On the last Thursday in November, Kally Harvard and her husband, Bill, do the nearly impossible at their Snell Isle home. They serve Thanksgiving dinner to around 100 people, no caterer. They do it with real linens and plates and silverware. They do it with five turkeys and multiple hams, with a range of hors d'oeuvres and a phalanx of pies. They do it with grace and without freaking out.
The secret? It's just like how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.
The Harvards have been married for 47 years. They started hosting big crowds for Thanksgiving 41 years ago when daughter Maria was less than 1. That first year it was fewer than 25 people.
"I took over doing it from my aunt. The kids would invite their friends and one thing led to another. We usually do it outside with a bar and hors d'oeuvres, then set up tables inside and outside," Kally, 72, said. "We did have one year when it rained. Talk about adapting — we had people eating in our garage."
Everyone has a job. Butterballs get picked up on Monday. Neighbor David Cox grills one and Bill grills another, two go in the oven on Thanksgiving morning and the biggest one gets roasted the night before. Oh, and daughter-in-law Augusta Harvard's parents send a smoked one for good measure.
Son Billy Harvard makes a cheese ball in the shape of an alligator with a feather in its mouth ("because we're all Gators," explains Kally), while daughter Maria Rawls has taken over washing all the turkeys. Sister-in-law Susan Harvard is in charge of inside decorations, Augusta Harvard does the green bean casseroles and sister-in-law Shirley Miaoulis does the cranberry relishes.
Aunt Kally Lulias comes on Tuesday and boils the yams. She makes the bread stuffing on Wednesday. (The traditional Greek rice stuffing goes in the big bird.) Sister Evelyn Bilirakis arrives Tuesday or Wednesday to prep the salad. Mary Evertz and Carmen Moore roll silverware and help with decorations. Friends bring corn souffle, mashed potatoes, fish dip and trifle.
There are traditions. Someone wears the apron Kally made for her aunt 44 years ago, and ancient turkeys made out of plastic flowers are incorporated into the decor. But perhaps the biggest tradition is this: serious planning.
"I am a listmaker and I double-check them," said Kally. "I start two weeks in advance and order the rentals. A week in advance I order the turkeys and hams and I plan out what all the jobs are. Then I have very detailed lists for Monday to Thursday."
Even the pros agree. Benito D'Azzo is the executive chef of Trinity Cafe in St. Petersburg, which serves nutritious meals to the homeless, hungry and working poor. With two locations, they will serve 500 on Thanksgiving.
"Really, writing everything down is key. When you're serving a big crowd, time and budget are your two keys for the whole thing."
D'Azzo says make as much as you can ahead of time, but engaging your guests to do some of the easy stuff is helpful as well as providing introverts or single folks a focus and a stress-free way to mingle.
"Having guests making the salad, tossing the vegetables with olive oil or plating up desserts — it's better than Match.com."
Jeffrey Hileman, executive chef of Locale Market in St. Petersburg, says, "it's very important to go into Thanksgiving Day with a plan. First, you have to have lots of room in the fridge, so try and clear out some space. And don't forget about your beach coolers with ice as extra storage."
You have to have an oven schedule. Start with items that require the longest oven time, Hileman says, but you can pair things that are baking at the same temperature but not necessarily the same amount of time. And in order to serve hot food hot, employ things like your slow cooker for mashed potatoes and encourage guests to bring dishes that can be served at room temperature.
For Kally, some of the most essential preparation is making sure you have enough rest before the big day, "and if something is ruined or someone forgets something, it doesn't matter. Just relax."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.