My Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2015 edition

Long time readers of almost exactly 1 year may remember that I cook a Thanksgiving dinner for my company a week or 2 before actual Thanksgiving. It is probably the biggest event that I host each year, and I hopefully am learning more each time about how to do it better.

Continuing my tradition of doing different ethnic cuisines, I did a Cajun Thanksgiving this year with a Creole spice mix over the turkey and a variety of spicy and rich dishes. Fortunately, I am the only person on the team from the south, so there weren’t many critical opinions in the crowd.

Overall, I think the food was fine. The turkey was overcooked, and the mashed potatoes were very salty (even after cutting down the salt from the recipe). Because Cajun is a real American cuisine, it already has Thanksgiving fare that is not so dissimilar from a traditional Thanksgiving.

The biggest factor, however, was the attendance. Last year, we had somewhere just shy of 10 people attend. This year, our 2 bedroom place hosted a total of 20 hungry people. This year, more significant others attended, and we also invited recent interns back. The team has also been growing, and all of this ballooned the headcount, expectations, and required preparation.

Overall, I think we managed to do well. Despite running out of most dishes, the guests seemed to be well-fed and enjoyed the food. Everyone seemed to enjoy the company, and the mix of SOs and former Zanbato employees made it a more special event than another meal with the people we spend 40+ hours with a week.

Here were a few of the things I learned and/or felt worked well with the party this year:

1. Create a clear, smooth welcome experience.

First impressions between people are important, and first impressions about a party also set the tone for the social experience the rest of the night. In the past, I have been bouncing back and forth between the door and the kitchen hollering out instructions while trying to dash back to my gravy. This year, I wrote up a series of signs directing guests to come right in at the front door, where to put their bags and jackets, and where to find drinks and appetizers.

2. In a small space, configure and reconfigure to make all of the space multi-functional.

With 20 people in a few hundred square feet (including my kitchen), we fit the normal dining table, an additional folding table, and a few couches around a coffee table for eating. I knew I wanted to have everyone standing and mingling during the appetizer hour, so we pushed all of the tables back against the walls and blocked out the chairs so that people couldn’t really settle in. This created a more open, standing space for people to float around and get settled.

When we were ready to serve, everyone was happy to help and rearrange furniture for dining. We cleaned just enough counter space in the kitchen to serve and moved the appetizers and beverages back off of the tables. Then, everyone found a seat to enjoy their meal.

We did find 2 things to improve. First, Julie pointed out that the appetizers were hard to get to because people were standing in front of them. They ended up being placed somewhat int he corner, so next time, I would place them more centrally. Second, I would have encouraged everyone to switch seats between dinner and dessert for more mingling.

3. To feed more people, multiply recipes instead of making more dishes.

Overall, the cooking process went very smoothly. This year, I went digital with my chart to plan out cooking, and we stuck with it. I conscripted my coworker Conrad to help cook through the last push, and we stayed on the schedule very well.

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Even so, cooking did take quite awhile between the previous evening and the day of. Seeing how we ran out of most everything, I think people would have been just as happy with having 2-3 fewer dishes and just doubling the recipes. That would have saved me a ton of work as well.

4. Don’t worry too much about the food.

Maybe people are just being polite, but I have gotten a lot of appreciation for the food despite my own opinion about the quality of the cooking. I wouldn’t say that people aren’t critical: I just think there is generally enough goodwill and merriment in the atmosphere that the food itself just doesn’t matter so much.

So whether the food is good or bad or too much or too little, I think the party depends more on the other details of the environment and the company present than the food itself. The time spent on the food will always be disproportionately high to its importance, and it is much harder to improvise than, say, a guest list.

Anyways, we’re headed into the holiday season now, so best of luck to all hosts. Don’t worry too much about the food, and enjoy the company!

“The Martian” Review

Last November, I saw Interstellar in theaters and was surprisingly pleased by the use of physics to drive the plot. It takes creativity to turn time dilation into an interesting part of human relationships, and it takes even more to make it meaningful and compelling on-screen. The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, goes further in creating suspense with plausible, basic science and making space travel look really fun.

The Martian is set roughly in the present time with technology seemingly not so different from our own. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a 6 man crew on a manned mission to Mars when a storm hits. As the crew goes for an emergency takeoff, Watney is hit by debris and presumed dead as Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) takes off without him. Watney comes to shortly afterwards and realizes that he’s stranded alone on Mars with limited rations and no way to communicate with Earth and needs to find a way to survive. Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and more) discover he is still alive and work to figure out how to bring him home.

