David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

Summary: Learn about dark meat turkey, Jedi family management skills, and a little tech. Plus some tips about how to have and enjoy a non-traditional holiday and giving Mom a break.


It's been more than a decade now since I wrote the first edition of "David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving" as an article for my web site. It deals with the mix of dark meat turkey, Jedi family management skills, and a little tech. It was one of my most popular articles ever. A few years later, I updated it and ran a version of it on CNN.com, and it was again quite popular.

Since then, I've evolved and refined the techniques each year and published it here on ZDNet. We normally don't run previously-published content (even in earlier, beta form), but this is an evolving work of such societal importance that it can transform lives and transcend barriers amongst eaters and cooks, mothers and sons, and those who love dark meat and those other people.

This year, I talk sbout the importance of talking to your family more than to "OK Google".

Bits of tradition. Words of advice.

Those of you outside the US might not be aware of a little tradition we have here: Thanksgiving. According to our grade school classes, Thanksgiving is a holiday that came about when those wacky Pilgrims finally had a bountiful harvest, held a celebration, and gave thanks.

The historical reality is far more unclear, and very definitely subject to interpretation. A quick Google search of "thanksgiving" and "meaning" turns up more stuff than you'd believe.

Besides, nobody cares. Thanksgiving isn't about Pilgrims. The whole Pilgrim/Mayflower/Indian story serves merely as the MacGuffin that gives us our day of glorious gluttony.

In America, Thanksgiving means parades, football, families, and food. The last two, of course, are the challenge, and here's where my life-changing survival guide comes in.

I, like most folks, have fond memories of family Thanksgiving celebrations. But for years, they somewhat overwhelmed me. Often, we'd be joined by far-flung relatives whose names I couldn't remember. There'd be hugs from old people who shouldn't be allowed to hug without first getting a safety certification. And while there was plenty of food, there was never pizza.

It took me well into my 30s to develop techniques that, when used together, never fail to make Thanksgiving enjoyable to me and those around me. The key, however, is to use these techniques together. Either, used alone, will often result in disappointment, or — worse — more chicken soup than your freezer can possibly hold.

Technique #1: It's all about the dark meat

You may or may not like turkey (what are you, a socialist?) and you may or may not like dark meat. I love dark meat turkey and I'm not really a fan of white meat. The first half of David's Patent-Pending Thanksgiving Survival Program is to make the day all about dark meat turkey.

Nothing else and no one else matters.

Your mission, above all, is to get to the celebration and to get the dark meat before anyone else can. If you have to hockey check your great aunt to get that haunch, do it. If you have to blockade the kitchen door, do it. Whatever it takes, get yourself that plate full of dark meat (and maybe some gravy).

Here's how this part works. First, getting the dark meat means you'll enjoy your meal. But having that as your mission means you'll know what to do and what to say to every family member in attendance. Every action on your part is measured by whether it gets you closer to acquiring or consuming the dark meat.

Once you've finished the meal, of course, it's perfectly reasonable (and even accepted) to take a nap, watch a game, or fire up that Xbox you've been praying your cousin still has. But stay away from the Kinect. Trust me on this. Safety tip.

The dark meat quest is extremely satisfying, but it'll backfire without the second technique.

Technique #2: Effusively complimenting the cook

Nothing reclassifies you from "rude, gluttonous pig" to "extremely polite, nice man" than complimenting the cook. A lot. In every way you can think of. You may have just practiced your body block technique on Uncle Bob, but if you turn to Aunt Alice and tell her how much you love her turkey, you'll get that welcome smile.

I'm serious about this. You can get away with nearly any marginally reprehensible behavior at a family gathering if you make sure to effusively say nice things to the cook.

I'm talking Jedi-level powerful stuff here. It's amazing. Use these techniques together and it's like you can walk through walls, turn lead into gold, and get all the dark meat you want.

Technique #3: Speak actual words to your family

I know how compelling the portable electronic gadgets we have can be, especially when Aunt Martha is going on and on about her bursitis. We have now reached a point in our world where it's considered common place for everyone at an event to spend more time staring into their phones than at the other guests.

But recently, we've seen a new trend now that more of us have smartwatches and Google Now is available on most phones (and, of course, Siri and Cortana). I was with a group of people the other day, and everyone was looking down at their phones and saying "OK Google" to give commands. It was a chorus of "OK Google" that just seemed quite odd. It was even wierder because the watch on one guy's wrist responded to the "OK Google" invoked by the woman on his left.

