The Atlantic Daily: Our Guide to Cooking in Isolation

Rolling pin on pie crust
Patrick Zachmann / Magnum

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By now it’s a well-worn cliché to say that 2020 has been rough, and that the holiday season will be no different. Indeed, many Americans will likely (and should certainly) not be celebrating this Thanksgiving, that fraught annual feast, in the traditional manner.

There aren’t any mashed-potato recipes good enough to fully distract us from how difficult and isolating the coming months will be, or to make up for not seeing loved ones (especially those we’ve lost). Without the ability to gather en masse, and against the backdrop of a still-worsening pandemic and crushing economic crisis, the search for a sufficiently comforting dish can feel almost existential.

But as we barrel toward the end of the year, I’ve thought a lot about something Ina Garten told my colleague Sophie Gilbert just a few weeks into the norm upheaval of quarantine. There’s something about a grilled-cheese sandwich, the Barefoot Contessa noted, that’s “not just physically satisfying; it’s somehow soul satisfying.”

While scanning a slew of food magazines, blogs, and cookbooks in search of the perfect recipes for my own pared-down Thanksgiving, I kept coming back to the simple pleasure Garten described months ago. And though I probably won’t be serving up cheddar on sourdough, this year I’m hoping to find some comfort in the mundane repetition and small revelations of cooking itself.

Below, cooks and non-cooks alike from around our newsroom share their best tips for navigating this strange Thanksgiving.

Don’t make a traditional meal.

As far as I’m concerned, the best part of Thanksgiving isn’t turkey and gravy—it’s spending all day in the kitchen, doing the kind of cooking we have time for only once a year. So dispense with tradition (this is the year!) and make whatever special, project-y meal your heart desires. In my house, it’ll be Julia Child’s coq au vin, crusty bread, and lots of wine, but in yours it could be bo ssam, carnitas, sabzi polo, or homemade gnocchi. Or, for that matter, boxed mac and cheese and a really indulgent, baroque dessert, such as baked Alaska. The only rule is that there are no rules.

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—  Ellen Cushing, special-projects editor

Or make the whole feast anyway.

Hear me out: Thanksgiving is so well loved because of the food, so what’s the point if you’re not going to have the turkey and the gravy and the mashed potatoes and the sweet potatoes and the green beans and the cranberry sauce and the rolls and the pie? I’ve done Thanksgiving with just my mom for several years now, and we still cook the whole shebang, just on a smaller scale. Buy only your favorite piece of the turkey (we do the breast), use fewer potatoes, just bake your one must-have pie. Regardless, still make more than you need, because we all know that the best part is really the leftovers.

—  Tori Latham, copy editor

Compromise: Focus on the sides.

My family has never stood on ceremony, and we have never carved a turkey at the dinner table. We’re southerners, so for me, the actual flavors of the holiday are heaped onto my plate, buffet-style, from countertops and card tables full of serving platters, baking dishes, storage bowls, and pie tins provided by every aunt, uncle, cousin, and grandparent within an eight-hour drive. A selection of rich, dense sides—baked mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, collards, biscuits, a pie—will make any meat paired with them feel like Thanksgiving, in a way that can be more easily scaled down for safety, no giant-turkey debacle required.

—  Amanda Mull, staff writer

Or outsource to a local restaurant.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, partially because I get to enjoy other people’s cooking of the classics. So this year we’re sticking with that theme, and have ordered a traditional turkey dinner from a nearby fancy-ish restaurant. We are happy that we can support a local business, and figure the expense is cheaper than a normal year’s travel costs—even accounting for the obscenely expensive and hopefully obscenely large pie we sprang for.

—  Janice Wolly, copy chief

Start with one single russet potato.

This Thanksgiving makes the case for thinking small. Instead of spending all day in the kitchen, only to wind up with more leftovers than you’ll ever eat, pick up one large russet. Peel, cube, boil for 15 minutes, drain, and fork-mash with melted butter and broth: boom, mashed potatoes for two. Or microwave-steam, cut in half, scoop out the center, mix with sour cream and cheese, restuff, and bake for 20 minutes for a holiday-worthy side.

—  Karen Ostergren, deputy copy chief

Go all in on pie.

A decade ago, I stumbled across a recipe for a New England pumpkin-rum pie. I was skeptical; Thanksgiving is built on tradition, so why tinker with a classic? But having dared to bring it to our family Thanksgiving one year, I found myself on the hook to bring it every year—along with its cousin, a chocolate-bourbon-pecan pie. It’s been a long 2020 already, and the holidays promise to be particularly hard this year for many Americans. So maybe it’s a good time to convey this confected tradition from my family to yours, a way to end Thanksgiving dinner with a little extra reason to be thankful.

—  Yoni Appelbaum, senior editor who oversees the Ideas section

(GETTY / ANNALISE PASZTOR / KATIE MARTIN / THE ATLANTIC)

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