7 Authors Share Tales of Family Thanksgiving Traditions
The Vegan Organic Tofu Pumpkin Pie
I don’t really feel at home on Thanksgiving unless my holiday table includes at least one dish my mother would have made. By this I mean something vegan, organic, low-fat, and perhaps Hungarian. Last year it was her tart apple-pecan cranberry sauce, which my husband assured me was undersweetened; the year before it was a silken tofu–peanut-butter cream pie that would have mystified the Pilgrims.
But our family’s Thanksgiving traditions have always been a little untraditional. When I was 10, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my parents adopted a macrobiotic vegetarian diet. That meant turkeyless Thanksgivings for us. But my mother always insisted on a turkeylike centerpiece for the meal. She was a midcentury emigrant from Hungary, proudly American in her holiday practices and not about to give up that reference to the first Thanksgiving. Over the years she made heroic, not always successful, often touching efforts to acknowledge and approximate the holiday bird. Her labors took us into the territory of handmade wheat-meat, tofu shaped like turkey parts, and painstakingly carved and stuffed squashes.
The rest of the meal was always wholesome, delicious, and innovative—fruit relishes, delicate Japanese seaweed dishes, brown rice with lotus seeds, a rainbow of vegetables. At times during those years, I would indulge in self-pitying envy of my friends whose mothers made Norman Rockwellian feasts with big golden turkeys, mashed potatoes swimming in butter, and desserts heavy with whipped cream. That, I told myself, was real food, and what my mother made was somehow less real, and vaguely embarrassing. But she was teaching me, subtly and persistently, a few crucial lessons: first, that well-made and beautifully prepared food begets good health; second, that tradition is what you make of it; and third, that to be American means to find your own path.
After a decade-long struggle, my mother succumbed to her cancer. By that time she had far outlived her prognosis and had seen me through my childhood and teenage years—thanks in part, I still believe, to the diet she followed. My little son, born this past June, will never know her, but he’ll taste her unique approach to Thanksgiving. When he asks me why we have Japanese pressed vegetables alongside our sweet potatoes, or why we use tofu instead of cream in our cream pie, I’ll tell him about the woman who raised me to know that different is often better, and who, by adapting and subverting tradition, created one of her own.
Julie Orringer is the author of The Invisible Bridge ($18, amazon.com) and How to Breathe Underwater ($10, amazon.com). She lives in Brooklyn.
At the risk of sounding like Pastor Bob of Pigeon Knob, I have to say the best thing about Thanksgiving is the thankfulness part. It certainly isn’t your loud relatives and their embittered children, and it isn’t the weather (overcast, with a 50 percent chance of snow). It is the sheer gratitude for the fact that you have somehow, once again, navigated the treacherous channels of life and avoided the greasy hand of death and have not thrown your savings down a rat hole or contracted an insect-borne disease so rare they plan to name it after you.
It’s an unjust world; mortality has us all by the tail; we live in a culture of complaint; and yet, as we all know, there is much to be grateful for—though we’re reluctant to say so, fearing it may sound smug or boastful.
In my childhood, Dad bowed his head and gave thanks to God—for the food, for redemption, and other stuff—a fine custom that I have discontinued. My prayers sound pompous to me (“O Thou Who didst create the growth hormones that produced this enormous bird…”), and I feel odd saying them in front of Jews, agnostics, atheists, “spiritual” people, Uncertains, Rosicrucians, ophthalmologists, and the tired old Anglicans at our table. But I also feel odd if the food is hauled into the dining room and we simply dig in and feed like jackals at the carcass of a fallen gazelle. There should be a graceful pause, a meaningful look around the table, an appropriate word or two. To that end, I had a table grace painted on the dining-room wall above the mantel.
O Lord, we thank Thee for this food,
For every blessing, every good.
For earthly sustenance and love
Bestowed on us from heaven above.
Be present at our table, Lord.
Be here and everywhere adored.
Thy children bless and grant that we
May feast in paradise with Thee.
If I printed the prayer on cards and passed them around, it would feel like a school assignment. Instead, I just look up at the wall and start singing (to the tune of the doxology), and everyone else in the family chimes in. If it sounds good, we might segue into “America the Beautiful” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” And toss in the hymn “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” sung to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway.” It isn’t a party unless you sing a few songs. Group singing is one more thing for which I am grateful. It’s civility in its purest form. If you have a few hairy-legged baritones and basses, you can launch into “Old Man River” or “On the Road to Mandalay.” Although you must all resume toting the barge and lifting the bale tomorrow, it’s inspiring to hear 15 people find harmony around the Thanksgiving table. And it sets a tone. No crying in the cranberries. Lighten up. It could, as we say, be worse.
