Family makes Thanksgiving special; delegating the work makes it easy

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Friday, November 16, 2007
— Marlene Mueller has more than 60 Thanksgiving guests coming to her house for turkey and the trimmings.

But here she is, calmly sitting at a table that in a week will become the buffet. And she’s not looking at all concerned.

She claims she’s actually looking forward to the holiday.

Being with family and being thankful is what makes the day special, said Marlene, who took over the traditional gathering from her mother 25 years ago and has continued it ever since.

Marlene and her husband, Art, welcome their nine children—ages 18 to 35—and 10 grandchildren to their cozy farmhouse just south of Clinton. She also includes her extended family—six sisters, a brother and nieces and nephews.

“That’s why it all kind of adds up,” said Marlene, 54, who has lived on County P for 28 years.

Her nieces and nephews all make the effort to come, she said.

“That’s why I keep doing it.”

The spotless farmhouse—Normal Rockwell-like with a tree house and red barn—isn’t all that big. Marlene sets up tables in the dining room and the garage. If need be, she also puts them in the basement.

She’s thankful that most of her kids live close by.

“I appreciate that,” she said.

She celebrates the holiday on the Saturday after Thanksgiving so more can attend. Her children can then spend Thanksgiving with their in-laws.

“It just kind of takes the fun out of it, if they have to go here and there,” she said.

So, how does she do it?

The key word: “Delegate.”

That was especially important last year, when Marlene was undergoing treatment for cancer.

“I stepped up the delegation big time,” she said. “Last year, I knew it wasn’t going to happen unless everybody pitched in.

“They all did,” she said. “It was so nice.”

Typically, Marlene sends invitations for the noon meal a month ahead of time.

On the invitations, she indicates what each guest should bring. Those who live farthest get off the easiest. She asks them to RSVP as soon as possible so she can plan.

Salads, bread, chutney rolls and pies all are delegated.

Marlene sets the tables and does the decorations at least two days ahead.

Marlene makes the hot stuff—two or three turkeys, mashed potatoes, gravy, baked apples, green beans and the traditional drink, wassail.

That’s still a lot of work, so she makes everything she can in advance.

“The last several years, just to make Thanksgiving enjoyable, I do the turkey the day before—cut it up, put in the roaster,” she said. “It’s not as good, but it’s worth it.”

Marlene also prepares the baked apples ahead. They darken, but baked apples get dark, anyway. The potatoes are peeled the day before, and the onion, bacon and almonds are ready to sprinkle over the cooked beans.

If there’s too much work, it’s not enjoyable.

“It wouldn’t be a nice day that you can enjoy each other,” Marlene said.

Cleanup is more daunting to Marlene than preparation, and that’s when her organization really pays off.

The dishes are disposable to save on washing.

And instead of allowing the guests to slink off and nap, Marlene has made up a chore list.

Nieces and nephew clear the tables and put away the decorations.

The sisters clean the kitchen.

The brothers-in-law fold the tables and chairs—leaving up two tables for games and cards—and sweep.

Daughters and daughters-in-law put the food away and ready the leftovers for the “evening thing” turkey sandwiches for anyone who sticks around.

This chore is delegated to the fathers of young children:

“Play with kids—outside if nice.”

“It’s like, a hint,” Marlene said with a smile.

A bad-weather day can be kind of traumatic on the house, she added. The oldest of her 10 grandchildren is seven, and another is on the way.

“Everyone has a duty,” said Marlene’s daughter, Angela Flickinger.

Angela is a family living educator for the UW-Extension. “It’s hilarious. My husband is on trash duty. Some are clearing the tables, putting the turkey away and getting it ready for sandwiches at 5. Everyone has a tiny little thing to do, but it makes it so easy.

“By now, it’s a well-oiled machine.”

Angela says her mom is “the most amazing woman I know.

“If I could do 100th of what she does, I’ll be pretty proud.”

After cleanup, the guys might play football while the women take a walk. There’s also a basketball court in the haymow.

Some might see it all as an effort.

Marlene views it as a way to keep her family together.

Mueller’s tips

Here are some tips from Marlene Mueller and her daughter, family living educator Angie Flickinger, to make your holiday dinner easier:

-- Delegate. Make the menu before you send invitations. Include the dishes you want your guests to bring. Know which relatives you can rely on, and then do so. If someone doesn’t cook, have him or her bring the chips and soda for sandwiches later. Hostesses who need help or are looking for new recipes can refer to the many recipe sites online, including allrecipes.com.

-- Decide in advance whether you want a fresh or frozen turkey. A large frozen turkey could take five days to thaw in the refrigerator. Figure one pound per person when choosing the size. You can cook the turkey the day before and reheat it slowly the next day with some chicken broth. You can cook a turkey frozen but must allow for extra cooking time. The interior of the turkey must reach a temperature of at least 165 degrees.

-- Do whatever you can ahead of time: set the tables, get out the serving dishes and make as much of the food as possible. Make the yam casserole, for instance, two weeks before and freeze it. The only things that really need to be made the day of the dinner are the turkey—whether you are cooking or reheating it—the potatoes and steamed, fresh vegetables.

-- Consider using disposable dishes and silverware if you have a crowd. Martha Stewart probably isn’t coming to your house.

-- Be healthy. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Food should not be left out for more than two hours. Pumpkin pies should be refrigerated.

Cooking options

Don’t feel up to cooking for guests this Thanksgiving?

Here are some options:

Go out.

Some restaurants feature Thanksgiving specials. Call ahead for information.

Damon’s Club House, 3111 Wellington Place, Janesville, for instance, offers a buffet from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It features turkey and ham with all the fixings, an omelet station, salads and desserts at a cost of $15.50 for adults and $7.95 for children.

The number of customers at Thanksgiving is nothing like on Mother’s Day and Easter, but business has increased over the years, said Kim Ott, manager.

Surprisingly, some patrons order something like ribs off the regular menu, she said.

“That kind of blows my mind,” Ott said. “Some people are just rebels and want to have something different.”

Bring dinner in

Hosts can order a holiday dinner from their favorite grocery deli.

Daniels Sentry Foods, Janesville, for instance, encourages diners to “be a guest at your own holiday dinner.”The deli offers fully cooked Butterball turkeys and all the fixings—mashed potatoes, sage and onion dressing, cranberry orange relish, dinner rolls and pie.

The bill to feed 10 to 12 people is $65.98.

The store also offers ham dinners at $39.98 for four to six people and $49.98 for eight to 10.

“It just makes it so much easier,” said Jessica Whitford, assistant deli manager. “You just basically heat and serve.”

The west side store last year put together about 30 turkey dinners.

Ken Riley, general manager, said the same core of people place orders every year.

“More and more people are going out to eat for a lot of these big holiday meals,” he said. He cited the cost and preparation time as reasons.

“Unfortunately, restaurants are one of our biggest challenges today, as far as where the food dollars go.”

Celebrate with the community.

The Salvation Army hosts a noon Thanksgiving dinner free of charge in its building at 514 Sutherland Ave., Janesville. Anybody is welcome. Volunteers already have filled the shifts.

Last updated: 10:47 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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