15 Thanksgiving Dinner Disasters (And How to Avoid Them)

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Cooking dinner on Thanksgiving is pressure enough without a calamity derailing the affair. Learn what not to do from these turkey day disasters—and how to recover if you happen to encounter any of them.

1. STORING THINGS THAT AREN'T EDIBLE ALONGSIDE FOOD.

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Jessica Sims, a poison information provider at the Illinois Poison Center, once received a call from a woman who had accidentally varnished a turkey. The caller's husband had put varnish in a Tupperware container and stored it in the fridge; she had assumed the varnish was a condiment, and used it to baste the bird. "All of the guests remarked how perfect the turkey looked, a beautiful deep golden brown," Sims wrote. "The left over varnish was made into gravy, which stuck to everything. Unfortunately the mistake was realized AFTER everyone ate this varnish." The lesson here? "We should never store household products or chemicals near food."

2. NOT USING A FRYER PROPERLY.

A turkey cooking in a hot fryer.
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In 2011, the Westcliffe, Colorado Wet Mountain Tribune assembled a slew of disaster stories, but one tale in particular stood out: the Fisher family's. Husband Gary had decided to deep fry a turkey, so he set up the fryer in the yard and got to work. According to his wife, Deborah, when dinnertime arrived, one part of the turkey was not well cooked enough, so they cut it off and put it back in the fryer. “We were all around the table enjoying our lovely meal,” Deborah told the Tribune, "when grandma exclaimed there was a pretty orange color outside.” The cooker had caught on fire, and the whole backyard was lit up. By the time the fire was put out, dinner was cold.

The Fishers were fortunate—fryer fires can often be disastrous. But there are a few guidelines you can follow that will make frying a bird safer. First, don't set up indoors! Make sure the fryer is on stable ground, so it can't tip and splash anyone with 350-degree oil. Don’t overfill the fryer, and defrost the turkey completely before popping it in—combining oil and water (caused by melting ice crystals) will often cause an explosive blaze. Also, make sure you have a fire extinguisher that can handle grease fires. The National Fire Protection Association has more advice on what to do and what not to do here. The NFPA actually discourages "the use of outdoor gas-fueled turkey fryers that immerse the turkey in hot oil" and instead recommends seeking out "professional establishments, such as grocery stores, specialty food retailers, and restaurants, for the preparation of the dish, or consider a new type of 'oil-less' turkey fryer."

3. USING THE WRONG THERMOMETER.

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"Every year we get at least one call where someone uses an oral fever thermometer instead of a meat thermometer to check their turkey," Jessica Metz, a certified specialist in poison information at the Illinois Poison Center, wrote. Using an oral thermometer to check a turkey's temperature is a no-no: "A fever thermometer only goes up to about 110ºF, and a turkey needs to be cooked until at least 170ºF, so the glass can shatter and leak mercury," she writes. "Glass and mercury is not the kind of dressing your dinner guests are expecting."

4. NOT CHECKING THE INSIDE OF THE BIRD BEFORE YOU COOK IT.

A raw turkey sitting on a cutting board.
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Based on his column for The Somerville News, Jimmy Del Ponte's Thanksgivings are nearly always an event to remember. Once, the bird was too big to fit in the oven. Another time, the heating element in his oven blew up, causing a fire and embedding metal shrapnel in the turkey. And twice, Del Ponte has cooked the bird with a few extra accessories. "When I was very young and newly married, I had the whole family over to my house to cook my first Thanksgiving Day dinner," he writes. "My mother, who was so sweet, tried not to look too disappointed when she opened the oven to check it out. It was breast side down with a little smoke coming out from where I didn’t even remove the [innards] bag!" And again: "The first time I had Thanksgiving Day at my house, I cooked the bird leaving a spoon and the bag of giblets in it. Then when we were cleaning up, I cut my finger and ended up in emergency room for stitches." So learn from Del Ponte's example: Check inside the bird before you put it in the oven, and be careful with sharp objects.

5. CLEANING THE TURKEY WITH SOAP.

Raw turkey on a platter next to a sink.
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“My girlfriend, brought up by her mother and live-in grandmother, never learned anything about cooking,” Kathy Tarmasewica of Westminster, Massachusetts recounted to Yankee Magazine. Still, she wanted to make Thanksgiving dinner. After reading the directions in a cookbook, she cleaned and stuffed the bird and popped it in the oven. “After a few hours, she checked on the bird and found it foaming all over the oven,” Tarmasweica said. “She had cleaned it with Ivory Soap.”