Garrison Keillor is the longtime host of public radio’s Prairie Home Companion and the author of numerous books, most recently Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance ($17, amazon.com). He lives in St. Paul.
The Endless Feast
By the time we Brunis reach the climax of our Thanksgiving celebration, any other family would be done, wiped out, its bloated and inert members sprawled across couches and chairs and even the floor—not just uninterested in more food but flat-out incapable of ingesting it.
Not us. Oh no. By 6 P.M., we’re on our second wind. Never mind that our sumptuous repast, consumed from 1 P.M. until about 3:30 P.M., encompassed nearly a dozen canapés and appetizers, some as rich as quiche Lorraine; a dozen side dishes, most of them starch bombs; a turkey very nearly prehistoric in heft, as though it had been crossbred with a pterodactyl; and at least three kinds of pie, with just as many kinds of ice cream, so that everyone can mix and match to his or her heart’s desire. We have put all of that behind us, because we have crucial pleasures ahead. We have, to be precise, sandwiches.
That doesn’t sound so momentous? Then you’re not lavishing the sort of care on Thanksgiving leftovers that we are. Someone from the family goes out that very morning to a proper Italian bakery for proper Italian sandwich rolls, freshly made so that they’re cotton-soft on the inside and crisp to the point of crackling on the outside, with a faintly yeasty perfume still clinging to them. These rolls aren’t so much beds as thrones for the tiers of white and dark meat—it’s best to use some of both—that they will support, along with the slices of tomato and maybe romaine lettuce and surely condiments, from an array covering most of Aunt Carolyn’s vast kitchen island: mayonnaise and Miracle Whip, two kinds of mustard, pan gravy, canned cranberry jelly, fresh cranberry sauce, and even, incredibly, stuffing. People somehow find room for it, in their rolls and their bellies.
I keep my own sandwich simple, just turkey (with some skin), tomato, mayo (wicked, but utterly essential), and salt. It’s a broad, blunt, wondrous creation. But I’m moved less by its majesty than by its -context—by my sense of the ritual surrounding it as something that sets my family apart and, really, defines us.
When it comes to special-occasion food, we believe in bounty and do it to excess, because that’s what my paternal grandparents did and that’s how we honor them. They emigrated from Italy in the 1920s with little but hope, and for them a banquet of ludicrous proportions was a statement that they had made it in this new land and could be generous, lavish, even foolish with what they had.
All these years later, the Brunis still believe in the power of food to nourish more than flesh and bone. When we’re at the table, we’re removed from all the business and all the distractions that keep people from true conversation, real connection. So we find ways to stay and return there. The longer we eat, the better we love.
Sure, we could have our sandwiches the next day, each of us taking home a fraction of the leftovers, but believe me, no one else would unfurl a condiment spread like Aunt Carolyn. The next day, there won’t be some warm turkey from the extra breast that she cooks just for sandwich time. And the next day we won’t be together. There’s no way the sandwiches could taste as good.
Frank Bruni is the author of the memoir Born Round ($17, amazon.com). Formerly the restaurant critic for the New York Times, he now writes for The New York Times Magazine. He lives in New York.
When I was growing up in Honolulu, Thanksgiving meant dinner out on the lanai. The setting was tropical: a garden framed by ginger flowers and stephanotis vines, mango and banana trees. The house was modest, the view lovely from the table to the back of Niu Valley, where volcanic ridges swept up into the clouds. The food was traditional: turkey with all the fixings. The music was traditional too: old-fashioned, mainland American.
Cooking and setting the table, we listened to LPs of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Songs of Stephen Foster. The Stephen Foster record presented the tunes in their original settings for voice and piano and included sweet, dreamy numbers, like “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair”; sad Civil War ballads, like “Was My Brother in the Battle?”; and rollicking ditties, like “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache.” My parents, sister Paula, and I especially loved the funny ones. Paula, my father, and I marched around the living room half singing, half shouting:
You will suit all the girls to a hair
If you’ve only got a moustache,
A moustache, A MOUSTACHE,
(big gulp of air)
IFFFFFFF you’ve only got a moustache.
