As a food writer with a brand new book out, I’ve felt some pressure to make Thanksgiving a big deal this year. Several people have asked about my plans. I have shared a few favorite recipes and lots of gravy tips but I have resisted the urge to namedrop turkey farmers or pledge allegiance to certain cranberry varieties. That’s just not my style. Instead, I’m going to come clean. I’ll admit that my Thanksgivings are rarely the jaw dropping, camera-ready feasts you might expect from a food professional. I have my years, but more often than not, we join my husband’s family and have a very traditional menu. This year, alongside a few small slices of Butterball or Costco turkey, I will serve myself an oversized portion of green bean casserole, the kind made with canned French beans and Campbell’s mushroom soup. I may scoop some salty StoveTop stuffing straight from the saucepan. Our family will not be gathered picturesquely at a long, professionally-styled table laden with heirloom china. We’ll plonk down on whatever seats are available or perch on the arms of overstuffed chairs and eat off paper plates. Perhaps you think I’m complaining, but believe me, I’m not. Well, actually maybe I am, but not about the meal or the company. I really don’t like how Thanksgiving seems to have become a public celebration of dysfunction and food snobbery.
At practically every turn there are lists of dinnertime disasters, drunk uncles, evil in-laws, disrespected diets, and under appreciated efforts. A tweet I read the other night finally pushed me over the edge. It went something like “You dare to eat 2 pounds of cashews before dinner and then not take seconds of my Thanksgiving turkey? I am mortally offended.” Oh, please. Poor you. (In fairness, it was a retweet. I glanced at it for just a second and haven’t been able to find it to reread, accurately quote, or credit properly. I’m dearly hoping it was sarcastic.)
The spirits of wise women I have loved are not just whispering in my ear – they are screaming. My mother could snark with the best, but she never complained about how invited guests behaved at her table or whined about how she was treated at someone else’s event. It’s sad that Thanksgiving is now portrayed as a laughable, high maintenance obligation or performance stage rather than a warm family reunion. Before I get too preachy, I’ll admit that I have a whole lot of warm family to choose from. Our get togethers are always voluntary, not forced.
Thanksgiving has always been a major Volland holiday. Jeff’s grandmother, 12 aunts and uncles, and a slew of cousins would cram into one house or another. There were football pools, cutthroat cribbage games, and goofball kids creating minor mayhem. The bustle in the kitchen was never exclusively female. Turkey with all of the fixings showed up at some point, but the smells of roasting and simmering were more memorable than the meal. Tom and Jerrys were served to one and all. Christmas officially started when the pies were cut and some years there was caroling around an old player piano. If you’ve never experienced a loving and tolerant Thanksgiving, you may think this wholesome family tableaux is exaggerated, that there was vicious backroom sniping and drunken drama that my husband was shielded from, but that’s because you don’t know the Vollands. Bad behavior is not hushed up. Tolerance and kindness are prized above delicate manners and propriety. Pretense seems irrelevant.
I showed up on the scene when things were gradually changing. The cousins had kids of their own and the extended family was outgrowing even the biggest house. Rather than rent a hall, we broke into smaller groups. When Jeff and I moved in together I finally got my chance to swoop in and host my own grand meals. I couldn’t wait to show them how to do it “right”. No one need bring a thing. The traditional covered dishes and jiggly “salad” were unnecessary. I seated them at designated spots around a long, holiday table dressed with borrowed crystal and overpriced tablecloths. I trussed game hens and smoked politically-correct turkeys. There was stuffing made with local sausage, roasted hazelnuts, and Marsala. Whipped sweet potatoes with caramelized shallot puree. Pumpkin flan and sips of port and Cognac. And when it was all over, there were warm smiles, glowing compliments, and groans of contentment. But after all that work and planning, the applause never seemed quite loud enough. When other branches of the family hosted, the menus were never as dear, the settings were less contrived, but the compliments and moans of pleasure were equally enthusiastic and genuine. How could this be? Finally, in a fit of pique, I served a bowl of instant stuffing alongside my gourmet, carefully sourced and crafted dressing. I’d show them! Guess which bowl was empty at the end of the night? If social media had been a thing, would I have taken to Facebook or Twitter and moaned to the universe about the horror of it all? Maybe. I hope not.
I learned some very valuable lessons that day. I realized that the choices of others are not a reflection on my menu or cooking. When I’m all-consumed by doing things “properly” there’s a very good chance I’m losing perspective. No one has fun at parties hosted by perfection-seeking, image-conscious, stressed-out maniacs. Now, after decades of entertaining and catering events I now understand that someone will always be late to the table. People will dig in before Grandpa has a chance to say grace, and someone may take more than their share. Forks and knives can be wielded in ways you’ve never imagined. Cell phones will not be put away. Conversations may stray into loud, dissenting opinions or outright attacks on personal belief systems. There may be intoxication, hurt feelings, and fun-sucking black holes of ennui. If you are the host, you need to do your damndest to remember that you invited them. Suck it up. If you are a guest, you need to carry your weight. It seems worthwhile to make a little extra effort on this one day instead of joining the trend of collecting travesties and perceived injustices for colorful online content.
The Volland family loves homemade stuffing. They ate plenty the year I got whiney, I just chose to focus on the negative. They also like the taste of instant stuffing now and then. (I do too, actually. It reminds me of lean years in a beachside apartment.) Our Thanksgivings are evolving again. The family is growing and our house is too small for the whole crew, so I’ve been elbowed out of the rotation. Younger family members are eager to take their turn. There’s a good chance I may soon be perceived as just another old woman who has settled for mediocrity and needs a lesson on how Thanksgiving should really be done. Perhaps I am. The truth is that sometimes I’d be happy to eat just mashed potatoes and good gravy. But I have to be careful. In this new, lax, Thanksgiving posture I have adopted, I sometimes forget that my professional experience still gives my words and actions extra weight. Will I be the cause of unnecessary distress? Probably. Will I be lambasted online? Perhaps someday, but for now I will revel in having an extended family that doesn’t judge a persons worth based on a golden brown turkey or carefully folded napkins. And I will work harder every year to be thankful rather than right.