Photo: Ben Franske

What makes a great Thanksgiving celebration? We all know the answers: a warm and relaxed atmosphere, welcome guests, delicious food, a lively flow of conversation and camaraderie—and a hostess who makes it all seem effortless. This month, WVFC is offering a holiday celebration of its own: a Thanksgiving countdown that will help all of us—hostesses, supporting chefs, and guests alike—to open the holiday season with a day that’s satisfying to body and soul, and as stress-free as we can make it.

With that in mind, we’ve asked Ro Howe, acclaimed chef and owner of Barraud Caterers, to kick things off with the first of a four-part countdown for Thanksgiving hostesses and chefs. Ro’s series takes us from initial ideas to planning and prep,  menu, and day-of tips, with a few of her favorite recipes for good measure. As the month goes on, Ro will be joined by writers who’ll address other aspects of the season, from emotional stresses to maintaining good nutrition and keeping the holiday pounds at bay.

As we wind down this year of tumultuous events—global, national, and perhaps personal—who among us couldn’t use the warmth and bonding that a terrific holiday season can provide? We welcome your thoughts and comments on how to make it a truly joyous time of year, this year especially.

And now, we turn it over to Ro.  – Ed.

Traditions are those paths that we walk in a repeated pattern. This can be reassuring and warming, but it can also be wearing. Often, an alteration in pattern and style can bring a refreshing change.

Thanksgiving is an example of such a tradition. I don’t suggest breaking the mold, but shaking it up a bit. Looking afresh at your usual Thanksgiving celebration might help dislodge some of the calcification that builds up between people in familiar situations, and add to everyone’s enjoyment of the day.

And as the hostess, you are in control. You have the power to change, enliven, educate, dispense comfort, and create joy. The trick is to wield that power with delicacy, flexibility, and precision. If you “gentle” each area just a little as you go along, you can both re-create and honor your traditions. Here are some easy ways to do just that.

Shake up the guest list. When the same people introduce the same topics every year, it often results in the same impasses, which can deaden not only the conversation but the exchange of new ideas. This phenomenon is usually a product of habit rather than dominance, so if you approach the old immutables with a suggestion of “play,” perhaps your guests will be tempted to venture beyond the familiar patterns. Ask a regular guest or two to invite someone they think would not only enjoy your celebration but could contribute a bonhomie that might cut through the traps of familiarity.

Send out actual invitations. They don’t have to be formal or sent through the mail. Even an email would be more graceful than the usual ad hoc phone conversations about where and when. (You can design the invitation yourself, or get inspiration from websites that manage invitations, such as or, which features some beautiful and sophisticated designs.) Whether paper or digital, think carefully about your wording and choose an invitation that will establish the overall style you want to carry through in your dinner. Make it silly-cute, warm-funny, straight-factual, or spiced with intrigue or enticement, but make it genuine and recognizably in your ‘voice.’ This is one spot where your ‘power’ as the hostess should come into play, but delicately—suggested rather than stated. Your authentic ‘voice’ matters.

Alter the setting. This doesn’t mean redecorating your home, just rethinking how it’s arranged. Change the positions of chairs in the living room; reorder the photographs on the mantle; change the books on the coffee table; sweep away any incidental clutter. It can be as simple as that! And keep in mind, this is not just for your guests. It’s for you too—to help you to feel freshly welcome in your own home.

Rethink the seating. If your guests aren’t sitting around the usual table, perhaps the well-worn conversational patterns won’t emerge quite so easily. If you usually gather around the table, why not try something different? You might remove the objets d’art and your mother’s tureen from the sideboard and use it to stack plates and napkins, then arrange your beautiful meal on the dining-room table so that guests can serve themselves. Move the dining chairs to the living room, clear off the small tables to accommodate glasses of wine or plates, and encourage your guests to sit wherever they are comfortable.

Next from Ro: Advance planning and prep—your key to less stress.

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  • b. elliott November 3, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Such an informative piece and full of simple yet important ideas! This will reinvigorate hostesses who might have been losing their zeal . . .

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 3, 2011 at 7:49 am


    I am one of those who only imagines Thanksgiving as all too much. Your straightforward suggestions are stress relieving, even at this early part of the month. Because it is only a fewe weeks away. I look forward to your menu and planning ideas. Thanks for joining us here. Many of us in this life stage will be manning the stoves for quite a crew!