The movie largely follows the plot of the book and retains both the commitment to science and the humor along the way. Early on, Watney needs to create water: he figures out that he can burn hydrazine from rocket fuel, but it of course blows up and leaves him singed in a typical mad scientist sort of way. Watney himself is a bit of a wise guy, and much of the humor comes through the characters and their reactions to their situation. Although the plot is obviously geeky, each step is explained clearly and visually to make it accessible to a wide audience. Perhaps experts in particular fields may be more critical, but general consensus seems to be that the science is pretty good, the solutions are plausible, and the dangers are real, which makes it all the more inspiring to watch.

I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at pictures from Curiosity or other Mars missions, and assuming that the graphics are roughly accurate, the movie provided striking landscapes of Mars. From a story perspective, they certainly emphasizes how isolated Watney is, but I enjoyed it just as a way for me to visualize what Mars is like. Most hard science fiction comes as books, and even with the best descriptions, it can be hard to imagine alien planets, spaceships, and Mars habitats.

I will be “that guy” who points out that the book was better: I think that largely comes from how similar the book is to the movie. In some ways, the plot almost reads like a series of mystery stories, where each survival problem needs to be solved using science of some sort. Knowing what those solutions are and how they’re going to turn out took away much of the suspense, but as I mentioned above, it was still very entertaining to see live.

I opened by comparing the movie to Interstellar, and I will close with the same. There are many similarities such as cast, timing, and genre, but the two movies definitely have distinct characteristics. Interstellar is set further ahead in the future and uses science to motivate the story about the characters and their relationships, and those relationships are the heart of the movie. The Martian is, at its core, about solving problems with science and engineering, and it actually really works.

Saying Hello to HelloFresh

This past weekend, I was talking with my friend Jenni about a personality trait that affects how people approach food: novelty seeking. Some people enjoy novelty for its own sake; others find comfort in known pleasures. Would you rather try out that new restaurant you don’t know anything about, or would you rather go back to that restaurant you love? Same question goes for cooking.

It is a spectrum, and we all have moments in both directions, but I think Julie and I tend to be novelty seekers. I have lamented to many friends recently about how I rarely go back to my favorite ramen place in town: I would rather go to a new restaurant in the same area rather than go back to the same place. The novelty in itself is worth a try.

Whenever we go out to eat, Julie and I always agree on the 2 things we’re going to order, then switch half way through the meal. Sometimes one of us ordered something better than the other, but we are almost always glad to have tried both. And if you set a dessert bar in front of me, I will try to cut the smallest piece of everything so I can taste every different things I can.

I would probably vary my cooking just as much if it wasn’t so much work. The ease of pointing at a different menu item or walking one restaurant over certainly encourages novelty, and that is hard to replicate at home. Hopefully the Dinner Table Tournament brings about that same ease.


HelloFresh is a service that ships out boxes of measured ingredients to prepare a series of dinner menus with recipes included. By default, they provide 2 broad options for vegetarians or not, but you can customize your order week to week depending on what they have available. You order by the meal for roughly $10 each with no additional tax or tip.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 2.53.03 PM Continue reading Saying Hello to HelloFresh

A Typical Week of Home Cooking

Going through the Dinner Table Tournament, I have discovered many different ways to cook. The process of writing and documenting those different services changed the way I thought about the cooking experience. To put it on an even comparison against our typical routine, I decided to write up what a typical week of cooking looks like.

Home Cooking: Take about a couple hundred

Julie and I usually start our weekly meal planning on Sunday morning over brunch. That way, we can go grocery shopping that afternoon. Brunch is typically eggs (scrambled, omelet, soft boiled, fried, poached, or whatever Julie is in the mood for), toasted leftover whole wheat sandwich bread ends, and fruit. We had guests over on Friday, so we substituted in strawberry long-cake and salad greens. Continue reading A Typical Week of Home Cooking

I finished Battlestar Galactica, and I have to talk about it

In this age of binge-watching, I continue to be bad at watching TV shows with any haste. I’m actually quite proud that Julie and I finished watching all 4 seasons and 75 episodes of Battlestar Galactica (BSG) in about 3 years. Although I’m about 6 years too late, I have to talk about it.

If you haven’t watched the show, there are spoilers ahead, and even if you don’t mind the spoilers, this post probably won’t make much. If you have not watched BSG and enjoy sci-fi, I recommend it.