(fall onto the couch laughing)
Years later, it’s not the food I remember most, although my mother was a superb cook, or the garden, although I realize now that few have the privilege of eating Thanksgiving dinner outdoors. It’s the music, the laughter, and the background hum of my mother’s KitchenAid mixer. These sounds brought us together, even before we sat down at the table.
Nostalgic, I bought a CD of the Foster record a few years ago, and I play it every Thanksgiving for my own family. That tradition doesn’t transfer perfectly. My four children are growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Honolulu. Our Thanksgiving dinners are decidedly indoor affairs, and my kids do not sing along with me to the old Foster numbers. I’ve found, however, that they can’t get enough of the Depression-era tunes from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? They particularly love an incantatory version of “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by Alison Krauss.
My eight-year-old daughter sings in one breath: “When I went down to the river to pray studying about that good old way, and who shall wear the starry crown…”
“No!” one of her brothers breaks in. “That’s not how it goes.”
But she’s already onto the chorus, swept along by the song’s current, and the whole family joins in: “O sisters, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on dowwwwwn…”
To me, Thanksgiving means listening to all sorts of American music. Old and new. Copland and Krauss. Foster and the funky Carolina Chocolate Drops with their pristine fiddling and earthy vocals. Thanksgiving means listening to my children sing, correct one another’s lyrics, and then belt louder. Once again, I can hear the KitchenAid hum in the background, but it’s my eldest son baking, and rolling out piecrusts for dessert.
Visit iTunes to download the complete Thanksgiving Day playlist compiled by Allegra Goodman.
Allegra Goodman is the author of seven books, including, most recently, the novel The Cookbook Collector ($17, amazon.com).
The Turkey Bowl
Thanksgiving in the bare-branched suburban ring around New York City was always—for me and my brothers, Steve, Rich, and John—about football. There was, of course, the pixelated wallpaper provided by the games on TV: the Dallas Cowboys or the Detroit Lions and whoever they were playing that year. Better still was the real thing, played in the backyard. This was our personal Turkey Bowl, our Pilgrim rite, as we gathered in the early afternoon, before the big meal. The four of us stepped onto the pitch (our sidelines defined by tangles of forsythia bushes on the left and a sloping hill on the right), glowering at one another (impossible not to crack up during warm-ups when a first pass went quailing into the woods or one team’s uniform consisted of matching long johns).
In the beginning, friends and various relatives joined in, but then, in the mid-1980s, we began to play oldest (Steve and me) versus youngest (Rich and John). It was their idea, and they couldn’t help smirking when we agreed to it: Oh, how sweet it was going to be to open a big can of Miles Standish on us losers! They possessed youth and motivation; at age 15, Rich already had several inches on us and superior hand-eye coordination, while John, a senior, was soon to play quarterback at his college. My brother Steve and I, ourselves already well into college, were—at least to their minds—in rapid physical decline, which was further evidenced by our playing in a noise band together and wearing, on occasion, sweater-vests.
I won’t detail that first Turkey Bowl or the next a year later, or run through the extensive highlight reel—though Steve’s stunning touchdown (’02) and my unlikely overhead catch in the forsythia bushes that required the extrication assistance of several people (’98) were something to see. Suffice it to say, the games were epic, heroic, and somewhat violent. We Elders worked the pregame psyops hard (“We’re just hoping you young’uns don’t blow out your ACLs this year” and so on). And by expertly planting such seeds of doubt year after year, the Elders managed to pull off an astonishing 21–0 Turkey Bowl record. Of course, what matters is not that 21–0 Turkey Bowl record, impressive though it is, but the way that our Thanksgiving game continues to bring all four brothers back together—primarily to laugh at and with one another.
Now each of us has kids, and last year we included them, too. Once again, we were legendary rivals doing battle with our age-old grudges (this go-round, with a lot of munchkins happily confusing the issue), then afterward sat down to break bread and pile on the turkey, blessed by the cornucopia, everything heightened by having played. And the food, I swear, tasted three times as good, though by nightfall, when it came time to limp to bed, I, for one, couldn’t get out of the chair.
Michael Paterniti is the author of Driving Mr. Albert ($8, amazon.com) and a contributor to GQ. He lives in Portland, Maine.
The Cultural Blend
Until I was nine, I grew up on the coast of Peru, where sugar fields grew alongside me and life was sweet. My mother, a good American, took every opportunity to remind the children that we were every bit as gringo as we were Latino. Every fourth Thursday in November, she would put out her red, white, and blue flag, take us out to the animal pens behind the lucuma trees, and tell us to choose the biggest turkey we could find. My father, a good Peruvian, would insist that we give the animal a good glass of rum before we consigned it to the dinner table.
