I own a car, pay my own bills and have a retirement account. However, most years, my family sits me at the kiddie table at Thanksgiving. You know the holiday kiddie table, that foldout table, stuffed in the corner of the dining room. My family is super small, and we procreate sporadically. The "elders" get first dibs on the main table with the high-back chairs. Many years I am left eating the bird and dressing with my "baby cousins" who are 19 years my junior. My knees meet the table and I fear that those folding chairs will skid under my weight. Hopefully, I will get a promotion to the big table this year. If one of my older relatives is in a bad mood and decides not to eat with the rest of the family, I'm a shoo-in! If not, it's Disney tales at dinner for me.
Just last year I had a crazy Thanksgiving. But maybe it wasn't as bad for me as it was for my boyfriend. It was his first time meeting my family in Texas. And I'm not just talkin' bout my mom, stepfather and brother. It was my grandma, uncle, cousins, church members, family friends—and a pastor. Talk about vetting a candidate. He was grilled immediately after he finished eating. The reverend chatted him up for, oh, just about two hours. I'm walking up and down the stairs making sure he is still, you know, alive. In the end, he got the mark of approval, indeed something to be thankful for. But this year, pray for me. It's my turn to go to Georgia to see his fam. Hopefully I come out alive, too.
During my junior year of college, I decided that Thanksgiving was a bunk holiday. Pilgrims? Colonization? No thanks. A few of my Howard University friends and I decided we were going to fast in remembrance of the slain Native Americans. We all lived in different cities but talked on the phone as we fasted from sunup to sundown. The only thing I drank was cran-raspberry juice. I also allowed myself to eat Jay's salt-n-vinegar chips at the very end. My family rolled their eyes at me the entire time. By the end of the night, I had a stomachache. And I never touched the turkey. Not even the next day.
This is a story about what happens when two college kids decide to have their own Thanksgiving. We didn't dare try to cook the main course ourselves. So, my girlfriend Karen went to stand in a long line behind a reputable ham-and-turkey establishment for what seemed like hours "to secure the cheapest and dinkiest piece of meat possible." When Karen got to the counter, the lady kept looking for the rest of the order because she couldn't believe anybody in her right mind would have stood in line that wrapped around the building once or twice for a measly piece of meat. Things were only worse back at the house, as I cooked and cooked and cooked our pinto beans, squeezing all the moisture out of them and delivering them to the table in a dried state. Karen rounded out the meal with her famous macaroni and cheese that was mostly Velveeta. The dinner was so—how shall I put this—interesting that both of us had pushed memories of the day to dusty corners of our minds. We resurrected them momentarily only for The Root and will now return them to where they belong.
Canarsie, Brooklyn. Thanksgiving 2000. Imagine a starving artist who was pinching pennies to buy both a weekly Metrocard and a bag of white potatoes to last a week. Then imagine being invited to dinner where the starving artist could eat for days and then take plenty home to munch, crunch for at least a week. Imagine the starving artist being me. The house was packed. My friend Krista, her mother and 13 of her 20 siblings were in attendance. Yes, I said 13 and that does not include their seven to 10 offspring.
I was hungry. I hadn't eaten since 7 that morning and the one-hour-plus subway ride from Harlem to the last stop in Brooklyn made a brother extra hungrier. So after waiting three hours for every sibling to arrive with their designated dish, the food was placed on the table. Jerked turkey, Caribbean black fruitcake, rice and peas, curry goat, ackee and salt fish, sweet potatoes. Then came the prayer of thanks, and I was all about some thanks. I figured, hey, Krista's mother was the matriarch. She'd say a few things about her many children and then God bless the jerked turkey and we'd eat. I was wrong. She thanked and Krista thanked and the five nieces thanked and the four brothers thanked and each of her articulate, Ivy-League educated sisters (and their spouses) thanked. An aunt who walked in after the third thank, thanked. We were "thanking" for over an hour. No lie. By the time we were ready to eat, the food was cold, I had a headache, and my stomach was in so much hunger pain, I couldn't eat one single thing.
The only American part of our Thanksgiving feasts was the turkey and an occasional attempt at cranberry sauce that no one ate. For a meal to feel festive, Haitians need black mushroom rice, a decent tomato paste, onion sauce (not heavy gravy) and crunchy fried plantains. The plantains were best served hot, so my mother always made them last. The table was set, the plantains were draining on the paper towels, and my mother had her back turned to the stove to wash her hands of the final grease. She didn't notice that she'd left on the burner under the pan of oil. Suddenly the pan was on fire, and the flames were quickly spreading up the wooden cabinets and onto the ceiling. "Anmwé! Dife!" (Help! Fire!) My father, always prepared for any accident or calamity, quickly got the fire extinguisher and put out the flames that had, by then, engulfed nearly a quarter of the kitchen. Once the spraying and screaming stopped, we watched the foam ooze all over the rice, the sauce, the salad and, sadly, the plantains. The only thing untouched by the extinguisher's foam was the turkey that was still in the oven. It ended up being a very American Thanksgiving after all.
