Don’t Feel Like Cooking Thursday? Get Thanksgiving to Go

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Bryan Yealy’s family will not see him during the four days leading up to Thanksgiving. Instead, the Georgia Brown’s executive chef will be in the restaurant kitchen all day—starting at 6 a.m. and leaving only to sleep for six hours each night.

On Monday, 220 turkeys will arrive from various local purveyors for Yealy to debone, thaw, brine, rub, cook, fry, and cool. He’ll also cook enough trays of macaroni and cheese, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, and other Southern fixings for more than 250 different Thanksgiving dinners.

On Wednesday, he’ll load all of these orders into a refrigerated truck parked outside the 15th Street NW restaurant and ready himself for the onslaught of customers arriving the next day at 8 a.m. to load orders of turkeys, sides, and pies into the back seats of their cars.

He won’t be the only chef spending Thanksgiving morning that way. Dozens of D.C.-area restaurants are offering Thanksgiving to go, allowing people to outsource their cooking efforts instead of hovering over a stovetop all day. The stigma associated with ditching the kitchen on the heaviest cooking holiday of the year seems to have faded; chefs say turkey take-out orders are on the rise. In fact, at a time when restaurants in D.C. carry so much social cachet, people can proudly brag about picking up mashed potatoes from a notable chef rather than shamefully passing off professionally prepared dishes as their own.

That doesn’t mean the chefs won’t judge you. “I would never dream of buying anything for myself for Thanksgiving,” says Art and Soul executive chef Douglas Alexander. “But I think people are just busier and busier.” Art and Soul started its “Everything But the Turkey” promotion last year, but Alexander has never asked his customers why they take the shortcut. “I’d feel rude: ‘Hey, why am I cooking your stuff? Can’t you make your own gravy? What’s going on here?’” he says. “No, I would never do that.”

But the reason pre-made options are growing so popular is no real surprise: Thanksgiving—and all the craziness of family gatherings that inevitably comes with it—can create a lot of stress. Ordering out? Much easier.

Yealy recalls his own family Thanksgiving dinners, when his parents would spend all day in the kitchen. “By the time the whole dinner was done, my mother was exhausted. She was just drained from the stress of trying to make a perfect holiday for everybody, and I don’t think she ever enjoyed it,” he says. “Families are taking advantage of the options that we have because they want to enjoy the holiday.”

Georgia Brown’s began offering take-out Thanksgiving in 2004, allowing guests to build their own meals from items like cornbread stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, and a choice of deep-fried or roasted turkey. Collard greens, biscuits with peach butter, and bourbon pecan pie also round out the menu.

The first year, Yealy only sold eight or so orders. That jumped to 187 in 2009, prompting him to cap the number of orders at 200 the following year because of physical space constraints in the restaurant. Since then, he’s sold 200 turkeys each year, and this year he took on an extra 20. Prices range from $12 for a quart or mashed potatoes to $85 for a turkey and gravy.

BlackSalt owner Jeff Black also started a to-go program in 2005, offering free-range, antibiotic-free turkeys to supplement the restaurant’s specialty meat and fish sales. This led naturally to selling a full-meal package. Fishmonger MJ Gimbar, who oversees the Palisades restaurant’s to-go program, likens ordering food to “having your own private chef to do your Thanksgiving meal for you.”

BlackSalt’s to-go menu, which usually generates about 200 orders, includes traditional items like pre-brined and pre-trussed turkeys, potato gratin, stuffing, and a range of pies, bars, cookies, and brittles. They’ve also put their own fish-market spin on the classics; house-cured salmon with crème fraîche ($8.50 for 4 ounces) and Chincoteague oyster stuffing with Granny Smith apples and walnuts ($15.99 a quart) have become especially popular.

“Thanksgiving is an opportunity for people to try new things and change their menus,” Gimbar says. “I bring stuff home to my own mom and she’s like, ‘I never would have thought of doing oyster stuffing,’ but she loves it.”

