Even if you and your loved ones don’t stick to Thanksgiving Day traditions, it’s a holiday that often has a lot riding on it, whether that means cooking a big, elaborate meal, tiptoeing around off-limits subjects with friends and family, or journeying hundreds of miles home on the worst traveling day of the year. It’s a weird amount of expectation to place on a Thursday, and almost everyone’s got a story about how their best-laid plans went awry one year. Here are the most disastrous Thanksgivings we can remember; maybe our misfortunes will jog your own holiday memories (for better or for worse).
My family, for better or for worse, is filled with strong personalities that tend to clash whenever they have to spend too much time together. The four or five hours of Thanksgiving dinner qualify as “too much time.” I don’t want to write about any of the explosions here because the reasons for them were so stupid I can’t even remember them now. I can promise you also don’t want to read about them. Just know that they all amounted to the same thing: lots of yelling and crying and lingering grudges, and none of it is remotely funny.
There was, however, the year my mother burned the turkey. I’m sure she must have been upset about it because she hates cooking to begin with, and making a turkey is an especially huge and annoying production. Nobody else seemed too bothered, though. We’re not really a family that’s hung up on turkey. Also Domino’s was open and delivering. So we ordered several pizzas and ate those instead. My cousin, who was eight or nine at the time, tried to out-eat my dad. He did pretty well, but then he got a terrible stomachache. Someone built a fire in the fireplace, and we all gathered around. My cousin claimed the prime spot on the bean bag because he was in so much pain, and he lay there and moaned, and the rest of us laughed at him. (I’m pretty sure he got a dose of Pepto-Bismol and was fine the next day, so we can still laugh.) —Aimee Levitt
The Bernot family likes to spend our holidays gathered ’round the communal grease fire. Okay, that only happened one year: Thanksgiving 2007. I’ll set the scene: We’re at my aunt and uncle’s house, inconsequential football on the TV, the adults snacking on kielbasa and Yuengling. My eyes begin watering seconds before my brother pipes up: “Do you guys smell smoke?” With a speed and agility I didn’t know we possessed, the family rushes to the front lawn, where we stand shivering as my father and his older brother profanely battle the flames ignited when turkey grease meets oven. (My aunt had cooked the bird on a cookie sheet rather than in a roasting dish.) My aunt goes on to valiantly serve that turkey, which was charred on the outside and raw on the inside. None of us actually ate slices of the salmonella Trojan horse, but just sort of shoved them around our plate and took seconds of mashed potatoes. No food poisoning resulted, and I’m chalking that up to sheer luck. —Kate Bernot
My parents have hosted Thanksgiving for almost 30 years, and with typical crowds ranging from 25 to 40, my mom tends to get most of the prep work out of the way on Wednesday. She assembles the casseroles and Jell-Os and pies a day in advance, with tidy sticky notes on each one dictating when they should go in the oven or when to set them out on which buffet station. One Thanksgiving Eve when I was home from college, my mom was opening up a can of Campbell’s Cream of Onion soup (for which recipe, I can’t recall) while simultaneously explaining precisely how I should Tetris the items in the fridge to accommodate both the 12-lb. broccoli salad and the 15-lb. dish of cranberry casserole—and, distracted, she sliced her hand open on the sharp lid of the can. My immediate reaction, seeing the blood rise up to the wound, was to yell “Oh shit!” in alarm, but my mom’s echo of “Oh shit” was more exasperated than concerned, as if to say, “I don’t need this; I’ve got way too much to do.” We were able to convince her to go to the hospital and get stitches, which still surprises me, since it took a whole two hours out of her prep time. In the meantime, I did what I knew how to do, which amounted to setting out frozen items to thaw, rolling silverware, and setting up folding chairs.
My mom came back with a (rather shoddily) stitched-up hand, ready to jump back into her duties, but with hypothetical scenarios now bouncing around all our heads: What if it had happened a mere 12 hours later, during showtime? “I have no doubts that you would have been able to handle the whole party without me,” she said at the time, and continues to add charitably in her retelling. But had my mom really been down for the count that day, I would’ve needed to recruit every aunt in sight to help me convert the fridge Tetris to oven Tetris to buffet table Tetris. Good thing holiday parties supply me with an embarrassment of riches in the aunt department—just one more thing I’m thankful for. —Marnie Shure
Until three years ago, I’d spent my entire adult life working in the food service industry, which made me hate everything about Thanksgiving. There is no way to enjoy a big, traditional dinner when you’ve spent weeks roasting turkeys, making pies, and barely sleeping. So I’m having issues remembering any Thanksgivings at all, because I was so sleep deprived that few moments managed to stick in my long-term memory. As such, I am stealing a story from my husband, Matt, who also has spent his entire adult life in the food industry. He, too, can remember very few holidays, but this one Thanksgiving was such a disaster that there’s no way we could forget it.
It was 2006, and Matt was working as a cook at a fancy gourmet grocery chain that offered Thanksgiving catering for New Yorkers who had no problem dropping $150 for a raw, oven-prepped turkey, three small sides, and a pint of gravy. It was barely past Halloween when the number of orders was in the high hundreds—far more than their kitchen could possibly manage. The corporate executive chef (of the stereotypical douchebro variety that could be found in every professional kitchen in the mid-’00s)—had a “genius” idea that would save the company a fortune in time and labor: The turkeys would be prepped and packed at an off-site kitchen, then brought to the shop where they’d be stored in a refrigerated truck parked outside on W. 14th street. All Matt and the rest of the staff needed to do was add the sides before handing the boxes off to the customers. And since this brilliant idea meant that they could take more orders, why not start packing those boxes two weeks in advance?
When the day came to start moving orders out, all hands were on deck hours before dawn, so thankfully no customers were around to hear the sounds of dozens of nauseous employees opening up box after box of rotten turkeys, or the screaming of the chef who said that the fault laid squarely with the organic farm they had ordered from who “killed the turkeys too young.” Every turkey in that gigantic store was pulled into the kitchen; every sink filled with hot water in hopes of thawing the frozen ones enough so that the customers wouldn’t notice anything was amiss. Smaller turkeys were replaced by chickens covered in butter and herbs. After a few hours of scrambling the chef ordered the entire kitchen staff to leave, and said that he would take care of everything else. Management refused to tell anyone how the orders got filled, or anything else about the incident. It was never spoken about again.. —Allison Robicelli