Thanksgiving Is a Beast

The trifecta of family, overcrowded rooms, and excesses of food and drink can bring out the insanity in anybody. But as Karen Russell attests, even the craziest holiday—when spent with loved ones—is something to be grateful for.

Photo by Mikkel Vang

"Well!” exclaimed my mother, on some kind of pink-cloud high after having survived 18 straight hours of cooking the previous day. “What’s on our agenda?”

“Throwing up?” my brother suggested. It was the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, 1996. Mom, Dad, my 16-year-old sister, 13-year-old brother, and I (then 18) had groggily reunited around the kitchen table for our annual Déjà Vu Breakfast. Everybody was still stuffed. But no matter: For my family, this holiday has always involved more than one discrete feast; it doesn’t end until the refrigerator is bare.

I was a college freshman suffering from temporal whiplash. I had left my midwestern campus, where I had just seen snow for the first time in my life, and been drawn back to November in my hometown, Miami. So I was out of sorts. And I knew from experience that the morning after Thanksgiving would only disorient me further.

First my siblings and I would be force-fed leftovers: a mauled turkey, fruit pies suppurating a bloodred filling, a sweet potato casserole marred by lupine claw marks…a truly ghoulish tableau at 8 a.m. We’d eat our turkey-cranberry sandwiches and our turkey burritos with all the tableside cheer of the Donners. Then around noon—or, as we liked to think of it, “teenager dawn”—we would get conscripted into Family Friday, a yearly outing meant to cement our filial bond.

Why not end the ritual madness? Why not just say, “Hey, family, for a lark I am going to eat Grape-Nuts for breakfast instead of scooping mysteries from this hollowed-out bird cadaver. Surely even our Pilgrim forebears would encourage us to chuck this spooky roast”?

But none of us ever did. These Déjà Vu meals were a family tradition, some perverse homage we paid to the Great Depression ethic of my grandparents: Waste not, want not. We were almost superstitious about the practice, steadfast in our belief that we had to finish every bite of Thanksgiving dinner, no matter how many antacids were required afterward. Honestly, it really is some sort of miracle that Americans are able to spin one holiday afternoon into a week of Thanksgivings—even if by the time they get to the dregs of that final meal of leftovers, they may have decided that, going forward, it would be preferable to photosynthesize.