Traditions and Turkeys

Giving thanks with food, family, and friends

I took a break from chopping celery to join my grandma at the stove, where she was pulling crisped pieces of sausage and bacon out of a pan and dropping them onto a paper towel-lined plate. I snuck a few pieces into my mouth before innocently returning to chop celery. My mom and grandma laughed and stole their own pieces. Just like the stuffing recipe itself, eating half of the ingredients before the dinner was done was tradition.

In my family, stuffing isn’t just seasoned and soaked bread cubes stuffed into a turkey. It’s a stand-alone side dish with 2 kinds of sausage, bacon, taro chunks, and macadamia nuts. More central than the turkey in my Thanksgiving meal, I pile it high on my plate and smother it with gravy. My mom’s mother would show up early on the holiday, ready to get chopping and mixing. The spice from the sausage and crunch of the nuts round out the flavors of the stuffing. Regular stuffing is no match for this creation. Always the first Tupperware to go empty from the stacks that fill our fridge, my dad and I fight over the last few bites to enjoy with our turkey yearly.

Most years, Thanksgiving was a small affair. As an only child with a family that had few relatives living nearby, my parents, grandma, and I would sit down to a table of too much food. My grandma liked to contribute more than just the stuffing to our meal, and usually insisted on bringing pie as well. Not a baker, she picked one up from Anna Miller’s, a local diner that sold whole pies in every imaginable flavor, and always had a line winding out the door on Thanksgiving morning. My grandma would call in our order for the dutch apple pie, a combination of apple crisp and pie. After dinner, while the pie warmed in the oven, we armed ourselves with a can of Reddi-Whip and pints of vanilla ice cream, ready to add even more to our already-stuffed stomachs.

In seventh grade, we combined forces with the couple that lived next door to us. All was well until food poisoning hit later that night, and I spent the rest of my Thanksgiving vacation in a ball on the couch watching the White House Christmas special. I refused to touch any of the leftovers, convinced that the turkey was the culprit. The association kept me from eating turkey for seven years, despite the irrationality of the situation. “But you eat chicken, and it’s just like chicken! It’s probably in your head,” people said. For a few years after, my mom bought and heated a mini baked ham for me on Thanksgiving so I would have something to enjoy. But as I got older and farther from the unfortunate year, it was turkey or nothing, so I made an exception for the holiday.

Freshman year of college, when I found myself across the continent from my immediate family on Thanksgiving, I joined my dad’s sister’s family for the festive day. They celebrated at my uncle’s sister’s home, which was large and full of friendly faces that lit up when we walked in, bearing our contributions. I met sisters and cousins and dads, all of whom welcomed me to the family. It was Thanksgiving—the dropping temperatures and dwindling daylight certainly indicated so—but it wasn’t my family, regardless of their distant relation. Sitting down to the meal, I recognized the basic components, but my parents’ signature dishware and the flavors of Hawaii were missing. Despite the delicious food, I ended up pushing the stuffing, with its bread-pudding texture, around my plate, missing the recipes of my childhood. The company was amicable, and a home-cooked meal was comforting after months of dining hall food. But the fulfillment I felt when my parents re-created Thanksgiving dinner when I came home for Christmas was incomparably soothing.

Once again away from family for Thanksgiving when I studied abroad in Scotland, my option for celebrating was an international students event. Staff provided the traditional dishes and attendees contributed dishes from their own family or culture. A few of my American friends and I went out of trepidation toward cooking our own entire meal. The event delivered with its turkey and mashed potatoes, but our spirits sank when we discovered the lack of stuffing and green bean casserole. Distinctly American, green bean casserole had been an essential part of my own Thanksgivings—it was my dad’s favorite dish, always made with extra fried onion rings. At my table, students contributed an odd array of dishes ranging from mac ‘n cheese to boeuf bourguignon. I contributed apple crisp in an attempt to recreate Anna Miller’s Dutch apple pie. It was new and enlightening but the paper turkey decorations in the brightly lit multipurpose room were far from a cozy dining room.

Despite the handful of invitations from kind friends and my dad’s family in Massachusetts, I’ve decided that this is the year for Friendsgiving. Friends have always been my family too, and I’m eager to put together a meal with their help. My apartment’s small kitchen will have to make do for the recreation of taro stuffing and green bean casserole, and maybe even some pumpkin crunch cake. When two friends from high school offered to come up for the holiday weekend, I decided that now seemed like as good of a time as any to transition into hosting my own Thanksgiving. Being with people whose company makes me smile and sitting down to a meal made with love and familiar recipes is what I can be thankful for this year.

Food brings people together. Thanksgiving isn’t solely about the turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, it’s about the coming together of cultures, families, and experiences. If Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation two years ago taught me anything, it’s that despite the holiday’s less-than perfect history, it represents people gathering together sharing recipes and warm dishes. At home, huge Thanksgiving meals complete with sushi platters and pans of fried noodles are common. In Scotland, I dished out boeuf bourguignon next to turkey and slices of thick German bread. I envision Friendsgiving as a chance for us to bring our families’ recipes to a new table, to trade stories and enjoy friendships that have survived the distance of college. Most of all, it’s a chance to start my own tradition of food and love.