This mistake is easy to avoid—don’t wash your turkey at all. According to USA Today, those instructions are “a holdover from long ago when poultry routinely arrived with bits of blood and pinfeathers still attached. Cooks were instructed to wash the carcass well and use tweezers to remove any feathers that didn't get plucked. With today's modern processing, none of that is necessary.” Washing the bird can spray harmful bacteria that can make people sick—like salmonella—up to 3 feet away. If you absolutely have to wash the bird, the USDA (which says “the only reason” for this step is for brined birds) recommends removing everything in and around your sink, then covering the countertop with paper towels and placing the roasting pan directly next to the sink. Clean the sink itself with hot, soapy water; rinse it well and fill with a few inches of cold water. Place the bird in the sink and rinse it with cold water gently. When you’re done, hold it up to drain, then place it in the roasting pan. Finally, remove the paper towels and clean the sink and the area around it with hot, soapy water.

6. LETTING THE ANIMALS HANG AROUND WHILE YOU’RE MAKING FOOD

A dog sits at a table with a fork in its mouth, ready to eat the turkey in front of it.
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It might seem like common sense to lock up your pets when cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but in the chaos of arriving family members and other distractions, it's easy to forget. Take Frank Gunsberg of Ramsey, New Jersey, who was hosting a dinner for 20 guests when he realized both his golden retriever and the turkey were missing. He found them behind a cabinet—the bird on the floor, unmarred but for a few puncture wounds. Though his wife protested, Gunsberg wiped down the bird and served it anyway. "Those guests are hearing this story for the first time," he told NorthJersey.com.

Then there was the case of a chihuahua that climbed inside a bird. "A frantic new mom hosting her first Thanksgiving feast had a Chihuahua that climbed up onto the kitchen table and into the turkey, and she couldn’t get the dog out," writes Todd Sigg on the Illinois Poison Control Center blog. "I told her to pull really hard and yank the little guy out ... I could understand the awesomeness of it from the dog’s point of view, a meat room."

It's not just dogs you have to worry about. In a 2012 call for Turkey Day disasters, one commenter told a story about walking away from the sink and coming back "to find out that the cat had pulled the thawed turkey out of the sink and onto the floor and had chewed off a large portion of the breast!" And when Tina Pyne's then 9-year-old nephew decided to play a prank on her at their family's Thanksgiving dinner by putting his pet iguana on her head, the iguana took off, through all the food. “Every person there was covered in flying food,” Tina told West University Buzz. “We went out for Chinese.”

The takeaway is obvious: Keeping your pets away from your meal not only ensures you have a meal to eat, but also protects your pets from eating foods that might be poisonous to them. (This is also a good reason to avoid feeding your animals at the table, which encourages bad habits.)

7. THAWING A TURKEY IN NON-FRIDGE LOCATIONS.

A frozen Butterball turkey.
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Sue Smith, co-director of Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line (yes, it’s real) told Esquire that most of the questions they receive have to do with how to thaw a turkey last minute. (Ideally, it should be done ahead of time, but many people don’t plan for that.) "We've had someone call because their turkey was in the hot tub, and asked how long it would take," Smith said. "We're like 'oh, you don't want to do that.'”

Another time, Smith answered a call about a multi-tasking dad. "This dad's duty was to bathe the twin boys and thaw the turkey,” Smith said. “The mom called and said, 'I just went up stairs and there are my twin boys taking a bath with our turkey.'” Smith told her, “No, you cannot thaw your turkey with your children.”

Thawing your turkey incorrectly can lead to food poisoning. According to the USDA, there are only three safe ways to thaw your turkey: In the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave. If you need to do it last minute, Smith says, go with cold water—you’ll need 30 minutes for every pound, and the USDA recommends changing the water every 30 minutes.

8. STORING THE BIRD UNPROTECTED OUTSIDE.

An adorable mouse in the snow.
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Tony B., a Certified Specialist in Poison Information at the Illinois Poison Center, wrote in 2011 that someone called him after she had stored her turkey outside in near-freezing temperatures because she didn’t have room in her fridge. When she went out to grab the turkey for cooking the next morning, she discovered that the wrapping had been scratched off. “The caller said that they did in fact have a ‘mouse problem’ but was hoping it would be okay for her to cook and serve the turkey anyway,” he wrote. “I told the caller No, it would not be a good idea to serve the ‘mouse leftovers’ to her family.” The caller wasn't pleased—she had spent a lot of money on the bird and was expecting a lot of hungry guests. “I had to convince her not to cook this potential health hazard, so I told her the simple truth,” Tony wrote. He told the woman, “If a mouse was on your turkey, then the mouse’s butt was on your turkey. The mouse. Dragged its butt. Across your turkey.” That did the trick: “She shrieked and said, ‘okay, okay! I’ll throw it out!’”

