Thanksgiving: A Life's Journey Through Food

A food historian's evolving holiday traditions show that family can be found anywhere.


I have never cooked a turkey or hosted a family around a table set with fine china and groaning under the weight of holiday fare. Instead, I am a Thanksgiving orphan. I will stop at the homes of old friends and new acquaintances in search of family conviviality and turkey. I didn't begin my life this way.

During my childhood, it was pure Norman Rockwell -- over the river and through the woods (OK, through the tunnel and down the turnpike) to my maternal grandmother's house in Plainfield, N.J. There, my mother and her nine siblings and their spouses and spawn crowded around the dining room table. As an invariably overdressed, pampered only child -- and, unless Uncle Greg had brought his brood, the youngest cousin -- I recall that my earliest childhood memories involved attempting to avoid the merciless teasing that always awaited me at the children's table. My Aunt Lalage often saved me from that horrible fate, and I would proudly roost with the adults, listening wide-eyed to tales of family history and my aunts' childhood mayhem.

I also got served first and savored the meal: turkey and ham cooked to perfection, an array of vegetables and Grandma Jones' freshly made Parker House rolls. Her Virginia upbringing came out in home-canned, clove-scented watermelon-rind pickles and cinnamon-spiced seckel pears, and there was always the obligatory jellied cranberry sauce. I don't remember the desserts, but I still get a warm glow recalling the warmth of family and the joyous feeling of being a part of a larger whole that were a part of my childhood holidays.

The Thanksgivings of my middle years were spent in Queens, N.Y. There I delighted in creating a larger family by bringing home friends from around the world to the table of my small nuclear family. One year, guests might be from the Republique du Benin or Senegal in West Africa, while another might find the table ringed with friends from Rio de Janeiro or Salvador, Brazil.

My parents and I delighted in introducing each new guest to the most American of holidays, and some friends became annual regulars. My mother, who loved nothing better than a party that allowed her to show off her considerable culinary skills, could always be counted on to wow them.

Some years the meal would begin with a warm fruit soup; others would feature grapefruit halves topped with rum and sugar and caramelized under the broiler. The rest of the meal, however, was comfortingly the same. My mother's turkeys were always fresh-killed. In the era when frozen Butterballs were the norm, she knew what she wanted and how to get it. The turkey was always ordered well in advance from the local butcher, and by the time that she'd filled it with savory cornmeal stuffing and cooked it to perfection, we all appreciated the extra effort she'd taken.



Desserts were abundant and all about pie. We varied between sweet potato and pumpkin, but there was always the mincemeat that was my favorite and, if Mom was feeling a little frisky, lemon meringue with fluffy, lightly browned peaks. My family might have been smaller, but as the conversation veered from English to French to Portuguese, we made a family out of the world and reveled in it.

After my father's death, my mom and I continued to dine friends and family for a couple of years, but after a few Thanksgivings of staring at each other solo when they couldn't make it, we decided to try our luck elsewhere. There was a rainy one without turkey at a hotel in Barbados, a contentious one with soon-to-divorce friends in New Orleans, and a few celebrated in restaurants that featured dry turkey and pitiful vegetables. While fun and convivial, they never felt quite right, so we went back to our dinners à deux.