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Zócalo Talks Turkey

Holiday Musings from Our Staff

Turkey

Long before psychologists started linking gratitude to improved mood and health, we’ve known that being thankful was good for us. Perhaps science will even find that feasting to the point of bloat, at least on occasion, is likewise beneficial. In that spirit-armed with the mindset that you can’t serve up too much of anything on Thanksgiving-we browbeat every member of Team Zócalo (successfully, about half the time) to offer up memories, reflections, or provocations for readers during this most American of holidays.

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That Time I Was a Very Good Kid

Thanksgiving is a rough time for me. It reminds me of what an awful daughter I am. In the past eight years, I’ve made it home only once. But that one time, in 2005, during my sophomore year, was pretty remarkable, as was the miserable Thanksgiving that inspired it. During my first year of college in Chicago, I’d gone to the campus chapel along with a handful of stragglers to dine on the $3 turkey dinners they were selling to us poor folk who couldn’t afford the trip home. Apparently, they thought we couldn’t afford a decent meal either.

I didn’t plan on going home that year, but starting the Friday before Thanksgiving, as I watched my dorm-mates pack for 10-day stays at home, I got the itch. I started scouring student travel sites, last-minute flight sites, and any other discount sites that would sell me a cheap ticket to Miami. Finally, two days out, I found a suitable flight leaving on Thanksgiving Day. I charged it on my 19-percent-interest student credit card (which I’m still paying off) and started packing.

I didn’t inform my parents that I’d be joining them. I had a friend pick me up at the airport. When I knew I was about eight minutes away from the house, I called my mom to throw her off. I asked her who was already over, what side dishes she was making, how much longer until the turkey was done, and told her how much I wished I were there. I pulled up to the house as she was taking cookies out of the oven. Still on the phone, she told me she could mail me some cookies. I opened the door and asked, “How about you give me some now?”

Since then, I’ve had an array of Thanksgiving experiences. In 2006, I had my first deep-fried turkey in London. In 2007, I knew I was part of my best friend’s family when she felt comfortable enough to walk out of dinner to go see her boyfriend, leaving me alone with her family. In 2008, I watched football and ate oysters in suburban Illinois. In 2009, I hosted my own Thanksgiving that ended up at a dive bar in Hollywood. Last year, I brought appetizers to Thanksgiving that were so good they stole the show. (Maybe that’s why I was only asked to bring bread rolls this year.) But no matter where I go or who I’m with, I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face that Thanksgiving of 2005.

Dulce Vasquez is managing director of Zócalo Public Square.

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Okie Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving is best when it’s hot, crowded, and chocolate-y.

At least, that’s how I was raised.

On Thanksgiving, my parents, brother, sister, and I would jump in the car for a 90-minute drive east from Pasadena to Redlands, in San Bernardino County. There, we’d meet up with dozens of my mom’s cousins and aunts and uncles from all over inland California-Modesto and Apple Valley and Victorville. Even though some family members had larger homes nearby, we’d all squeeze into my great-grandma Linnie’s 800-square foot house on Ohio Street.

This made Thanksgiving hot. Very hot. Redlands is usually 10 degrees hotter than Pasadena, so 90-degree Thanksgivings weren’t uncommon. And inside that house full of people, it was even hotter. While the food was being prepared, we kids would escape to the yard or the street to play touch football.

My great-grandma was an Okie who came to California during the Dust Bowl. She was proud of her origins. She was fond of saying, “I’m so old I wasn’t born in the United States.” Oklahoma was still a territory when she came into the world.

The Thanksgiving dinner she made for all these relatives reflected her origins. Nothing was healthy. All of it tasted good. Big portions of turkey and ham and mashed potatoes weren’t enough. There was fried chicken, too. The highlight was her famous stuffing, made as if she were still back in Okemah rather than late-20th-century Southern California. Even the cornbread that went into the stuffing was from scratch.

It all went down easy. The hard part was finding a place to sit and eat. I usually sat on the floor. Not that anyone minded.

After a post-dinner nap came dessert, the sweetest culinary event of the year. You had your choice of baked goods. The most popular item was the pie made by Linnie’s youngest daughter, Fern. It was a rich chocolate confection of eggs and butter–heavenly, it was said, because eating it could send you there. You had to grab a piece fast, and not merely because of demand. In the Redlands heat, the pie melted fast.

I wish I could still go to Thanksgiving at my great-grandma’s. But as Linnie approached 80, hosting became more of a chore. Thanksgiving moved to my great-uncle Dale’s ranch near Hesperia. It was a spacious place with one room done up like a trucker bar. But the early ’90s recession decimated Dale’s trucking business. Not long after, Linnie passed away. Her little house was sold.

The big family Thanksgivings died with her. Some people moved–back East or back to Oklahoma. Parts of the family still get together on Thanksgiving, but not in the same numbers. Ever since Linnie died, Thanksgiving has seemed smaller and colder.