Animals are probably your biggest worry if you’re storing a bird outside unprotected, but weather can be a problem, too. Smith told Esquire that she once received a call from a grandmother who had left her bird outside—and then there was a snowstorm. "She was like, 'I can't find the turkey. We just had a snowstorm and my turkey was outside. Now the kids are outside with shovels looking for it,'” Smith recalled. “I just imagined some kids outside digging around for a turkey." Thankfully, the story had a happy ending: The kids found the turkey, and Smith was able to give them some advice for how to cook the bird more quickly, thereby saving Thanksgiving.

If your turkey is too big for your fridge, and you live in a suitably cold environment, don’t leave it exposed to the elements—or any hungry critters that might be lurking in them. Instead, pop the bird in a cooler with icepacks and keep it in a safe, cool place, like a garage or a screened in porch. While you’re at it, you can brine and thaw the turkey simultaneously using this method demonstrated by Alton Brown.

9. CLOGGED GARBAGE DISPOSALS AND DRAINS …

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Food scraps shoved into garbage disposals can cause it to malfunction. Starchy foods and bones are a no-no, as is warm grease, which congeals and turns into a pipe-clogging blob. Paul Abrams, a spokesman for the Roto-Rooter plumbing company, told the Washington Post that the day after Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Black Friday, calls for plumbers at the company go up 50 percent. “When you work for Roto-Rooter, everybody knows you don’t get the day off,” he said. “It’s the one day you don’t ask off. Black Friday, it’s all hands on deck.”

And even when it’s flushed clear of your pipes, it can cause sewer overflows down the line. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission recommended in a series of PSAs that cooks should pour grease into tin cans, let it cool, and throw them away in the trash.

10. … AND TOILETS.

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Many guests and a lot of food can be a recipe for a toilet-related disaster. One Buzzfeed reader recounted a poo-related Thanksgiving horror story:

“One Thanksgiving at my house, I had to go to the bathroom and I accidentally clogged the toilet. I was so embarrassed and I didn't want to do the walk of shame to get the plunger from the garage and return to the bathroom, so I just locked the bathroom door. A few minutes later without me noticing, my dad had to use the bathroom and unlocked it. He then asked me in front of our entire family and guests why I locked the bathroom and didn't unclog the toilet.”

But it’s not just poo that can clog your toilets—things like baby wipes and cotton balls can do that, too. Experts recommend leaving a wastebasket in full view so guests won’t toss things into the toilet. Ditto a plunger, so they can take care of the problem themselves rather than having to ask for help. And you should make sure to resolve any toilet problems ahead of time so you can avoid having a guest flush a toilet that shouldn’t be flushed.

11. THE TURKEY IS DONE TOO EARLY …

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Kelsey D. told Redbook that one year, when she couldn’t find her grandma’s turkey recipe card, she turned to the internet to figure out when she should put the turkey in the oven. “The internet lied. My turkey was ready about three hours before people were even scheduled to arrive!” she said. Thankfully, her grandmother was able to help: “She diagnosed me like Dr. House, asking all these diagnostic cooking questions: How long did you have it in for? What temperature was it at? How big is the turkey? What color is the skin now? What are you basting it with? She talked me down and we rigged a tin foil moisture response system to keep it warm.”

If you find yourself in this situation and don’t have to cook anything else, you can leave the turkey in the oven at 200 degrees for a while; place a pan of water underneath to keep the bird moist. If you still have lots of cooking to do, experts agree with Kelsey’s grandma: Cover the turkey, pan and all, with foil. It should stay warm for up to an hour that way. Need more time? Cover that foil with a towel to increase insulation.

12. … OR IT’S TIME TO EAT AND IT’S STILL TOTALLY RAW.

A knife and fork in a turkey that's about to be carved.
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The first time Full Frontal host Samantha Bee cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her whole family, it was kind of a disaster. “I had to make each dish individually, so we ate in waves,” Bee told Food & Wine. “And the turkey was sort of uncooked in the center—I think the oven didn’t get hot enough—so that final dish was raw turkey. Everyone was really, really nice about it, but it was kind of a nightmare."

If you cut into a bird and find it to be raw, don’t worry, you can fix this! Eating Well recommends covering the entire turkey with foil—which prevents the skin from burning—and cranking up the oven heat (just not above 475°F, which might cause the turkey to burn) to get that bird cooking. And “if you’re cooking in an oven with the heat source on the bottom, any bits in the roasting pan may burn when you increase the temperature, so add a cup or two of water, turkey stock or wine to the pan to avoid any burning.”

13. CARNAGE WHILE SLICING, CUTTING, AND CARVING.

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“Imagine the scene,” one commenter wrote on a PBS post about Thanksgiving disasters. “Hours and hours of elaborate cooking, the table is gorgeous, the family is gathered. The turkey is brought out, it is glorious. I begin to carve, steam rises, the slices fall beautifully. My knife hits the meat thermometer which I have somehow neglected to remove. It glances aside and hits my left thumb. Blood, blood, blood. I am rushed to the emergency room.” When the commenter returned hours later, their family had dined, left all the dishes on the table—and there was still blood everywhere. “It looks as though [Lizzie] Borden came for the holidays,” they wrote. “I love my family, but they are still unforgiven for that.”