No matter. The point of this tip is simple. If you find yourself talking more to "OK Google" than your family, it's time to turn off the devices and ask your aunt what bursitis is, anyway. Then make nice, simpathetic noises, say "awww" and "I hope it gets better" a few times and then snag some more food.

The inevitable discussion of family illnesses, the shameful children poorly raised by the neighbors, and whether or not Uncle Jack will be denied parole again are all part of what makes Thanksgiving the holiday it is. And, besides, if you listen to your family, on the way home, you'll be able to turn to your partner and exclaim, "Can you believe that Martha and her bursitis, bursitis, bursitis?"

Then, take a deep breath, look at your watch, and say "OK Google, how long until we're finally home?"

Technique #4: Traditional Thanksgiving doesn't have to be traditional

Now, you all know I love me some dark meat turkey. It might surprise you, then, to learn that some years, I didn't have any dark meat (and I'm okay with it). In fact, there have been many Thanksgivings where I didn't even have turkey.

I can think of one year that was kind of special. Prior to Thanksgiving, we had already had my Thanksgiving celebration with my family. Because of certain scheduling issues, we couldn't get together on the traditional day, so we picked the preceding Sunday and decided to meet at a completely non-traditional choice: an awesome BBQ ribs place. And yes, for you folks south of the Mason-Dixon line, who know the difference between grilling and barbeque, this was barbeque. Oh, my frickin' gosh, was this barbeque. Whooowah!

It rocked! See, although Thanksgiving often seems about the trappings of the holiday, it's also about getting together with loved ones and feeling thankful. That Sunday's gathering was great and even though there were ribs (do not ask me to judge between ribs and dark meat turkey -- I can't do it) -- even though there were ribs instead of turkey, it was, absolutely, a family Thanksgiving.

After college, I moved to California and my family was still back East. For a while, I couldn't afford to fly home for Thanksgiving and neither could many of my other recent college graduate-age friends. Instead of big turkey fests, we all went out to Chinese food. Let me tell you, if you want awesome Chinese food, the Bay Area is definitely the place to go. As a result, I often conflate Chinese food with Thanksgiving, because of all those wonderful holidays with the best of friends.

So, as you move towards your Thanksgiving, remember that it's not only about traditional foods, and it's not even about the traditional day, it's about friends and family and feeling thankful.

Oh, and in case you have a hankering for turkey, you can always pick up a nice meal. My wife and I ordered a take-out feast from a local restaurant. We had a wonderful, quiet Thursday Thanksgiving that year, and that, too, gave us something to be thankful for.

Technique #5: Give Mom a break

I know that Mom's not the only one who toils in the kitchen all week to masterfully create a Thanksgiving dinner experience. This is about giving a break to anyone who takes on this important chore.

Sometimes, creating a Thanksgiving feast is just too much, especially as our parents age. For years, my mom would insist on doing all the work, although it became clear it was harder and harder for her. She identified with making a nice table for her family and couldn't be talked out of it.

These past few years, though, it really was too much. Somehow, the feast-making gene didn't pass down to either my wife or I, but the ordering food gene is almost a superpower. So instead of my Mom putting in all the hard work, we've pre-ordered Thanksgiving meals from one of our favorite local restaurants, and we'll be bringing the entire feast down to Mom and Dad. 

No, it won't be just like Mom used to make, and no, there won't even be any dark meat. But it's okay. Thanksgiving is about being with the people we love. What we eat is just what we eat.

However, here's a tip within a tip: a few weeks ago, we found dark meat turkey drumsticks (already cooked) at the local WalMart. They were a little dry, but still. Turkey drumsticks. Ask around. You might be able to get your dark meat fix without anyone in your family having to break a sweat.

Technique #6: Remote support software

Thanksgiving has taken on another role in American society, that of the "Great American Fix My Computer Day." That's right, for most Moms in America, Thanksgiving is the culmination of a week of food preparation. And for most of us geeks, it's the day we spend fixing all our relatives' stuff.

Most geeks don't mind spending their day off essentially working. Many of us are often more comfortable fiddling with wires than conversing with Aunt Harriet about her recent surgery.