But she passed her recipes on to all of us. And so we do what we can to keep the spirit of the Redlands Thanksgivings alive. My mother makes great-grandma’s stuffing. And I whip the butter and eggs into Aunt Fern’s Chocolate Pie.

Joe Mathews is California editor of Zócalo Public Square.

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My Dream Thanksgiving-With a Nod to Carrie

I’ve always harbored fantasies about hosting an “orphans’ Thanksgiving.” I assume it’s because I grew up on stories like The Boxcar Children and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe--those staples of children’s literature where adults don’t exist. I’ve always lived a short car or train ride away from my extended family, which is probably another reason why I’ve mythologized Thanksgiving away from home.

I have no cause to think of myself as an orphan–I have two perfectly healthy parents–but this year I was determined to live some version of my dream at long last. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and quasi in-laws are 3,000 miles away, as are their issues (who needs to be kept away from the gin before dinner, who keeps kosher, who’s still single). My younger brother, who also lives in Los Angeles, will be at my table, as will my boyfriend. I’ve known the rest of the guests for only a few months. The set-up, far from home, is sufficiently orphan-like that I was initially overjoyed by the idea of an ad hoc Thanksgiving with my new L.A. family. Never mind that most of them are more like acquaintances. I planned to win them over with cranberry sauce, stuffing, and copious cheap red wine.

But at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday evening, my excitement started to turn to panic. I picked up a turkey at Trader Joe’s triumphantly and felt something wet run down my arm. I assumed it was condensation. It turned out to be turkey blood. It was staining my shirt, purse, and shoes. Then I remembered I had other problems. I don’t have a dishwasher. And I had–make that have–a lot of other stuff to do between now and then. So now I’ve got a turkey in the fridge and six, or eight–or is it nine by now?–hungry people set to arrive in less than 48 hours.

More wine, anyone?

Sarah Rothbard is managing & books editor of Zócalo Public Square.

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More Traditional Than I Knew

One Thanksgiving, several years ago, my family sat down for our annual visit to the dining room table. We passed the dishes around, filled our plates, and got ready to dig in. That’s when my mom stopped us to try launching a new tradition.

“Let’s all go around and say one thing we’re thankful for,” she said, looking at me. “Adam?”

I was caught off guard, and couldn’t think of anything to say.

My dad jumped in: “Me too. Let’s eat.”

Seeing a chance to dodge the question, the six of us laughed it off and got to work on the food.

Looking back, I think it was a worthy attempt to start something meaningful. Growing up, I’d always thought we didn’t have any traditions, that our Thanksgiving was just a day of turkey and sleep. But this year, for the first time, I’m living across the country from my family. After taking a job in Washington, D.C., this summer, I’ll be taking my first trip home to Phoenix this week. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my family, how great it will be to sit down with them for dinner, and what we’ll do as part of our typical Thanksgiving. And in the mental planning, I’ve realized, despite the absence of a dinner-table gratitude go-around, that we do, in fact, have a set of rituals.

Every Thanksgiving morning, with scents from the kitchen making their way through the house, we all eat a slice of pumpkin pie and watch the Macy’s parade–a practice my grandma introduced to us. Later, as activity picks up in the kitchen, my grandpa compares our two dogs, constantly surveying the counters and floors, to the Bumpus hounds that devour the turkey in A Christmas Story. (After all, Thanksgiving officially marks open season for everything related to Christmas.)

As it gets later in the day, and we’re all certain the turkey is overcooking, my mom says the smoke alarm will tell us when dinner is ready. (We say the smoke alarm might as well be Pavlov’s bell.) We also remember our “turkey jerky” Thanksgiving, from that year when smoke really did pour out of the oven.

As we sit down at the table, my dad defends his decision to buy a 25-pound turkey for the six of us. He normally avoids leftovers, but Thanksgiving food should last for days. Then my sister says grace–literally just the word “grace”–and it’s time to eat.

During dinner, my sister and I look for two things. First, who’s hoarding the most dishes? Second, who’s doing the most to ruin the white tablecloth? Whether they’re deserved or not, both titles will go to dad.

As we clean up, and the dogs devour the gizzard, I get called out for trying to avoid doing dishes (unjustifiably, of course), and we slog back to the living room to work through our food comas and watch football.

Everything we do fits into the typical Thanksgiving, but this odd routine we go through culminates in a family dynamic I have grown to appreciate much more since moving away. Going through this plot each year is a tradition we couldn’t force, and it’s one that relies on togetherness. So if we do go around and say what we’re thankful for before dinner this year, I know I won’t be caught off guard. But I will maintain that it’s not our tradition.

Adam Sneed edits Walk Like an American for Zócalo Public Square.

