Holiday dinners-gone-wrong become enduring, laugh-inducing memories

Let’s be honest: Whenever we entertain, whether it be for Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or National Pie Day, which is coming up in January, we want everything to be just right. Not perfect, maybe, but close enough to ensure that things will go smoothly, and we’ll impress family and friends with our style and finesse. And then the gremlin strikes, poking his dirty fingers into all of our best-laid plans.

Yes, it happens to the best of us, and while usually frustrating — sometimes humiliating — such events somehow usually turn out to be funny once a little time has passed.

In the spirit of making the season a little less stressful, we asked readers to share their Winter Blunderland stories — memories of stressful moments in entertaining that turned into entertaining memories. A selection of them follows.

Winsor Harmon, Las Vegas

While attending college in the ’60s, I was invited for Thanksgiving to my roommate’s family home in a small town in northern Louisiana. On Thanksgiving morning his mother put a ham in her pressure cooker, and just before the noon meal the pressure cooker blew up and the ham went flying through the kitchen ceiling into the attic.

My roommate and I climbed into the attic and retrieved the ham and we all enjoyed it for Thanksgiving dinner. We still talk about it and refer to it as "our Thanksgiving explosion dinner!"

Aurora Gandara, Las Vegas

It was the day before Thanksgiving and I had just had rotator cuff surgery the week before. My right arm was in a sling, and I was supposed to be resting.

My husband had to work. He asked my daughter to keep an eye on me in case I needed anything. My daughter had been out late the night before. She looked in on me, and then she went to take a nap.

While she was sleeping, I decided that I felt well enough to make the holiday pies. I’d been doing them for years, so surely I could bake pies with one arm literally tied.

So, I got the ingredients, managed to get the cans of pumpkin open and with the help of a big stand mixer I made filling for two pies. I ladled the filling into the prepared pie shells, which were on one baking sheet. I opened the oven door and proceeded to put the pies in the oven one-handed.

Big, big mistake.

I misjudged the distance (pain killers) and managed to tip over the baking sheet and spilled two pies’ worth of pumpkin pie filling onto the bottom of the hot oven. My daughter woke up to the sounds of the melee in the kitchen and the smoke alarm. She thought the house was on fire. I was trying (unsuccessfully) to scrape the pie filling off of the bottom of the oven before it burnt onto the oven.

Needless to say we bought pies that year, and we still talk about the time I almost burned the house down baking pies.

Barbara L. Phillips, Las Vegas

A family emergency left the rest of the family "Momless" for Thanksgiving one year, so preparing the turkey and stuffing was teen daughter Kimm’s job.

There were no onions, so she went to the garden and snipped off a few jalapeño peppers — thinking, "What’s the difference?" — and cut them up into the mix. She finished the turkey preparation, sewed him shut and cooked the bird. Needless to say, that was one "hot" meal, and not even the gravy could tone down the Thanksgiving hot bird!

Emma Rogers, Las Vegas

It was going to be our first Thanksgiving with all of the family in 45 years — all my six children, 16 grandchildren and 12 greats, and all of the spouses. I was 72 at that time, living on the family farm we owned for centuries in a small town in Minnesota.

The family arrived all week, quickly filling up the spare bedrooms and sleeping by the fireplace where my mother’s mother cooked backed in 1884. We heard we would get a heavy snowfall that week. On the eve of Thanksgiving we began cooking the pies, all my girls and me. It was a magical time. I and my granddaughter woke up at 4 a.m. Thanksgiving morning to no lights and 18 inches of fresh snow. We turned on the radio and heard it was the "blizzard of the century," with ice storms wiping out the roads and power lines.

Dad got up and wandered to the barn to do the milking and feed the animals, so we had to scramble to figure out how we were going to cook the three tom turkeys and the rest of the meal, since my electric stove was of no use.

There in the corner was Grandma’s old wood stove, so we fired it up. The rest of the girls got up and pitched in. My husband brought in the old rotisserie Grandma used in the fireplace and we put the turkeys on that, wrapped with barb wire, and cooked them slowly over the fireplace, with the grandkids taking turns rotating them. All of my children pitched in to help prepare our meal and help Dad outside.

At 6 p.m. we sat down to eat by candlelight by the fireplace. Yes, the toms were a little crispy, the rolls a little dark and the carrots undercooked, and I can’t forget when my 2-year-old great-grandson grabbed the tablecloth and our sweet potato pie fell on the floor, but all in all the worst Thanksgiving was the best because my family was home.

Donna Coleman, Henderson

When I lived in Chicago in my early 20s I had a small apartment with a very, very small kitchen. I invited some friends for dinner one night. I preheated the oven and went to sit with my friends and enjoy some wine. Just then there was a huge explosion, and I said without missing a beat, "Oh, it must be the shoe polish." They all looked like, "Huh?" I used to stuff things into the oven to get them off the counter and I forgot to take them out before preheating.

