What If You Ruin the Turkey?

Dear Helena,

I volunteered to host Thanksgiving for my family last year, and I roasted a turkey for the first time. It came out of the oven looking fantastic, but when I tried to carve it, it was still frozen inside. I didn’t want to put it back in the oven, as people were hungry, so I served the parts that were cooked. Each guest had only a tiny piece of meat, and I felt like a failure. If you mess up a meal, whether it’s a Thanksgiving feast or just a regular dinner, what’s the best strategy? If you have to admit defeat, is it OK to just order pizza? —Kitchen Klutz

Dear Kitchen Klutz,

When disaster strikes in the kitchen, many cooks make the mistake of trying to conceal it from their guests. But it’s easier for people to be patient if they know roughly how long they’ll have to wait, and why. You don’t have to say, “I burned dinner and am now scraping off the charred bits to see if anything edible remains,” but you might say, “There’s been a slight mishap with the turkey, so you’ll have to wait an extra 20 minutes.” As with so many etiquette problems, alcohol is often the culprit, but it can also be part of the solution. “By the time everyone’s had a glass [of wine] or two, not much can go wrong with the food,” says Ruth L’Hommedieu, owner of Savory Thymes, a personal chef service in Connecticut.

If one of your guests is a kitchen whiz, ask for help. Marianna Cherry, a San Francisco writer, once made an unfortunate pasta dish with artichoke and cream sauce. “I used canned artichokes instead of fresh, and I poured in the brine, too.” The sauce was at once bland and oversalted. But a food-savvy friend tasted it and advised: “It needs cream. It needs acid.” No one showered praise on the resulting pasta, but the dinner turned out OK.

When you serve the meal, follow Julia Child’s dictum: “Never apologize.” Criticizing a meal that you’ve cooked is like criticizing a member of your family: There’s no good way for people to reply. They can’t agree, because that’s rude, and they risk looking insincere if the food really did come out badly.

If you don’t announce your mistake, guests may not even notice. The first time I ever cooked dinner for a group, in my early teens, I made a multilayered spinach crêpe stack with two different vegetable fillings. The recipe called for two cloves of garlic, and, not knowing how much a clove was, I mistakenly put in two bulbs of garlic. I didn’t say anything, and my family wolfed the meal down without comment (though they reeked of garlic for the next three days).

If dinner can’t be salvaged, then ordering pizza isn’t bad etiquette, but it’s not very practical. Your guests are likely starving, and you’ll have to wait at least 30 minutes. It’s better if you make something immediately, however basic—spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, for instance.

As for the holiday in question, burning, dropping, or letting the dog lick the turkey is less of a catastrophe than you think. For many, Thanksgiving is all about the sides anyway.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.