Customers at BlackSalt and other restaurants do still have to heat the food they purchase, though, which at least makes takeout one step closer to tradition than eating out at a restaurant on the holiday. (And one step closer to the ease of passing off the food as your own à la Mrs. Doubtfire.)

Many restaurants started these programs as an alternative to remaining open on Thanksgiving. Acadiana chef and owner Jeff Tunks says the restaurant can pay only a few cooks and a sous chef and still bring in $175 on an order for eight without having to employ busboys and bartenders for the day. Acadiana has sold about 120 orders each year after starting with 100 in 2010 and is on track to increase business by 10 percent this year.

“Every year it’s growing a little bit, because this guy tells his friend, ‘Hey, I’ve been buying my turkeys from BlackSalt, you’ve gotta try their turkeys,’” says Gimbar. “Or, ‘You don’t want to make your gravy? Try BlackSalt’s gravy, it’s delicious.’”

Arlington’s Bayou Bakery has been selling pies for Thanksgiving since opening in 2010. Owner David Guas added sides in 2011 to cash in on the demand, and says he has seen an increase of about 25 to 30 orders each year. More people buy pies than savory sides.

“There are some things that people just don’t mess with,” he says. “They pick up a pie because it’s a quick grab, and they trust a reputable source of having had our pie before.”

There’s no single dish that sells the best across the board, but homey staples perform well. At Bayou Bakery, cornbread muffins, braised collards, and “dirty rice” with ground beef and chicken livers are favorites. Macaroni and cheese, giblet gravy, and collard greens are top sellers at Louisiana-inspired Acadiana. At BlackSalt, traditional stuffing and gravy are the most popular, and Georgia Brown’s Yealy finds that mashed potatoes and stuffing sell the best.

Deep fried turkeys also tend to be a hit, especially because of how dangerous it can be to fry them at home—just look at the explosion videos on YouTube. Deep-frying also requires the purchase of special equipment, and then there’s the question of what to do with the gallons of leftover oil.

Fried turkeys outsell roasted turkeys at both Acadiana and Georgia Brown’s. Yealy makes 125 fried turkeys and 75 roasted turkeys each year; for a restaurant where the best-selling entrée is fried chicken, fried turkey is a no-brainer, he says.

At Medium Rare, you can bring your own thawed bird and container to the Barracks Row location and the staff will fry it—for free—on Thanksgiving from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Owner Mark Bucher started this tradition in 2008, wanting to give back to the neighborhood and prevent the burns and house fires he’d read about. One year, Bucher found a thank-you note on his car after the holiday from a homeless family who’d been able to have a Thanksgiving meal because of his service. Although there had been an abundance of free food and turkeys, they had no access to an oven. “That’s one of the reasons why I still do it,” he says. Bucher fried 189 turkeys in 2012 (and took last year off).

Having a professional deep-fry your turkey somehow doesn’t seem as much like cheating as having Georgia Brown’s make your mashed potatoes, but Bucher thinks both options are indicative of a changing society that eats out more the whole year round, not just on Thanksgiving.

“Food’s gotten faster, and people eat out more, and I think cooking a big meal like that is awfully intimidating when you don’t cook a whole lot the whole year,” Bucher says. “Less and less people are actually cooking Thanksgiving dinner than used to.”

The temptation to order out is clear: It’s more time to spend with family, fewer dishes to wash, and a guaranteed good meal without the risk of having to find a Chinese restaurant at the last minute.

But when there are takeout boxes instead of pots and pans in the kitchen on Thursday, will some of the soul of a traditional Thanksgiving meal be lost? Is a gourmet casserole actually better than Grandma’s time-tested recipe? Proponents of the home-cooked holiday meal face some stiff competition.

Or maybe their resolve will crumble when confronted with that oyster stuffing. “Every year we’ve seen a little bit of growth,” says Gimbar. “And I think it’s because the food’s good. Because at the end of the day, that’s what matters. For Thanksgiving, when you get around the table, you want to eat good food.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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