Coming to live in Summit, New Jersey, a tidy, tree-lined suburb of New York City, where Thanksgiving dinners came to us pink, plucked, and wrapped in hermetically sealed plastic, my brother and I could never quite forget the image of those jovial turkeys, staggering through the garden, gobbling giddily at the prospect of joining our feast.
As we became more and more acclimated to America, it was my father who always reminded us that we were every bit as Latino as we were gringo. To emphasize the point, he insisted that the already frenzied preparations for Thanksgiving dinner also include a desperate hunt for a taste of home: usually ají -amarillo—yellow chili peppers—whirred in a blender with a little salt and vinegar and placed ceremoniously on the table beside the cranberry sauce. This became such a tradition that it’s hard to imagine my mother’s celery-and-onion dressing without that bright, fiery concoction on the side. And as it turned out, the most passionate consumers of my father’s ají were always our wholly American friends, who found this addition to the Thanksgiving table surprising, even outlandish—and utterly delicious.
Now, I’m making this ritual sound a great deal simpler than it was. In truth, finding those crisp, yellow peppers with their distinctive, lemony perfume and pyrotechnic punch was anything but easy. My father would drive miles to cadge them from a friend who grew them on a Brooklyn balcony. Or he would cart them back lovingly from trips to Lima, and they came to us plump, pickled, and stuffed into jars. It’s hard to imagine this now, 30 years later, when there are South American groceries on North American corners, and I, for one, can buy ají amarillo on my afternoon walk.
Although I never would have predicted it, today my neighborhood has a number of gringo Latinos. Each year, we put out the red, white, and blue flags; bring home the pink, plucked, plastic-wrapped turkeys; and shout over the fence to one another, “Oye, van a comer pavo?”—a brief and simple phrase that really means: “Hey, you planning to have turkey with family and everyone you love sitting around the table—with cranberries, dressing, and maybe a little ají amarillo on the side?”
Marie Arana is the author of American Chica ($11, amazon.com), Cellophane ($12, amazon.com), and Lima Nights ($25, amazon.com). She lives in Washington, D.C., and Lima, Peru.
The Bizarro Centerpiece
My mother was no domestic goddess. She was a golfing, blackjack-playing, martini-drinking sort who had little to do with cooking, sewing, or, God forbid, “crafts.” Throughout my childhood, we ate Thanksgiving dinner at the golf club. This was essentially my parents’ place of worship. Both my sister and I were eventually married there, and we recently scattered my mother’s ashes on the ninth hole. The best thing about Thanksgiving at the club, as far as I was concerned, was the magnificent centerpieces the staff assembled: towering assemblages of nuts, fruit, chocolates, and candles in the shape of Pilgrim children that made my sister and me twitch with acquisitive longing.
Once I left home, I did things rather differently. Starting at the age of 19, I cooked myself silly every Thanksgiving. Even during my vegetarian years, and on through brining and turducken and other frivolities, I compensated for my mother’s uninterest. This particular rebellion of mine was just fine with her, as she was widowed early on and happy to have a reason to visit me. She would come clear across the country if necessary, always bringing her contribution: the centerpiece, a creation soon known as Mr. Turkey. Mr. Turkey had a simple red-felt turkey head, with a black-bead eye on either side, and was attached to the butt end of a pineapple with straight pins. You laid the fruit on its side so that the leaves took the place of tail feathers and…ta-da! Faux fowl!
Even though the S-shaped seams of the neck were ironed together in the manner of a third-grade art project, I am quite sure my mother did not make the turkey head herself. Perhaps it was a gift from one of the ladies at the bridge table. When an eye fell off, we drew one on with a Sharpie. And it was charming, in an outsider art–meets–Lillian Vernon kind of way. I put it at the center of my table every year, always surrounded by a flock of hand-carved apple swans I had learned how to make in my early 20s from a chef friend.
We found Mr. Turkey’s head up in the closet with the wrapping paper after my mother died, its edges rotting slightly from seeping pineapple juice. Since she has been gone, I somehow feel less like cooking. Last year I stuck his head on a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau in the dining room of a nearby hotel. I ordered the smoked-salmon appetizer. I know my mother would have approved.
Marion Winik is the author of eight books, including, most recently, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead ($14, amazon.com). She lives in Baltimore.