Every year, DiPaola Turkey Farm in Hamilton Township, N.J., raises between 8,000 and 10,000 birds for Thanksgiving dinner.
The farm, which has been in operation since 1948, focuses on turkey products ranging from sausage to burgers to the bird itself. Thanksgiving has always been the most hectic time of the year, with hungry patrons looking to pick up a fresh, free-range bird. So far this year, they seem to be receiving about the same number of orders as previous years.
There is one difference, though. With health authorities recommending against large Thanksgiving family gatherings and urging people not to travel, everyone wants the smallest possible bird.
"They would normally see grandmom in Florida," said Kristin DiPaola, whose family owns the farm. "They're not doing that this year. They're staying home with their immediate family and cooking for just them."
The pandemic has interrupted the annual American holiday, with AAA predicting only up to 50 million expected to travel this year, compared to 55 million in 2019. People still want their turkey dinners, though.
The phone was ringing off the hook at the DiPaolas' farm a little more than a week before Thanksgiving. A lot of the calls required an explanation about turkey sizes. A small turkey is still 12 to 13 pounds and can feed six to eight people. Anything lighter would be a chicken. In prior years, turkey requests would go up to 34 pounds.
"I think turkey has always been associated with Thanksgiving dinner and as families go through generations, the traditions have just followed through," DiPaola explained.
With more people attempting the traditional dish for the first time, Progressive Insurance and Whole Foods Market teamed up to offer turkey insurance. Up to 1,000 customers can be eligible to receive a $35 Whole Foods Market gift card if they butcher their Whole Foods brand bird — no pun intended — but they'll need to submit photo proof of the mishap.
"Turkey is relatively easy to cook, but you can see somebody that isn't used to cooking and has to do it and put it together, they might make a mistake," said Theo Weening, Whole Foods Market vice president of poultry and meat.
Of course, for many, it's just not Thanksgiving dinner without the turkey so he wants families to feel safe trying to cook. Plus the leftovers are great, so don't worry about buying too much, he added.
"With turkey, you can have all different kinds of side dishes," he said. "Everything fits with it: sweet, veggies."
If the task of cooking your own bird still seems too difficult, many restaurants are creating take-out, socially distant, or private dining experiences. This has the added bonus of giving patrons a great way to support local businesses, many of which have struggled with shutdowns and restrictions during the pandemic.
The Michelin-starred restaurant at New York's NoMad Hotel is offering a Thanksgiving dinner in its dining room for people who want to enjoy their meal in-person. For an extra splurge, the hotel is also converting one of its suites into a private three-course dining extravaganza starting at $2,500 for up to eight people.
"The idea is that we're trying to create the experience of if it was your own living room and you had people over that sort of experience in a Manhattan setting," explained NoMad New York executive chef Michael Reilly.
Diners will stop by the hotel lobby to pick up their room key and proceed to the suite, which is fully stocked and decorated for the event. Interaction with staff will be minimal, with servers coming to bring food and take away items as infrequently as possible. They'll leave take-out boxes for leftovers, and once guests leave, they'll take care of the dishes. Of note, each room in the hotel already has its own air filtration system.
"We think, especially now, it's important to celebrate when you can and as safely as you can," Reilly said.
The hotel is offering one suite for Thanksgiving but hopes to continue the offering throughout the year with an updated seasonal menu.
The upscale meal includes oysters, deviled eggs with black truffle and fried chicken skin, and shave-your-own white truffle risotto. Thanksgiving classics like sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce are also all there. Apple, chocolate, and pecan pies will also be on the menu to satisfy a sweet tooth.
One thing that you won't get? The menu comes with a roast chicken with foie gras, black truffle, and brioche stuffed under the skin — but no turkey. Reilly says you're not missing out.
"A chicken is always better than a turkey," he said. "I find it cooks more [evenly]. It's more approachable for a smaller group of people. And, the flavor of chicken is always going to be better."
If you're going to attempt to cook anything on your own this Thursday, Reilly suggests starting early.
"The more you can do ahead the better because you want to enjoy that day," Reilly said.
That gives people the opportunity to spend time with those who matter most, whether it's via video call or a small careful group, Weening said. He's using some of his prep time to make pies with his daughter, an annual competition the two of them hold.
"When you make it a day before, it has much more flavor to it," he said.
And, don't forget the meat thermometer. When preparing turkey or chicken, it's crucial they are fully cooked.
"That's the most important," DiPaola said.