Thanksgiving—Variations on the Day

Thanksgiving has never been the same twice for me. Over the years it’s taken all kinds of forms, but one thing I’ve never done is eat Thanksgiving in a restaurant. And once, and only once, have I made a big Thanksgiving dinner with the turkey, trimmings, and even napkin rings.  It was so stressful I’d never undertake it again. I would rather work on Thanksgiving, which is what I did last year, giving a hands-on cooking class in Mexico where we had mostly forgotten about the festivities of home.

Still there is something pleasingly generous about the groaning board, especially when a lot of people have taken part in covering the table with their dishes. It can have a (heritage) turkey on it, or not; all the trimmings or none. The menu doesn’t matter so much to me. Still there’s got to be some point of view for this celebration of gratitude.

For years I celebrated Thanksgiving by coming up with a menu sourced entirely from local ranchers and farmers. But now that that’s pretty much how we eat all the time, I’ve switched priorities and made Thanksgiving an occasion for people to contribute their favorite dishes. Thanksgiving provides a great occasion for friends to share in the making of the meal, as well as the eating of it. It’s much more fun this way and everyone is simultaneously grateful not to have cooked the whole thing themselves and to have the opportunity to take time over a single special dish. But try to organize this kind of potluck holiday dinner with a democratic e-mail conversation among participants and you’ll quickly get mired in the must-haves and never-would-have dishes. 

“We must have candied sweet potatoes,” says one.

“Dressing, never stuffing,” insists another. 

“Mincemeat pie – the real thing,” says a third.

“Yuck!” says a fourth. “Suet!”

“We can’t have Thanksgiving without (you name it) creamed onions, Blue Lake beans, cranberry jelly, oyster stuffing, pumpkin pie.”

Certain holiday foods are simply non-negotiable. Some people are very attached to the foods they grew up eating and that’s a big part of what the Thanksgiving meal means —a connection to one’s personal past at the table on this day even if none of those past diners is present. Those candied sweet potatoes are there instead. Better just to let people bring whatever they wish and be happily surprised. I know I generally try to have some grape pie filling set aside in the freezer just for this day, not because it’s traditional but because I think it’s special and I love to share with others. I suspect that’s how others feel about their dishes, too, and that’s a lot of specialness.

There are other ways to celebrate Thanksgiving, though, besides hosting a feast.  A few times I’ve cooked in a kitchen for the homeless and hungry, which is a good thing to do, especially if you feel hammered by excesses. Bring your own knives and potato peelers, though. There are never good, sharp tools.

Once at a family Thanksgiving when everyone was depressed and going through difficult life changes, we dispensed with the traditional menu altogether, grilled sausages, made coleslaw, and had pumpkin pie for dessert.  The goofy menu cheered everyone up enough that we ended up laughing and feeling grateful to be pulled out of our various funks.

When I was living at the American Academy of Rome and a bunch of us Americans were far from home, I offered to make the holiday meal. I roasted turkey breasts because you couldn’t get a whole bird, made loaves of bread and mayonnaise so that everyone could have turkey sandwiches, which is everyone’s maglie calcio poco prezzo favorite part of Thanksgiving anyway. I also heaped up hundreds of tangerines on a giant platter, then asked everyone to bring champagne or chocolates, which they did. Sometimes both. We tucked the chocolates and candies among the fruits and drank the champagne and ate sandwiches. It was an utterly festive celebration that lasted about 12 hours with people coming and going throughout the day.

Regardless of the form, Thanksgiving is about people for me. I love to bring together a collection of folks who don’t necessarily know each other, some who are without a place to go, maybe some new neighbors along with old friends. What we are always grateful for is our briefly gathered community and shared conviviality.  And my husband and I  always invite people to bring something to read or recite —a poem, a favorite Cheap Jerseys passage from a book, a joke—and that’s a great thing to do. It brings everyone into the same conversation and lets each person be the hambone they secretly (or not so secretly) long to be. Try it, you’ll see! And however you spend it, have a beautiful Thanksgiving.

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  • Love this piece Deborah. I hate the stilted feeling that it all has to be so “traditional”—And as much as I like turkey, it’s still, well, TURKEY. Sausages! Now THERE’S a thought!

  • Thanks, Elissa.
    I haven’t had that dinner for about 12 years, but here’s nothing that says we can’t have candied sweet potatoes whenever we want. Or braised turkey legs, which are really rich and succulent.
    Or pumpkin pie, for that matter!

  • What a great line: “We tucked the chocolates and candies among the fruits and drank the champagne and ate sandwiches.”

    I have to confess that I’ve grown to prefer Thanksgiving with friends, instead of family, which has only turned out that way because travel on that day is so tedious. But what I like is to see other people’s favorite family dishes, which you don’t get to experience when you’re only with family. Plus, there’s less fighting ; )

  • I know this is absolute sacrilege for the day, but I am going skiing this year with my husband and having a romantic vegetarian dinner out at a restaurant in the evening. We just experienced a death in the family, and I’m just not up for any more family, or even friends that day. I’ll do all the traditional Thanksgiving foods at Christmas time, sans the turkey since we are vegetarians. This year I need time to heal.

    However, the day after Thanksgiving I will be cooking for my adult children who will just have had the big traditional meal at their dad’s house. I think I’m going to make all Asian foods. I’m looking forward to it.

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