Let’s be honest; Thanksgiving is essentially a meal. It always has been. Here is a kindergarten version of the holiday’s origins pulled directly from my memory:
The Pilgrims came to the New World in the 1600s on a ship called the Mayflower. They had left England in search of religious freedom. They landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts and began to settle. They had no idea how to farm the weird soils of the New World, so there was not much food. Many died. The Indians, led by Squanto, taught them how to grow food, and the following fall, there was an excellent harvest. The Pilgrims were so thankful that they were still alive. They decided to celebrate, and as a sign of how grateful they were to the Indians for their help, they invited the Indians to join them in their feast.
(Source: Mrs. Bechtel, my kindergarten teacher.)
This is the story of the first Thanksgiving as every kid in America learns it. (There are other, probably more accurate versions; perhaps my friend, Rachel, will share the one she learned in the comments.) After you hear the story, you make hand turkeys and Indian headbands out of construction paper. Then you go home and get ready to eat!
When I was growing up, the eating always happened at my grandmother’s house. This was not because my grandmother loved to cook. It had more to do with the fact that she had a dining room and china. The cooking was more of a group affair. My mom made 3 pies every year: 2 pumpkin and 1 apple. She baked the apple pie was in her Pfaltzgraff Tea Rose pie plate. My dad always made the mashed potatoes and carved the turkey. After we said grace, we had to go around the table and say why we were thankful that year. Naturally, my sisters and I hated that part. After we were done being thankful, we could eat. It was also during this time that everyone tried to get Leigh Anne and Lauren to eat something besides just mashed potatoes and I tried not to spill anything. Neither of these attempts were ever successful.
We had some memorable conversations during dinner. My great-grandmother had passed away a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 1993. I was only ten years old, and this was the first death I had ever experienced. I asked my dad what happened to one’s things after death. He explained that one’s possessions were divided among the remaining family. My great-grandmother had had an excellent collection of Tinker Toys, which I later found out went to one of my second cousins. (Blast!) I decided to avoid any future “injustices” by planning ahead. That year at Thanksgiving, I asked my grandmother if I could have her plates when she died. This question led first to silence, and then to me being taken into the family room by my dad. He explained to me that I had been very rude and made me apologize to my grandmother. I was confused and embarrassed, but I got over it.
The whole “death situation” eventually morphed into a morbid family joke. I will never forget the first time I complimented something in my grandmother’s home with George there. “Thanks,” she said. “When I die, you can have it.” She and I laughed; George looked more than a bit confused. Other Thanksgiving jokes have included someone putting a whoopee cushion on grandmother’s chair, and my dad getting me to drink a sip of water immediately after eating a bite of canned cranberry sauce. (Try it; it’s incredibly terrible.) We’re all about tough love in my family.
Years later, my parents had divorced and all of us girls had significant others. To try to avoid conflicting dinner schedules, my mom and step-dad moved their dinner to Wednesday night. At least we weren’t eating ourselves sick on Thanksgiving day. George and I have a schedule my in-laws have dubbed The Trifecta: Wednesday night with my stepfamily, Thursday afternoon with my in-laws and Thursday night with my dad. The worst part is that we miss dessert with George’s godmother and pumpkin roll with my friends. The best part is that we now know what to eat at which dinner. Before we had it down to a science, we would simply eat ourselves into a coma.
Another recent addition to the Thanksgiving routine has been the so-called Friends Thanksgiving. A week or so before the actual holiday, it has become common to have a potluck with your friends. The first one George and I ever went to was also our first brush with the wonders of sweet potato casserole and red velvet cake. (Hey, I get it. We’re Yankees, OK?) We ate so much we were literally drunk on food. I have a fuzzy memory of sitting on the loveseat, unable to move, but vaguely aware that there was a party happening around me. A few years later, George and another friend just wanted to try brining a turkey, and we ended up making a whole meal around it. I also subjected this group to a torture photo. What can I say? Old habits die hard. When I die, you can have my camera.
What are your family’s Thanksgiving food staples? Please share!
And now for some photos:
FYI: Kathleen, my friend and queen of cheesecakes in-training, is responsible for sharing this pumpkin cheesecake recipe with me. I have made it twice without the topping and in a water bath with wonderful results.
For an hilarious take on some American holiday traditions, check out Jim Gaffigan’s “Beyond the Pale.” Here’s a snippet.