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Credit: Leela Cyd
personal essay

This Thanksgiving, Eat What You Love

published Nov 10, 2020
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You know how people laugh about Thanksgiving being their Super Bowl? I don’t get the joke, because for me it’s a hard fact: Thanksgiving is the best holiday. There’s no frantic shopping or decorating; it’s just food, family, and friends. There’s nothing better.

My feelings for it run deep. My parents immigrated to America a couple of years before I was born and crafted our family’s celebration from recommendations in magazines and on TV. We told each other that we liked the soggy store-bought stuffing mix (we didn’t) and that pumpkin pie with Cool Whip was delicious (it was). I loved it; we felt so American on those nights. As an adult, I focused more on the food, and became one of those people who plans for months, swapping around citrus and radicchio salad, parsnips roasted in bacon fat, and chevre-mashed potatoes on my menu like chess pieces. Thanksgiving is my jam — specifically, my homemade rosemary-sherried onion jam.

But for the first time in years, I have no menu to plan. Instead of debating which pies to bake, I’ve accepted that this year’s Thanksgiving isn’t going to look or feel like what I’m used to. The pandemic has forced all of us to take a break from the traditional dinner we’ve prized for so long. And maybe, rethink our focus on the food.

“The dishes we eat on Thanksgiving are beloved, but much of their importance is the context of eating them with your family,” explains Jacob Dean, a food writer and psychologist. “It’s this gestalt experience; the conversation and being with family and friends. The ritual is what carries the meaning.” 

The pandemic has forced all of us to take a break from the traditional dinner we’ve prized for so long. And maybe, rethink our focus on the food.

Dean suggests we should plan this year’s Thanksgiving by first asking ourselves what we want from this holiday and the experience. “We’re taught to not think that way,” he notes. “But if you make yourself happy, it will typically make the people around you happy as well. There’s nothing wrong with leaning into comfort, or doing something different.” 

With that in mind, I’m trying to decide what parts of the holiday meal I genuinely love and what are an obligation. But it’s not necessarily easy to take a step back. Chicago cheesemonger Lisa Futterman normally hosts a group of 15 friends for elaborate themed dinners; her 2016 Indian Thanksgiving included a tandoori-style turkey, dhokla stuffing, and okra chaat. She’s since dropped the themes, as they became too unwieldy. “Now, it’s about the food I want to make for the people I love,” she says.

This year, even after cutting her invitation list in half, she doesn’t know if her friends will feel comfortable gathering. But for Futterman, the menu must go on. “No matter what, I will be making turkey and cherry pie,” she says. “I need the turkey, if only as a vessel for my stuffing. And mashed potatoes. And gravy, of course. And sweet potatoes and green beans; you have to at least do that. But everything else is still up in the air.”

Nashville wardrobe stylist Amanda Sears figured out how to have the complete traditional meal without cooking a dozen dishes for just her and her husband. She’s planning a remote potluck with her neighbors, similar to what they did at Easter: Each household is making the one or two favorite foods they can’t live without, then dropping off portions on the others’ front porches. Call it a socially distant feast.

“For me, the joy of Thanksgiving is the variety of food you get once a year,” she told me, adding that half of the fun is the text messages that roll in as each person samples a new dish. “I like having some of my aunt’s strawberry Jell-O pretzel dessert, but also want a bite of pumpkin pie, and a scoop of éclair cake. When else can you have three desserts?” 

I love this idea, and also a much-simplified version of it: Make only the things you love. Who wouldn’t feel thankful after eating pie for both dinner and dessert? Or I could just make a pan of my beloved cornbread-sausage stuffing and eat it all weekend. Because even though I love a packed kitchen on Thanksgiving, I don’t want to spend two days cooking a huge meal only to be reminded that my husband and I are not sitting at the table with our families, opening another bottle of Chardonnay to distract our mothers from retelling certain old stories. I’m going to embrace what 2020 is throwing at us, and head in a completely different direction. 

Staring at the cookbooks crammed in my bookshelves, I might go all in on a big cooking project — try to master a timpano or tahdig, and a burnt Basque cheesecake or kouign amann for dessert. Trying something new will feel like an escape from the relentlessness of this year, turning the long weekend into a welcome lost pocket of time. 

I’m going to embrace what 2020 is throwing at us, and head in a completely different direction. 

But I’m also a little tempted by the opposite direction, and the prospect of turning my back on everything happening in the world and making this weekend about rest and self-care. There’s no shame in putting together an impressive cheese board (or, an impressive block of cheese and box of crackers) and grazing on it all weekend while watching something on Netflix. It’s as special as a decadent meal, and you can congratulate yourself on avoiding a pile of dirty dishes for once. And speaking of avoiding dishes, this is also absolutely the year to order takeout from your favorite spot if that’s the route you’re leaning towards — it means no cooking for you, and supporting a local business all at once.

I’ll miss my family, the laughter at the table, and the coziness of crowding on the sofa for a post-dinner movie. And even sorting through pages of to-do lists. But since nothing about 2020 feels normal, I’m going to do what makes me happiest. Along the way, I’ll take a moment to give thanks that I made it through this year. With some luck and a lot of mask-wearing, we can return to our traditions in 2021, with a fresh perspective and appreciation for the ability to gather the people we love. And definitely, that cornbread stuffing.