Every November, sometime after my husband's birthday on the 13th, the same scenario plays out. As we start contemplating our Thanksgiving plans, my husband gets a look on his face and our conversation takes a Seinfeldian turn (remember the Festivus episode?).
Michael says something like, "It has to be turkey, right?" I nod, knowing what comes next. "I mean if turkey is so great, why do we only eat it once year? How about we have fish and chips? Or chicken tikka masala?"
That is when I remember what I conveniently forget about 11 months of the year: I married a Thanksgiving hater.
My Family's Traditional Thanksgiving
I grew up in New England, where I celebrated Thanksgiving around the oval walnut table in the dining room of my parent's red Cape Cod in suburban Boston. Our five-person nuclear family — mother, father, sister (me), sandwiched between two brothers — formed the base. A rotating cast of siblings and significant others cycled through.
We sat down around 3 p.m., with good silver and flowers, plus an array of dried poddish things my Dad had brought in from a walk in the woods, stuck in a vintage ceramic turkey vase. My assigned seat — we had them — at the dining room table stared out at a backyard that gave onto a bare woods and stone walls that looked as old as the Commonwealth.
My family's unchanging menu consisted of turkey with Pepperidge Farm stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, two kinds of cranberry sauce, and maybe some green beans. Starting with shrimp cocktail was our renegade move. Dessert was Mom-made pumpkin and pecan pies.
Like a duckling who believes its mother is whomever it first sees, this was my Thanksgiving imprint. Oh, New England! Oh, tradition!
My Husband's Italian-American Thanksgiving
Meanwhile, slightly to the south, my future husband was celebrating with his large Connecticut clan, dominated by his mother's Italian-American side. Their Thanksgiving was held at his uncle's house, chosen because it could fit the most people. At least 40 would make it on any given year.
The food was set out buffet-style and people ate sprawled through four rooms, wherever a spot could be found. There was no definitive start or finish and Michael has fond childhood memories of long afternoons of cousinly hijinks.
Thanksgiving After Marriage: The Early Years
The first four years of our marriage we lived in New York City and our holidays were judiciously split between the two sides, each adjusting to the other's traditions. Our only real holiday responsibility was showing up at our parents' feasts, continuing to play the parts we had since childhood, only this time with longer commutes.
When, in quick succession, we had a baby and moved to Los Angeles, our days of traveling over the river and through the woods to grandmother's (or any relative's) house for a holiday weekend were done.
The first year was fun. My former college roommate, Cathy, was living in San Francisco, so Michael and I bundled up 16-month-old Ian and flew up Thanksgiving weekend. Cathy cooked everything, even jumping up to make gravy when I protested that it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it.
Then Cathy moved to Chicago, we had our daughter, Jane, and although we occasionally flew back East for the holiday, airfare for four was too expensive and the holiday too short for yearly trips.
Here we were in our 30s and the question was no longer your (family's) place or mine? Completely unhitched from familial obligations, who were we?
And that's when my husband came out: He was, he admitted, a Thanksgiving hater.
Michael is someone who takes breaking bread seriously. He's always been the one who waits for me if I get home late so we can eat together. A bad meal literally hurts his feelings.
So, his logic went, "Why build a holiday around a mediocre piece of poultry? What did the tradition mean?" As far as he was concerned, the whole thing could be left back east like TV stations starting with W and Nor'easter snowstorms.
Completely unhitched from familial obligations, who were we?
Thanksgiving became our Goldilocks day. Nothing felt exactly right. Some years, we dined out, especially when the kids were small; slaving over a huge dinner for two little kids with miniature appetites and another adult who was lukewarm about the offerings wasn't worth it. But while Michael happily avoided the turkey, I worried about the restaurant staff pulling holiday shifts.
For Friendsgivings, I had my standard dish — a sweet potato casserole — and was the guest who would always put on an apron and make the gravy. Still, the chef in me ached to run the whole show myself.
How I Achieved the "Perfect" Thanksgiving
At a certain point, when the kids were older, I dug in with my wooden spoon. I was a pumpkin pie-loving turkey stuffing-craving traditionalist, who becomes nostalgic upon seeing cans of the old-timey One-Pie brand pumpkin purée so prevalent in New England but nonexistent in California. We would have a traditional Thanksgiving at home and I would make it all from scratch, damn it.
And I did, for many years, with feeling. A total patsy for the latest trend, I brined and roasted the turkey and I barbecued it outside. I added pomegranate molasses to the cranberry sauce and found a vintage turkey vase just like my mom's on eBay. The year the kids asked us to turn down a Friendsgiving invite, because they liked doing our own thing, I knew I had won Thanksgiving, and it only got better.
Thanksgiving two years ago, in particular, was a triumph. The pies were made the day before. Michael deejayed and mixed pomegranate-prosecco cocktails. The kids, now teenagers, were delightful co-hosts at the table. Candles flickered, the evening skies darkened. It was lovely.
Michael still pushed the turkey around his plate, but I felt I had acquitted myself. I was enjoying a beautiful, traditional holiday at my house.
My Thanksgiving Epiphany
And then, right there, something shifted in me. Having achieved holiday nirvana in my own dining room, I was free. Maybe it was the punch talking, but suddenly I didn't care so much.
I thought, who is the jerk? And I considered, maybe it's not just the turkey hater. Maybe it's the person who slavishly clings to the idea of a perfect holiday and inflicts it on everyone else, whether they like it or not. Maybe it's the person who asked her sweet college roommate to make gravy, because it wouldn't have been Thanksgiving without it.
I realized that no one Thanksgiving is ever going to look or taste or be like any from the past. Time moves on — and the trick, the tradition is not clinging to something that's in the past, but appreciating the moment and the people around you. Paper plates or good silver, turkey or not, what does it matter?
Last year, our family dynamic shifted again. Our oldest went off to college in New York and he celebrated Thanksgiving in Connecticut with the Italians. Our friend Rebecca was traveling. So Michael, Jane, and I went to one of our favorite restaurants. The bartender made the cocktails; Michael ordered pizza. Jane and I got the holiday special. In its own, unfussy way, it was perfect.