Continue reading I finished Battlestar Galactica, and I have to talk about it

Donning a Blue Apron

I don’t really get calories. Every time I go to In-n-Out, I am stuck by the fact that the french fries have more calories than the burger and that both are far below that of the milkshake. Since I already know what I’m going to get, I stare at the calorie counts on the menu and rationalize all of the sides by going for a grilled cheese.

I have 2 big disconnects with understanding calories. First, calories don’t always match fullness or centrality in a meal. I assume that they are strongly correlated, but it turns out that those bags of chips can add up, while juice goes right through my system. Second, I still don’t get how non-meat food catches up to meat in calories. I always kind of figured that meat was the heavy-hitter, but peanut butter or pasta don’t seem so offensive.

I remember hearing awhile back that calorie counts on New York menus wasn’t decreasing consumption, though I think that it might be missing the long-term effect. Standing in line at In-n-Out, I can’t make sense of the calorie counts nor can I override my momentary desire for particular menu items. I do, however, now have a better sense for how many calories go into an entire meal: before seeing calorie counts on Munchery/Plated/Blue Apron menu items, I had no idea how many calories should be in dinner. That allows me to compare that to the snacks or other meal options I have. I may not be good at judging calories, but at least I know I’m bad at it and think about my choices along the way.

Blue Apron: Take 1

Blue Apron ships you weekly, insulated boxes full of raw ingredients for a few different meals. You can choose how many and what types of dishes you want (veggie, beef, fish, poultry, etc) as well as your preferred delivery days. The website is easy enough to use and of course features very attractive food photography. Continue reading Donning a Blue Apron

Still Munching

Growing up, my family ate everything, well, family style. All meals, whether stir-fry or barbecue, came out in serving dishes on the table. Even ostensibly single serving meals like hamburgers or baked potatoes were usually assembled away from the table from the big stack of food and brought over. Even these days, Julie and I often cook family style between the two of us. Portion sizes for 2 aren’t too hard to figure out, though we will often leave a half-serving of food behind for tupperware.

As such, one great contrast in restaurant food is getting a complete plate, with grains, veggies, and meat all at different clock positions. With a full plate in front of me, I feel compelled to finish as much of it as possible or to give up early for a doggie bag. There’s something about having everything already on my plate that pushes me to eat a little more, where seeing an equal portion in the serving dish doesn’t. The strange world of individual servings at home adds an element of restaurant fanciness, but also makes me overeat slightly more than I normally would.

Munchery: Take 2

Our meal schedule has been somewhat erratic for the past month, so Julie and I couldn’t commit to any of the full-week meal options recently. Despite lapsing on that, we were able to order Munchery to fill in an unusual day, and it was quite convenient. Even without considering the number of meals, it was much more convenient because we ordered our meals for the next day, while Plated needed to be ordered several days in advance. Continue reading Still Munching

Getting dinner Plated

Targeted ads seem to work pretty well these days. After publishing my blog post about Munchery, I started regularly getting ads for Plated on Facebook. They were quite conspicuous on my newsfeed with a list of friends who had also liked Plated.

I guess it worked, however, because I ended up using the promotion via Facebook to use Plated. The discount was worth it, but I do feel dirty about it because according to the marketing numbers, I just validated advertising my Facebook feed. Yikes.

Plated: Take 1

Plated is a service that creates menus and delivers ingredients to your home for exactly those meals. You can prepare the meal basically from scratch without having to find recipes or do any grocery shopping. Continue reading Getting dinner Plated

Not Too Little, Not Too Munchery

Many websites today have poor user experiences. Some are annoying. Some are cluttered. A common problem is that they make it difficult for users to do what they want to do. You know what flows typically are very easy? Anything where users are buying things.

It’s not perfect: I have many times dug out my wallet to type in the credit card number on the front of my card, then flipped it over for that XYZ or POS or whatever that number on the back is, then flipped it back over for the expiration date. But sites generally make that “Add to Cart” button very visible, and it’s only a few steps away to check out and give them money. If only we were so well-aligned and practiced in other flows on the internet as well.

Munchery: Take 1


My Munchery journey started from the recycling bin. I found out a few days later that they had mailed coupon codes to apparently everyone, but I had initially ignored the flyer, then dug it out a few days later. I was probably hungry right then. Continue reading Not Too Little, Not Too Munchery