Cuts while carving, slicing, and dicing during Thanksgiving are all too common. Do all your slicing and dicing with sharp knives—dull ones require more force to cut, which increases the odds of slipping, and they’re still sharp enough to cut you—on sturdy surfaces, and make sure you stay focused on what you’re doing. The American Society for Surgery of the Hand says to avoid cutting toward yourself or putting your hand underneath where you’re cutting to catch the meat. Kitchen shears should be used to tackle any cutting of bones. You can find instructions for how to properly carve a turkey here.

14. THE TURKEY WON’T FIT IN THE ROASTING PAN.

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Marge Klindera, who has worked at Butterball’s hotline for more than 30 years, once received a very memorable call: A man who couldn’t make his turkey fit in his roasting pan. Undaunted, he had wrapped it in a towel and proceeded to jump on it until enough bones broke that he could put it in there. “He solved his own problem,” Klindera said, “but he just had to call to tell us about it. It was OK, I suppose.”

If you have this issue and don’t want to stomp your turkey into submission, don’t fret—you have other options. Consider spatchcocking the bird, cutting it up into pieces to cook, or cooking it on a grill.

15. MESSING UP THE RECIPE.

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“A couple of years ago, my younger sister decided she was finally brave enough to join in the family tradition of everyone making a dish to bring to Thanksgiving dinner,” Kerri from Ewing, New Jersey wrote to Bon Appetit. “We suggested she make a green bean casserole since it is easy (the recipe is right on the can) and inexpensive (a little condensed soup and frozen green beans).” On Thanksgiving Day, Kerri’s sister arrived with a giant roasting pan, which held “a gray, gelatinous, green-specked mass sprinkled with a few fried onions on top,” Kerri recalled. “I calmly asked, ‘sweetheart, did you follow the recipe?’ ‘Yes!’ she replied, ‘I just can't believe how much soup it takes to make it!’ I grabbed an extra can of green beans we had to see what had gone wrong and there it was: (2) 10oz cans cream of mushroom soup. Without much experience, she had thought it said 10 cans, not 10oz cans!”

Forgetting an ingredient, missing a key step, or misinterpreting the directions is a common Thanksgiving disaster theme. People have neglected to put sugar in their pumpkin pie, used white vinegar instead of white wine on the turkey, or skipped making a slurry and created really lumpy gravy. So don't get fancy. Keep your recipe nearby, and follow it closely—and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions.

And while you're at it, make sure you have the right equipment: a good meat thermometer will help you avoid trying to plate an undercooked or frozen bird, and big, deep pans will keep fat and other turkey fluids from dripping all over your oven (which might smoke out your guests). Last thing: Check for expiration dates and keep your bird within the proper temperature range so you don't accidentally make people sick.

Don't Be Fooled By Facebook's 'Secret Sister' Gift Exchange Scam, Authorities Warn

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The season of giving is upon us, and scammers are already finding ways to take advantage of it. To avoid wasting money and putting their personal information at risk, authorities are warning people to keep an eye out for the "secret sister gift exchange"—a chain letter scheme that's making the rounds on Facebook, USA Today reports.

The scam presents itself as a secret Santa-type gift exchange. If six people agree to take part in the fun by sending a $10 gift to their "secret sister," the posts read, they will receive six to 36 gifts in return.

The set-up sounds appealing, but it's actually just a spin on the classic pyramid scheme. The first person to share the post may get some free gifts, but most people who respond will mail out their items only to get little to nothing back.

If the scam sounds familiar, that's because it's been circulating on Facebook around the holidays for at least the past four years. Many people haven't even started shopping for their own families for the holidays yet, but the secret sister gift exchange has already resurfaced for the 2019 season. This year, authorities are hoping more users will recognize it as a scam, with the Better Business Bureau warning consumers to use caution when signing up for online gift exchanges.

The fact that it doesn't pay off isn't the only reason to avoid the scam. Whether they're shared through social media or by mail, pyramid schemes are illegal "if money or other items of value are requested with assurance of a sizeable return for those who participate," according to the BBB. The gift exchange could also lead to identity theft, with many posts asking for personal information such as your phone number and home address.

No matter what time of year it is, you should always be mindful of scams when browsing email or social media. Here are some of the most common ones to look out for.

[h/t USA Today]

10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

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Warner Home Video

Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for 45 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guaraldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s quasi-nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother Linus, however, is a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGGH.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of the holiday. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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