Carole Wells, Pahrump

I had just gotten married to an American veteran and wanted to celebrate my first Thanksgiving in America with style. His family was coming to visit us and I wanted to impress them with my culinary skills.

I am from Spain and had never cooked a whole turkey in my life. In Europe, people usually buy turkey parts, breast slices or drumsticks, and stores rarely carry whole turkeys. A helpful neighbor gave me a list of the ingredients for the Thanksgiving meal and I went to the market to buy them. I got everything including the turkey: I got one of the last birds and the biggest of the group of frozen ones I saw there.

Once home, I followed the recipes religiously, adding a few flavors of Spain, and everything looked great! I did not want any help with the food, as I wanted my guests to just sit and be waited on.

I set the table and brought all the trimmings from the kitchen. It is customary in Spain to serve large birds sliced instead of bringing a heavy bird to the table, so I sliced the bird in the kitchen and presented it on a silver tray. Right from the beginning, I could tell there was something wrong with the bird. The white meat was pink and the dark meat was very dark. The bird was chewy, like rubber, with a weird aftertaste. During the whole meal, I realized that perhaps I had gotten one of those turkeys that some supermarkets have kept for years in their freezers. Everybody praised the rest of the dishes but I could tell my guests were having a hard time chewing the turkey. The in-laws were gracious, though, and ate everything. They literally cleaned their plates and fought for the other food, but nobody took seconds of the turkey.

After the meal was over, the women insisted on helping me clean up. Everybody made excuses when I offered to wrap leftover turkey to take home; nobody wanted any. While taking the dishes and trays to the kitchen, my mother-in-law glanced at the leftover bones of the turkey and I heard her giggle. She left the kitchen and the next thing I knew, everybody, men and children included, was back in examining the bones. I then discovered that, because I did not have a clue what a whole turkey looked like, I had grabbed the largest goose the family had ever seen! Needless to say, now everybody wanted the leftover meat to try recipes at their homes. Even the neighbor came to get meat. Up to this day, 20-plus years later, every Thanksgiving, someone in his family honks at us when we arrive at their homes for the holiday.

Lori Isaacs, Las Vegas

While dating my now-husband 35 years ago, I wanted to impress him and his family with my cooking skills. Although I had cooked many meals I had never made a Thanksgiving dinner, but I was confident I could pull it off.

Even though money was tight and we were on a budget, I sprung for the largest and most expensive turkey I could find and all the fixings. He came early and helped me butter up the bird and get it into the roasting pan. We borrowed my grandmother’s electric knife so that he could carve the bird in style.

Then, came the moment of truth: The turkey was paraded out and placed in front of the master carver. Our mouths were watering as he cut into the breast, only to hear a grinding sound as he hit a bone. He tried again in another spot; whoops, bone again. After several tries, I was in tears as we picked away bits to serve but never actually got one slice.

Dinner consisted mostly of side dishes and idle talk to minimize the fact that everyone was starving for turkey but had hardly any. After dinner, they went in to watch football. We cleared the dishes as I sobbed, which progressed to anger about the rip-off I had purchased. I grabbed a big pot to throw in this bony bird to at least make soup. As I did, the carcass flipped over, revealing huge white mounds of breast meat. We had cooked the bird upside down and didn’t have the sense to turn it over! Everybody left with a huge container of "leftover turkey" and my apologies.

Nadine Haag, Las Vegas

We always have fun with Susan and Don. New Year’s Eve 30 years ago was progressing nicely. The table was set, cocktails were plentiful, Don and David were watching football in the living room and Susan and I were in the kitchen, cooking.

Dinner was to be ham and all the trimmings. Susan had prepared her special basting marinade; I’d sliced the fresh pineapple. We checked the ham. It was as pink as when it went into the oven an hour before. Over and over, we basted it, checking every 15 minutes or so to see if it was cooking. The ham would not brown. We checked the oven; it was hot. We checked the cooking instructions; we’d followed them to the letter. The ham was still pink, without a hint of the desired brownness. We had another drink and checked the freezer for menu options. There were none.

Dinner was now late. The guys were starting to complain. We were worried. In an act of final desperation, we decided to slice the ham and grill ham steaks, if necessary. In frustration, I poked at the stubbornly pink bundle. Stupid ham. My finger promptly slid off of the tightly sealed plastic wrap that shrouded the meat. Oops. In all of our preparations, we’d never checked to see if the ham had been shrink-wrapped. We debated — toss it or serve it? The ham was delicious.

We’re going to be with Susan and Don again this New Year’s Eve. Don has requested ham for dinner.

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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