#2: The Worst Thanksgiving Dish You Ever Had
As a rule, I don’t remember the food at Thanksgiving very well. I enjoy cooking with fresh things, so Thanksgiving dinner rarely stands out as much for me as it might for some folks. As I’ve gotten older, Thanksgiving for me has been about the real spirit of the holiday. After all, the original (as we observe them) Thanksgiving celebrations came during the very hard first years for the early colonists, when any abundance of food was a rare and wonderful thing, and people celebrated that abundance by getting together. The remarkable aspect of the holiday was never supposed to be the taste of the food, but the celebration of being together and alive for brief times of plenty.
In this age of ridiculous “plenty” for Americans of all stripes, the truly grateful aspect of the holiday has all but disappeared (a subject for a different topic), but we are still drawn to the idea of being together to celebrate. My memory of Thanksgiving ‘dishes’ has always been colored by the feeling (or lack thereof) of ‘togetherness’ as a result. Long after the quality or dryness of a turkey has faded from my mind, the quality of being at the table with the company remains.
So what, then, were the worst ‘dishes’ I had? The tables at which I sat where being ‘together’ was a chore, or purely an observance of tradition, were always the worst. Before my parents split, we had a few Thanksgivings of this kind. My paternal grandparents were absent/cold: my dad hadn’t married Catholic and my mom, a musician he had met while playing music at local bars, was definitely not to their liking even aside from religion. My maternal grandparents, for their part, grew less fond of my dad with every passing year that his marital problems with my mom continued. Cousins, aunts, and uncles would make random appearances: many of them lived too far away, had been estranged from the family through other divorces, or (in my awesome Aunt Eileen’s case), simply had celebrations of their own with large numbers of family and friends.
It made many of my early Thanksgivings of that obligatory variety: the kind when people show up because nobody’s really talked since Christmas or Easter, and a few awkward hours are worth refusing to admit that it was because they didn’t really want to do so. Tired jokes and stories, chewing, empty remarks on the food, and all of the other ways we fill the air with noise when we don’t have anything we want to say are frequent at these types of holidays. Often there are the quiet resentments, disapproval, and undercurrents of judgment that families who don’t communicate have as well. Sweep it under the rug: better that than to re-evaluate ourselves, and how we talk (or don’t talk), or so the thinking goes, I think. As a boy and adolescent, these Thanksgivings would end with me off in a corner, reading by myself. Big events (weddings and funerals being the chiefest and most interesting example) usually reflect the reality, either intentionally or unintentionally, of the people in them and the “family” dynamic they truly have. When your family is distant, shallow, closed off, awkward, too afraid for real, vulnerable talk and interaction, let’s just say it’s going to be a tough situation for even the most excellent stuffing to save.
Conversely, my most happy Thanksgiving meals have often been examples of a huge social contrast with the traditional idea of what makes for a good observance of the holiday. After 2007, by which time events had blown away nearly all vestiges of how I thought things would turn out for both myself and my idea of family, I experienced some of the best Thanksgiving ‘dishes’ I can remember. In 2008, at my sister’s new house, with my personal affairs in shambles; In 2009, after a grueling 11 hour drive to San Antonio to meet my buddy’s future in-laws; in 2010, with a fellow wanderer whose affection for me was enough to bring me to her family gathering; in 2011, with roommates in an overstuffed, ramshackle house; in 2012, gathered around a fryer with re-located Hurricane Katrina New Orleans ex-pats in the parking lot of St. Roch’s Bar in Austin, Texas; in 2013, with my new wife’s large family in Mulvane, Kansas. These holidays all had one common thread woven through their disparate materials: a group of people truly happy and thankful to be celebrating a holiday with other people, whether they were blood-related, friendship-bonded, or even perfect strangers. I can clearly recall them all, and the warmth I felt at each one, far better than any of the more ‘traditional’ Thanksgivings of my youth. The food served at these dinners became the ‘best’ by association.
So go ahead and bring a stale McDonald’s cheeseburger to my table this year. If you can bring a good hug and some good conversation with a good group of people to go with it, you won’t be the ‘worst’ by a large margin. We’re together and alive in these brief times of plenty, after all.