No Time for Turkey? Get It to Go

The most homespun of holidays isn't homemade anymore.

Kitchen-weary mothers and time-deprived family types have given up on the Butterball hotline and are seeking help with the fixings by opting for a takeout Thanksgiving feast.

"It's just as beautiful as the turkey you cook yourself," said Joan Harp, a senior vice president at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee. "My family wouldn't know it was catered if I hadn't let it be known."

Harp, who is expecting 15 guests, is getting an 18-pound turkey, a ham, mashed potatoes and various other side dishes and two pies for $75 from the chain supermarket Giant.

"I find that the food is much better, in my opinion," she added. "The reason, primarily, is that I'm a terrible cook."

For her Manhattan Thanksgiving with her husband and mother-in-law, Molly MacDermot, editor in chief of M Magazine, was not looking forward to a do-it-yourself turkey dinner.

"The thought alone of getting a huge turkey into any kitchen is daunting," she said. "And God forbid I boil potatoes alone. And after a meal like that the apartment always stinks -- the whole apartment would smell of turkey for a month!"

All across the country, people are avoiding those troubles and buying the homemade Thanksgiving touch from restaurants, supermarkets and upscale groceries like Manhattan's Balducci's, which has been selling take-away turkey dinners for the holiday since it opened in 1916.

"I think it's convenient for people at this day in age that you have everything already prepared for $129," Balducci's general manager Eileen Colondris said Tuesday afternoon in front of a stand stacked with pies. "Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, haricot verts, peas and carrots, cranberry sauce, Portobello mushrooms -- and no clean-up."

As of Tuesday, the landmark store had sold 375 turkey dinners, already 125 more than last year. Balducci's executive chef Peter DiCarlo said the kitchen has gone through 500 to 700 pounds of potatoes and is preparing 500 turkeys.

"I'm not having a Thanksgiving dinner," DiCarlo said. "I don't want to look at another turkey."

He added that customers seem to be having more cocktail parties this year instead of sit-down dinners. The store has sold an unexpectedly large number of items like coconut lobster tails, fried rice balls, mini quiches and Beef Wellington.

At Boston's Fairmont Copley Plaza, chef Laurent Poulain precooks Thanksgiving dinners for eight to 20 people. At the cozier end, customers get a 20- to 22-pound turkey, homemade stuffing, gravy, glazed baby carrots with maple syrup, roasted butternut squash, green beans, cranberry chutney, mashed potatoes, corn muffins and rolls, pumpkin pie and apple pie and potpourri to create a Thanksgiving aroma before the meal -- and even a chef's hat for the non-cooking host or hostess. Poulain has sold about 80 of the meals this year at $230 each, up from 50 in 2001.

"I've cooked Thanksgiving at home and it's difficult," Poulain said. "All you're going to do is spend hours and hours cooking. Or you can order turkeys to go and everyone's going to enjoy the meal."

In fact, French-born Poulain said he saw the take-away turkey trend as evidence that American women are finally becoming emancipated from the stove.

"I think a woman in this society wants to spend as much time as they can with the guys, relaxing, talking, drinking," he said. "I remember my mother spending hours in the kitchen on holidays, but I don't think she liked it."

Harp said that, her lack of culinary skills aside, the best thing about paying someone to prepare the meal is that she gets more time with her family.

"The holiday is about family gatherings, it's not about whether or not one or two people cooked over a stove all day," she said. "My family comes from all over now, and I don't have a lot of time to spend with their children, so the more time you have with your family and the less you spend in the kitchen, the better the holiday is."

But after flirting with the idea of having Thanksgiving dinner delivered, MacDermot ultimately ended up going homemade after all -- with her mother-in-law doing the cooking at her home in Queens, N.Y.

"She was like, 'Come on, you shouldn't be slaving in the kitchen. I'll cook,'" MacDermot said. "She's old school."