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A Korean Near-Tradition

Growing up with Korean parents who lacked any holiday spirit, I always yearned for some type of tradition, particularly on Thanksgiving. We don’t have a special meal we cook that day, nor do we have relatives in the United States. None of us likes turkey meat.

Instead, we’ve always been a part of other families’ rituals, joining them in their homes and eating their food. In recent years, though, we’ve kept to ourselves. I suppose my parents have realized that freeloading gets old after a couple of decades. These days, we’ll spend Thanksgiving watching television, relaxing, snacking, and going to the movies. It’s like a Sunday without the dread of going to work the next day. We don’t spend the entire day preparing dinner. Rather, we make a few dishes we like, such as ribs, Korean-style barbeque, green-bean casserole (my favorite), and, if we feel like it, mashed potatoes and gravy. We also have pumpkin pie, but our love of it and our lack of self-control result in half being devoured the night before Thanksgiving, with the remainder eaten the next morning for breakfast.

This Thanksgiving is my first as an independent working woman. Until now, I’d lived at home (even through college), and holidays were just days with better food. They came and went without the process of planning travel or the excitement of looking forward to seeing family. It will be my first time packing up a few clothes and driving back home to Arizona since I moved to L.A. To be sure, one view of downtown L.A. on my way to my new apartment was all it took to make Arizona a thing of the past, but change can give rise to a new ritual. From this year on, I plan on going home to my parents each Thanksgiving, and in turn they will look forward to their daughter’s visit. This I am thankful for.

Yujin Kim is program coordinator of Zócalo Public Square.

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The Most Generous Of Days-Just Think Of Your Horrible Flight

Remember the pivotal scene in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas when the Grinch is puzzled that all the Whos down in Whoville still come out to celebrate Christmas, holding hands and singing songs, despite the fact that he has taken off with all their presents and goodies? I had the same reaction when witnessing my first American Thanksgiving as a student from Mexico three decades ago.

It isn’t just that Thanksgiving is like Christmas without the presents, or that I find turkey to be an overrated celebratory dish, but that the holiday itself belies the most negative stereotypes of U.S. culture prevalent in Latin America and elsewhere–those of Americans as an overly commercialized people who are generous in the aggregate but lacking in warmth toward immediate friends and family.

Such generalizations are of dubious value on any day, but they are downright absurd on Thanksgiving. As a boarding student in New Hampshire my first year away from Mexico, I couldn’t believe the number of invitations I received to Thanksgiving dinners. Close friends, mere acquaintances, faculty, and townspeople all reached out to make sure this boy from Chihuahua wasn’t left out in the cold on Thanksgiving. It was moving.

I have now lived in the United States for the bulk of my life, but I haven’t lost that sense of awe and surprise at the unconditional social cohesion underpinning this holiday, when no one is to be left out. That desire to make a place at the table for strangers, and to prepare meals for those in need, is a genuine expression of American generosity.

Let me mention the obvious: there are no presents. The most astonishing ritual of Thanksgiving–that of coerced travel–is far more generous. Nothing could be more miserably selfless than the annual migration of millions–by car, by plane, by train, you name it–on the Wednesday before, and the Sunday after, Thanksgiving.

You’d think people would endure this hardship only for serious treasure. But no, millions of Americans endure it just to sit around the table with the likes of eccentric Uncle Ralph (or whoever tells the inappropriate jokes at your enlarged Thanksgiving table) and then fall into a deep snore while watching the Dallas Cowboys exercise their inexplicable monopolistic hold on the second football game of the day. For this, we travel, under the most horrific circumstances–for family, to remind ourselves of ancestral homes, that they may never be left fully behind.

If I were to take a newly arrived student from Mexico, or anywhere else, to one iconic Thanksgiving setting, it would be to the dank bowels of New York City’s Penn Station on the eve of the holiday, under the big board where train tracks are listed. Penn Station is a glaring exception to the trend that things about life in New York have improved in recent years. For deeply mysterious reasons, Amtrak and NJ Transit haven’t mastered the technological intricacies of assigning a track more than a few minutes in advance of a train’s arrival. Hence the anxious ritual of hundreds of travelers huddling under that board before making the mad, frenzied charge en masse to the right door once the number flips onto the screen.

Students, families, older people, pinstriped masters of the universe, all stand there, huddled together, staring up at the board, awaiting their track assignment for Philadelphia/Washington or Providence/Boston or Trenton, awaiting directions to get back to their beloved relatives, even the eccentric ones, and the mediocre food handed down to us by the Pilgrims in their funny hats, often with an assist by grandma’s special cranberry sauce recipe.

To partake in that New York holiday tradition, as I did for many years, is to witness the true essence of Thanksgiving: the longing to get back; the sacrifice involved; the glimpses of love, even.

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square.

*Photo courtesy of Larry and Laura.