Pack the Halls

How to make dinner for 80,000 and other holiday miracles.

How to make dinner for 80,000 and other holiday miracles.

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As hosts count down the days till Thanksgiving, nostalgia about the season has a way of waning, too. Sentimentality can go out the window when you’re hustling to brine the bird, peel parsnips, toast pecans and poach pears all while praying you’ll find the sage stashed somewhere—somewhere!—in the back of your packed refrigerator.

So imagine how it would feel to be expecting 15,000 guests on a single day. To be uncertain of when they’ll arrive, how hungry they’ll be, or whether they’ll even show. That’s exactly what it’s like to be Fairway in the days before Thanksgiving.

According to merchandiser and import expediter Will Sneddon, the 74th Street store typically serves 70,000 to 80,000 shoppers during that whirlwind week, an annual marathon for which this native New York grocer plans year-round. They begin gearing up in early summer, when managers strategize to scale up staffing, review logistics and begin to order extra ingredients—everything from cloves to cornmeal, kosher turkeys to turduckens.

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Then again, plenty of customers want a feast to go, so as the holiday draws nigh, Fairway’s in-house cooks work around the clock to prepare multiple versions of traditional sides like gravy (made fresh from turkey drippings), biscuits, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and three different kinds of stuffing. A week out from the big day, customer traffic at the 74th Street store is so high they run refrigerated trucks curbside as extra climate-controlled storage for pre- and catering orders. As Fairway’s famous cheesemonger Steve Jenkins describes it, “the whole day looks like a sort of disaster relief volunteer drive.”

Things haven’t always gone according to their micromanaged plan. Like any good cook who can look back and laugh at kitchen disasters, Jenkins recalls a 1998 fiasco at their in-house bakery in Harlem. Somehow during the final, flour-dusted frenzy the day before Thanksgiving, the sugar and salt barrel labels were reversed and every single pie they made had a decidedly briney crust. Understandably, laughs Jenkins, “it was not so funny then.”

Thanks to Fairway’s meticulous strategies, such mishaps are exceedingly rare. But there are always systems to fine-tune and lessons to learn—like the woman who was furious that her “oven-ready” turkey roasting instructions did not advise that she should remove the turkey from its cardboard box before she put it in her preheated oven.

It’s enough to make cooking for 10 in your galley kitchen look like a cakewalk.

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Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren grew up on her family's farm in the North Carolina mountains. She now lives in New York and is the editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.