Thanksgiving Hacks that Will Fool Your Southern Mama

We all intend to make that holiday feast from scratch—and we all need a backup plan.

Valerie Fraser Luesse
Portrait of a woman holding can of Noxon
George Marks/Stringer/Getty Images

What is it about our Southern Mama’s arrival at the Thanksgiving celebration that sends us over the edge? The truth, to paraphrase George Costanza, is that it’s not her—it’s us. At least sometimes. When it comes to the holidays, Mama’s table is the gold standard, and we want to do her proud when it’s our turn to host Thanksgiving dinner. We do our level best, but there comes a time when we just have to “let the rough end drag,” accept the many demands on our time, and realize that we might not get that ice sculpture carved after all. In such circumstances, we all need to have a few Mama-proof Thanksgiving hacks up our sleeve:

You must be diabolical.
This is no time to hold back. You have to think as strategically as General Douglas MacArthur—better yet, Lucy and Ethel. Leave no convenience product unturned, no shortcut untried.

Distract her with tableware.
A general rule of thumb: The simpler the recipe was to prepare, the swankier the serving piece should be. If you picked it up at a local caterer, serve it on your wedding china/silver. If you stirred together three or more ingredients, serve it in anything Mama gave you. (P.S. Don’t place a phone order with your caterer; take her your casserole dishes so she can bake your sides in your own serving pieces. Be sure to put your name on each dish with masking tape. You want Mama to think you take so much food to so many fellowships and shut-ins that you’re in danger of losing your entire Corningware collection.)

The secret’s in the sauced.
A touch of vanilla extract and a little bit of brandy stirred into a carton of commercial cheesecake filling makes an elegant fruit dip. A touch of vanilla extract and a whole bunch of brandy stirred into a carton of commercial cheesecake filling makes Mama go night-night.

Take a dip.
Some appetizers are so super-easy that Mama will never suspect you could be such a slacker. For example: Place one bar of Philadelphia cream cheese on a festive holiday plate; pour a jar of pepper jelly over the top; encircle with crackers; done. When she brags on it, tell her your mother-in-law gave you the recipe but made you promise to keep it a secret. Have fun watching Mama taste it again and again, trying to crack the ingredients (which she will never be able to do because her mind just can’t go in the direction of “open package, dump on plate”).

About that turkey . . .
Just getting it out of the refrigerator is exhausting. Make advance arrangements with a local restaurant or supermarket and buy your Thanksgiving turkey already cooked to golden-brown perfection, but make your own gravy and leave a few lumps in it to throw Mama off the scent of a store-bought bird.

Show off with party potatoes.
Now that you’ve freed yourself up to get a little creative, pick one dish to make and really shine—sweet potatoes are always a good choice, and Mama loves ’em. (Bet she’s never made them in the slow-cooker and put bacon on top. Scha-weet!!!)

Make a clean sweep of it.
An hour before Mama is scheduled to arrive (keeping in mind that she always shows up 45 minutes early), make one final sweep through the house, picking up any stray magazines, candy wrappers, etc. Hide these under the dog’s bed.

At the end of the day, just remember that Mama is in your home to enjoy time with you. She’s not there to evaluate your cooking skills. (Keep telling yourself that.) She’s not silently critiquing the centerpiece (even when she stands there, studying it with her head tilted back ever so slightly). She probably wouldn’t even notice if the leaves weren’t blown and the porch weren’t scrubbed and the front door weren’t adorned with a tasteful autumn wreath. (Bwahaha!)