Thanksgiving Goes Après-Ski

Fondue forks

Expecting guests for Thanksgiving? Rather than summer’s alfresco meals, think après-ski. It’s a great way to keep your family and guests safely socially distanced with an outdoor meal that can accommodate cool to cold temps and all but stormy weather.

To that end, this year I’m taking inspiration from the cuisine of European mountain huts, where skiers refuel mid-day or after skiing (après-ski). It’s food that’s hearty, uncomplicated, and simply served.

Adapt—As You Would Camping

The main idea here is not to mourn the loss of the traditional holiday spread. The COVID-19 pandemic’s health, economic, and social tolls create more-than-sufficient stress. Don’t add to it by trying to force 2020 holiday dinners into traditional molds. I had originally planned to serve a Thanksgiving dinner inspired by the dishes mentioned in Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles, but that was not to be.

If you anticipate cold rather than cool temps, consider using patio heaters or any other outdoor-approved heat source. Where fire safety allows, a bonfire or fire pit would be welcome. Even a gas grill—lid open, left on low after any grill-top cooking is completed—would help.

Ask guests to dress for outdoor dining and to bring their own insulated cup or thermos. At the appropriate time, fill those beverage holders from an insulated coffee carafe, which can hold mulled wine or spiced cider just as easily as coffee.

Insulated beverage thermoses in snow

Chillin’ Out

One way to work with colder weather is to devise a chilled menu. Cold cuts, cheese plates and crudité—all standard après-ski offerings—will stay fresh rather than be harmed by chilly temps. You can even include sliced turkey. Dress up the charcuterie board with assorted breads, either homemade or purchased. A combination of your prized sourdough, a hearty whole grain, and a fruit-and-nut loaf should satisfy everyone at the table.

To evoke the spirit of holidays past, cranberry sauce and a slaw of brussels sprouts would complement any meat and cheese spread. Wine won’t be harmed by cooler temps, though you might opt for something closer to jelly jars than the family crystal.

Fired Up

With a cold menu you needn’t worry about maintaining ideal food temperature. But what if you want to take the edge off the bracing air? Enter the time-tested flame-heated fondue pot—one per person or per household to ensure social distancing. The fondue party was enjoying popularity again in the pre-COVID-19 era, so the sets are easy to find if you don’t have one packed away from the 1970s.

With a fondue set, or two or three, you could ditch the turkey completely and fully embrace ski slope cuisine. After all, what more do you need for a celebration than cheese fondue and chocolate fondue?

In November and December many grocery stores stock ready-to-heat fondue mixes as well as traditional European cheeses to make your own fondue from scratch. Want something a bit less pricey than imported cheese? You can also keep a Southwestern queso dip warm in fondue pots or in any flame-proof pot placed on a low-flame grill or camp stove.

To give your fondue a Thanksgiving spin, cut up herbed rolls or bread to substitute for traditional stuffing. Want to double down on the Alps vacation vibe? Dip pieces of soft pretzel or pretzel roll in your cheese fondue. It’s untraditional, but so is 2020. If you’re trying to limit carbs, swap the bread for cubes of ham, chunks of boiled potato and crisp-steamed cruciferous veggies—cauliflower, broccoli, or brussels sprouts.

Trader Joe's Turkey GravyWant more American Thanksgiving flavor in your heated pots? Fill them with homemade, restaurant-supplied or store-bought gravy. Of course, if you’re a chile-loving New Mexican, you might fill the fondue pots with red or green chile sauce.



Gotta Have Turkey?

Even those who can’t conceive of Thanksgiving without the flightless bird can enjoy the meal adapted for après-ski presentation.

You can turn a mostly traditional homemade or restaurant takeout Thanksgiving meal into a fondue party with gravy or chile sauce standing in for cheese. Just cut poultry, bread, roasted sweet potatoes, and brussels sprouts into bite-size pieces for dipping. If you happen to have a couple of chafing dishes tucked away in storage, this is the time to pull them into service. Place a ramekin of dipping sauce inside a round chafing dish and surround it with the other menu items.

Vintage copper chafing dishes and fondue forks

No fondue set or chafing dishes? Check local thrift shops. I found round chafing dishes at Santa Fe’s Kitchenality for $15, $30 and $35; each one is large enough to be shared by a couple.

But if you don’t want to purchase any new tools, you can still enjoy Thanksgiving flavors outdoors. Begin by thinking beyond the plate.

Oven-preheated bowls—preferably the thick stoneware variety that was popular in the 70s, when fondue was hot—can hold any number of turkey-based tummy-warmers. Make turkey and green chile stew, or pasta with turkey and sweet pepper ragu for less-adventurous palettes.

For something simpler, serve grilled turkey and cheese sandwiches with each diner’s favorite cheese; Swiss gruyere, Italian fontina, and French reblochon are recommended for the Alps vibe, but turkey with American cheddar is a classic. Grill the sandwiches in cast iron skillets over a gas or charcoal grill and serve with a side of homemade, canned, or gourmet takeout cranberry sauce.

Got picky eaters? Create customized turkey “pizzas.” Toss some pre-roasted turkey, a cheese, maybe a handful of sliced mushrooms, and a few thinly sliced oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (and/or green chiles!) on a small flour tortilla, naan, or other flatbread. Heat the mini pizzas directly on the grill, in a cast iron skillet, or in the oven.