Thanksgiving was serious business in the first grade. Our teacher was unusually gifted at getting 6-year-olds excited about manual labor and had us stringing together garlands of popcorn and cranberries, shaking up cream into butter, and gluing together popsicle sticks to create a miniature pilgrim settlement. But the pièce de résistance was the chance to make either a Native-American headband or a pilgrim hat out of construction paper. By then, I was used to questions from my classmates when the word "Indian" came up around Thanksgiving. "We're not that kind of Indian," I would say. So I jumped at the chance to make a pilgrim hat, eager to prove a point. Afterward, the principal's assistant came by to photograph us for the school newsletter. I was among the lucky few who got to pose in front of the popsicle stick village, but my hat didn't fare so well. One of the teachers fitted me with a beautiful Native-American headband made by my friend, and the camera flash went off before I could even protest. There I was, once again, the Indian on Thanksgiving.
I lived in Dallas in the mid ʽ70s and after escaping to New York in 1978, I had little desire see the place again. When Lee, another former Texan, who made his escape at the same time, called and said he was bringing some friends over for Thanksgiving dinner, I remember my friend Kathy, our hostess, saying "good, fewer leftovers."
Be careful what you wish for.
The bird had been in the oven for about an hour and the sides ready to roll, when Lee arrived with his three friends, a trio of college-aged Mormon girls. I don't remember how or why they were with Lee; I just remember how clean cut and fresh faced they were. I don't mean that in a good way. Even though I'd lived in New York for six years at that point, I still felt a bit like an outsider in Gotham. In comparison to these girls, I felt like every archetypal gritty New York City character from a '70s American film. They were perfectly polite and well-mannered, and they might have been just fine as seat neighbors on a 90-minute flight but not all day.
I got the task of keeping them entertained. I walked them through the neighborhood cringing over the fact that they didn't understand why there were certain blocks that were not to be investigated. Tabloid headlines like, "Uptown Drug Dealers Feast on Mormon Turkeys" kept racing through my head.
We got back in time to help serve dinner at 3. I think the Mormon girls did OK on race matters but kept uttering the occasional homophobic slur, which couldn't have sat well with some of the other guests.
My hopes that the post-dinner Cowboys game would be a refuge from the Mormons were quickly dashed: The girls weren't just football fans, they were Cowboys fans. I joined Kathy in the kitchen to help clean up, and after we were done, she slunk into a chair and poured each of us a drink and said "now, I feel like a New Yorker."
I knew exactly what she meant.
A week before Thanksgiving last year, I broke up with my live-in boyfriend who had no job, no car and no plans to do anything but play Grand Theft Auto and write bad spoken word poetry. I was OK with my decision; it'd taken me 6 months to get there, but he was not. He pouted. He yelled. He took all his family photographs and keepsakes from the kitchen and the living room of my house and slept with them in the guest room in protest. I laughed and cried and whined to my friends via e-mail and phone calls. One friend hooked me up with a delicious baked macaroni and cheese recipe. Another invited me to a potluck. I wanted nothing more than to wallow in self-pity and comfort food, but I couldn't do it at my house. My soon to be ex-man felt like pouting at home and was adamant that he would not be seen with me.
On Turkey Day, I made turkey, gravy, collards and two trays of baked macaroni and cheese while he watched football. We ate dinner in silence and when I finished my food, I promptly got up, put on my favorite festive gear and grabbed my keys. "Where are you going?" he asked. "I'm going to the potluck," I announced, and I was out.
It was true insanity, but probably the most fun I've ever had on Thanksgiving. It included four plates of food, and I was sent home with more than six plates of food (the hostess was from Louisiana). Two dogs, 12 people, all crammed into the liveliest trailer in Kyle, roughly 30 minutes outside of Austin. The friend who invited me drank a little too much and started stroking my suede boots while his wife shrugged in mock surprise. One of the little kids broke the glass door in the back, but the adults were so stuffed and sleepy they worked it out without too much discussion. It was a trailer full of life. Even if it was chaotic and a bit uncomfortable, it kept me from being back at the war zone in my house, where the drama continued until ol' boy moved out right around Christmas.