Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine


E D I T O R' S    N O T E

T-Day Strategies

When I learned recently that our home would be ground zero for this year's family Thanksgiving dinner, my hands grew clammy and I felt short of breath. It's not that I don't know anything about cooking. In the early years of our marriage, I was quite the organized chef (as my dear husband is wont to remind me of late). But after the birth of our son two years ago, my culinary preparedness fell apart. These days, I usually "plan" dinner when I get home from work by opening the freezer and grabbing a frozen pizza, or picking up the phone to call Szechuan House. My cooking skills haven't died, exactly; they've atrophied.

Hoping to get my mind back in the culinary swing of things and pick up a few pointers on cooking for a crowd, I called Bob Rifkin, who's the executive chef at Johns Hopkins Hospital. This Thanksgiving Day he and his staff of 190 line cooks, bakers, and chefs will whip up enough turkey, stuffing, and assorted fixings to feed 675 patients, and several hundred of their family and friends.

Rifkin's first advice: start planning early. He sat down with his staff more than two months before T-Day to develop a menu and figure out how many patients would be spending the holiday in the hospital (many are discharged for the day). Don't look for nouvelle creations like "Cranberry, Jicama and Jalapeño Relish," or "Toffee Caramel Pumpkin with Pine Nuts" to be part of the menu, says Rifkin, who was formerly a chef in Marriott's hotel division. "One of the things we try not to do is really jazz it up," he says. "The patients here are sick. We want to keep it as much a comfort food and comfort environment as we can." That means old favorites like whole roasted turkey, chestnut cornbread stuffing, thyme-seasoned mashed potatoes, and, of course, pumpkin pie. For many patients, the noontime meal will be served "family style," with servers carving turkey and dishing up plates of vegetables and cranberry relish, rather than simply handing out pre-assembled food trays.

Rifkin is proud of the fact that even patients on a pureed diet will get some visual zing with their holiday repast. As part of a program called "Dining with Dignity," hospital cooks will mold the various menu items after running them through the blender. Turkey will take the shape of a drumstick, for instance; green beans will be squeezed through a pastry bag to re-assume their elongated form.

The shopping list for the big day is staggering: 175 turkeys, 275 loaves of bread for stuffing, 244 pounds of "harvest" vegetables, 90 pounds of cranberry relish, and enough ingredients to make 172 pies. The first turkeys will commence roasting at midnight on Tuesday, November 25, says Rifkin; he will spend the night at the hospital on Thanksgiving Eve so that he can be up and mustering his troops before dawn.

My chat with Rifkin has had the desired calming effect. Suddenly, the idea of shopping and cooking for a half dozen adults and three children doesn't seem nearly so daunting. Happy Thanksgiving!
Sue De Pasquale