Don’t Forget Dessert

You could easily pass pieces of pumpkin and pecan pie with whipped cream or ice cream. But you might as well continue the fondue theme, if you can, with butterscotch- or chocolate-dipped apples and pears. (You’ll need either extra fondue pots or a dish-washing intermission before dessert.)

Spiced Hot Chocolate Setup

Of course, you’ll want to linger and digest a bit, which calls for a steaming cup of spiced cider for children and a spiked cider, coffee, or chile-infused hot chocolate for adults. With individual thermos cups or bottles keeping beverages warm, you’ll have plenty of time to share stories of holidays past while creating indelible new tales.

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Watermelon Agua Fresca

Watermelon agua fresca and Optics

As we say goodbye to summer, we can prolong at least one seasonal pleasure by enjoying a sip of watermelon agua fresca. This bright rosy beverage plays a special role in Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddlesand not just because I enjoy it!

Setting the Scene by Setting the Table

Writers have a full pantry of ways to establish a fictional scene. They can define a location, season, tone, and a character’s mood by dramatizing or describing everything from the physical surroundings and weather to the character’s clothing, actions, and speech. One element that can evoke several specifics at once is food.

We wouldn’t expect most characters to sip a hot toddy poolside in ninety-degree sunshine, for example. But if I introduce you to a character who is seated at a linen-covered table with fine china and a crystal wine glass in front of him and a platter of turkey just beyond his reach, you might picture a Thanksgiving table ringed with several other people. I’ve set the scene—the time of year and occasion—by setting the table. By showing how this character interacts with the table that’s been set, I can suggest even more. If the man you’ve just met is described as “shoveling” turkey, stuffing, and green beans into his mouth faster than he can chew and swallow, you might wonder if he’s been starving. Perhaps he’s homeless. Or perhaps it’s Uncle Norbert, whose lack of manners is legendary.

Setting the Scene in New Mexico

If you’ve read Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles, you know that food and beverages play an important role in several scenes. It’s not just that midlife women often give careful thought (or anguished stressing) to what they eat. The food and drink shared also help readers see how the story is both rooted in New Mexico and universal. It’s a way the characters demonstrate affection for others and how they express creativity. Some of the dishes mentioned are those traditionally associated with this special state; others you might find in any North American city. One—watermelon agua fresca—even has a thematic connection.

To help you set a table inspired by Optics—perhaps for a book club gathering—I’ll be posting a few recipes over the coming months. In some cases I’ll simply provide links to others’ recipes, but for this first one, you’re getting my version of watermelon agua fresca (“fresh water”).

Watermelon Agua Fresca

This summery drink is a nonalcoholic refresher that you’ll find in parts of the U.S. Southwest as well as south of the border. Though watermelons are most popular in summer, you often can find them year-round, thanks to shipments from Mexico.

Watermelon Agua Fresca prep

Making this agua fresca requires few ingredients and tools. You can even muddle through (ahem) without a blender by crushing the watermelon cubes with a potato masher or fork.

Watermelon Agua Fresca


Though the basic watermelon agua fresca recipe is simple, you can dress it up with garnishes, turn it into an adult cocktail with a splash of liquor, or dilute it with plain or sparkling water to create a homemade flavored water that’s far cheaper and tastier than the kind you’d buy in plastic bottles.

And yes, the color of watermelon agua fresca resembles the cover of Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles!

You’ll find the recipe below. You can also download and print a pdf of the watermelon agua fresca recipe.


Watermelon Agua Fresca

A recipe from Gail Reitenbach inspired by
Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles

Traditionally, agua fresca (“fresh water”) includes sugar or a simple syrup, but watermelon is already super sweet and needs, in my opinion, only a counterbalance of lime. If you have a serious sweet tooth, feel free to add a bit of sugar. (I find agave and honey adulterate the melon flavor too much.)

Agua fresca comes in more- and less-diluted versions. If you’re watching calories, dilute with more ice or water.

I never measure the proportions of melon, lime, and ice when I make this, but I did test these proportions. Start here and adjust to taste.

Ingredients for 1 to 3  servings (makes about 1.5 cups)

1.5 cups of cold, seedless watermelon cubes

1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lime juice*

1/2 cup of ice cubes

1 teaspoon sugar (if you must)


Puree all ingredients in a blender. Taste. Add lime juice or sweetener. Consume immediately or refrigerate, covered, for no more than one day. Stir before serving, and add ice as desired.


  • Garnish with a lime slice and/or mint sprig. You can also add a few mint leaves (no stems) to the blender ingredients if you love mint.
  • Stir in ½ to 1 tablespoon of chia seeds (preferably, previously powdered in a dry blender) for a healthy (if sugar-free) afternoon pick-me-up.
  • Pour ½ cup undiluted agua fresca from recipe above into a glass and top with sparkling or still water and ice.
  • Pour ½ cup undiluted agua fresca from recipe above into a glass and add 1 ounce tequila (I’m partial to añejo) and ice.


* Limes are the most difficult citrus fruit to juice. If you don’t have a heavy-duty manual lime squeezer, just use your hands. First, roll the lime on the countertop for a few seconds, applying heavy pressure. Then slice the lime in half and use your fingers and palm to squeeze the juice into a container or directly into the blender. Look for limes with bright, green skin that are heavy for their size. There’s nothing sadder than a dry lime.