.
If the host insists you needn’t bring a thing, it’s still nice to show up with what Robertson calls an “appreciation gift” (the “hostess gift” of yore). People who do canning may offer a jar of homemade preserves, or he recommends the Noble bourbon maple syrup or the Thiercelin green apple mustard available at his deli.
For potlucks, bring something that will keep. “Stay away from things that dry out as they sit,” he warns, citing cooked fish and chicken breast as examples. He notes that lettuce-based salads can become soggy, so he prefers making an antipasto-type salad with grilled asparagus, olives, goat cheese, and arugula. For dessert, “don’t be afraid to buy fresh berries, shave some cinnamon over top, soak them in a little bit of brandy, and serve them with ice cream,” he says. If he wants to impress, he’ll bring individual panna cottas or crème brûlées and flame the latter on-site. “People love torching. I show them how to do one and they all get to torch their own.” (For more Thanksgiving dessert suggestions, see page 35.)
At potlucks, it’s a good idea for everybody who brings a dish to display a card listing every ingredient, says consulting nutritionist Jennifer Hill. The registered dietitian says vegetarians and people with allergies appreciate this because forbidden ingredients hide in unexpected places (gluten in soy sauce, for example). “Most people with allergies have a lot of anxiety about dinner parties because they don’t have control,” she says in a phone interview.
“It’s really important to let the host know once you get the invitation that you have special dietary needs,” she emphasizes. Hosts should ask each guest in advance, but “ultimately, it is the responsibility of the person with special needs to make them known.” That might include making advance arrangements with the host to serve themselves first, to avoid cross-contamination with other dishes.
According to Hill, those with special dietary needs should bring a filling dish to dinner that is safe for them to eat, lest they find the other offerings dicey. The host shouldn’t be offended: “It’s better to accept the help than risk the awkwardness of somebody not being able to eat.” Also, regardless of whether or not the meal is a potluck, “It’s nice that they [guests] can bring something to introduce to the group and share.”
After all, Thanksgiving is about more than just the meal. It’s about gathering with family and friends—no matter what they eat.
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