And while us good techies are ready and willing to fix anything our families throw at us, we do find one thing hard to manage: the coordination between eating and fixing.

See also: Thanksgiving tech support survival kit (2013 edition)

Most non-geeks rightly think of us as technical gods, able to fix anything instantly with a mere wave of our mouse hand. This, of course, is true. Except for the instantly part.

Reinstalling an operating system, removing viruses, or upgrading software takes time. In between typing in codes, clicking on annoying reminders, and selecting the time zone, we're able to come to the table and chow down. But most civilians don't fully understand that we're going to have to spend a lot of time with their gadgets to make them work.

Before you embark for your Thanksgiving adventure, you have a big decision to make. Would you prefer to spend more time fixing computers (and thereby avoiding your family) or would you prefer to spend more time eating (but having to endure endless chat about doctors)?

If you choose to hide, bring your full repair kit. But if you prefer to eat, then don't.

Although there's always the inevitable hardware problem, one way to enjoy more time at the dinner table and less time under your aunt's roll-top desk is to leave the tools, parts, and install disks at home. If you don't have the gear, you can't spend as much time making the fix.

Remember that you can always connect back in using the relatively mediocre system built into Windows, the free and functional TeamViewer, or the powerful, but expensive GoToAssist. A good way to make your family feel better about this is to promise to connect back in when you're home — and this way you can often enjoy your dinner in peace.

If you're not a geek and you're reading this, please, don't give your geeks a hard time if they can't be at the dinner table for the entire event. It's not that we disrespect the family time. It's just that we love you so much, we're willing to give up together time to make your stuff work.

Technique #7: Do Black Friday online

Edible gluttony on Thursday eventually leads to commercial gluttony on Friday. My last Thanksgiving survival tip for 2014 is this: chill out.

There is nothing human about people who get up at 5am after a ginormous Thanksgiving dinner, just to stand in line for a few bargains. We all have too much stuff, anyway.

Instead, feel free to shop on Friday, but do it from your couch. Shop online. There are going to be great bargains online and, beside, bargains will be around for weeks.

There's no need to be at the store at 12:01am on Friday, pressing so hard on the crowd that the guy in the front is squished as flat as a playing card. Haven't you had enough people contact on Thanksgiving, anyway?

Stay home. Use the Internet. Eat leftovers. Skip the PS4 for one more day.

Seriously, be smart and be safe. Have a great Thanksgiving. And remember, save all the dark meat for me!

Topics: Disaster Recovery, CXO, After Hours, DIY


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

    Stuffing............................................................................................................................................................................................ Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!
    • Surviving forever - Giving thanks to WHOM?

      Romans 1:20-21
      For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, *nor were thankful*, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
      Paul B. Wordman
  • Have a great Thanksgiving, David...

    ... and may all the Dark Meat appear on your plate.
  • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

    Glad to finally find someone who appreciates the dark meat like me.
  • Me too, me too.

    I also prefer the dark meat. Happy Thanksgiving, David. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
    v r
  • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

    So I only eat white meat. When we have too many people for the dark meat on the turkey I take a radical step -- I buy extra turkey leg quarters, roast them an appropriate time, and put the extra meat on the platter. It's not a secret -- unless the people at the table are too druk to count drumsticks -- but it sure makes dark meat lovers happy! Have a great Thanksgiving. In our family my daughter is the fix-it geek, but we already got her to fix it all before Thanksgiving, so she can enjoy the holiday.
    • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

      @amywohl "I buy extra turkey leg quarters, roast them an appropriate time, and put the extra meat on the platter."

      David Gewirtz
      • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

        @David Gewirtz

        You know .. That explains your physical resemblance to John Madden. But I thought only Thanksgiving Day football players enjoyed his weird arachnid turkey feast. (yeh, that does sound gross. Irregardless, may everyone posting here have a great Thanksgiving this year.)
  • nice spin!

    [i]It?s just that we love you so much, we?re willing to give up together time to make your stuff work.
  • The true meaning of Thanksgiving:

    It's more miraculous than any religious Holiday:
    If I watch the game, then the Detroit Lions will <b>always</b> lose.

    So this year, I'm doing a motherboard swap instead. ;)
    Rick S._z
    • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

      @Rick S._z

      Hey, hey, hey ... HEY! Say nice things about our beloved pussy cats! If they lose it will be the seventh straight Turkey Day loss. Even the football gods must show pity sometimes. (Although from the game winning touchdown pass that wasn't on week 1 to the hair pulling legal tackle last Sunday that wasn't "legal" .. I don't think the chance of our Lion's team luck turning around soon is very great.)

      Better that you, David and every talk back reader enjoy a marvelous Turkey dinner instead and let's leave the computer manuals and disks back home.

      Happy Thanksgiving to All and to All a good after dinner nap!
      • my profuse apologies

        @kenosha7777 as a die hard forever Bills fan, I must apologize for the recent win over Detroit.<br><br>It was unbecoming of us to beat up on our short bus cousins, just to put a "1" in the first column. Shameful.<br><br>Our 49-31 pummeling of the Bengals was more like it.<br><br>Even still, it ruined our run at a perfect season. Some of us said it was bound to happen, that they'd statistically have to at least win one, but some of us real dyed in the wool fans still held out hope.<br><br>Did someone pay you guys to throw the game? Just asking, there's a theory flying around these parts.
      • The football gods are truly without pity. An update


        Your apology is accepted. But why should you even entertain the thought that our beloved pussy cats threw the Bills game? We have had ten years of Matt Millen to hone our exquisite level of team ineptitude. You should understand that this sort of profound degree of football acumen takes years of draft picks in order to erode that solid foundation where defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory week after week after week. Meow!
      • I thought it was just a conspiracy theory

        <b>NOTE:</b> THIS IS REPLY TO MESSAGE BELOW, FROM kenosha7777

        @kenosha7777 Yeah, I gave you all a lot more credit than that. It's just some perfectionists around here were incensed that the streak was broken and the hopes of a "perfect" record this season were dashed.<br><br>They had to believe it was intentional on your part, so the conspiracy theories started to fly.<br><br>They just couldn't believe the Bills could coordinate and plays, let alone pull them off and go on to win. Disgusting.<br><br>Insult to injury they had to and win the next week at Cincinnati. <br><br>Well, we're pissed now and demanding management trade away our draft picks up to round 18 in exchange for a genuine Bill Belichick used popsicle stick and, for God's sake already, some hot water in the visitor locker rooms.
  • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

    As a fixit tech for the family another rule is bring your own ziplock storage containers and fill them up at the start of the meal and put them in your vehicle. Then when everyone starts with i left this at home or can i drop it buy you can say yes and still get leftovers and enjoy the family stuff. always loved eating and leaving to go get more tools or containers and coming back for more goodies. Thanksgiving and Christmas always good for extra food in the fridge and being left alone for 3 weeks after to enjoy it.
  • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

    Why don't they rename this column. Since David Gewirtz took it over it has had nothing to do with government.
    Beat a Dead Horse
  • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

    DARK MEAT??? I only have two words for that stuff. BURY IT. ALL of it. Or else give it all to the dog. Then bury the dog. After consuming that foul fowl, it won't matter if the poor pooch is alive or dead anymore. Makes me want to eat PIZZA instead. Or perhaps a plate of boccoli, brussel sprouts, and spinash. That's how green my face got reading about DARK MEAT.
    • RE: David's guide to surviving Thanksgiving

      @podstolom You, sir, and those like you are the types of people who give me hope. For without those of you who dislike the dark meat, we dark meat lovers would have to work a lot harder to hoard the best parts of the turkey.

      I thank you, from the bottom of my so incredibly overstuffed and time for a nap heart!
      David Gewirtz
  • David, I thought your highly entertaining article was pure fiction

    Until yesterday when my teenage nephew took over the reigns of our family geek leadership.

    It happened at my brother's home where his talents were called upon to diagnose my brother's ailing PC desktop computer. In a scene very reminiscent of the ending of the Godfather, my young protege became "Don Anthony" while I silently faded into the family shadows in a tryptophan induced haze. The last thing I remember before I dozed off was a brief glance towards the slowing closing door of my brother's computer den while witnessing several family members bowing down and kissing the outstretched hand of my nephew who was sitting quite regally behind my brother's computer monitor.
  • encoded message?

    @David Gewirtz I we supposed to read between the lines here? I mean being a column about "government" and all, I assume you're speaking in code here.

    Working on the decipher.. the spare Cray should have the run completed before Christmas. When it finishes and I decode your post I'll post my results here and you can tell me how close I got!