Have A Super Basic Thanksgiving
Like many born in the last century, I first considered the tradition of Thanksgiving as a first grader.
In the canon of American holidays, it was my favorite: Halloween candy wasn’t worth being taunted by the older boys and their scary Dracula teeth (plastic, but still bloody!) The shiny jingle of Christmas, my mother gently explained, wasn’t for us. Valentine’s Day, with its inedible chalk hearts and unrequited crushes on the older boys, would also prove to be a disappointment.
While I preferred turkey in the form of processed lunch meat, I loved the color palette (all that rust and burgundy!) The scene of the “brave Pilgrims and kind Indians” (as teachers still called America’s native citizens back then) sitting down together seemed plausible, though I definitely preferred the latter’s leather-and-feathers style to the puritanical apron-and-buckles look. The specific menu also appealed to me, like a seder but without having to listen to a long story before you could eat anything.
Never mind that I’d never seen an autumn leaf in the Arizona desert or that the simplistic myth of our nation’s first colonizers thwarted questions about what actually happened to the land’s indigenous people. I wasn’t much of a deep thinker as a six year old. All I knew is that the only time we ever had marshmallows in the house.
While the problematic origins of Thanksgiving and its perennial platform for family dysfunction cannot be denied, I sometimes miss that first grader naivete. With no school or shul to attend, the day was defined by canned yams and the Macy’s parade on one of three TV channels. Other than someone murmuring “I suppose we should give thanks” and then the rest of us hollering “Thanks!” as we dove into the Corningware casserole dishes, it was a holiday low on expectation and high in gastric contentment.
Maybe I’m just nostalgic for the 1970s, those unhurried, analog years dimming fast in the rearview of our collective consciousness. I still remember President Jimmy Carter brokering peace in the Middle East with his big-toothed beneficence, my mother expressing admiration for his womens’ rights-championing wife, Rosalynn, may her memory forever be a blessing.
Generation X may be the last to lament that there was nothing—NOTHING! Not even infomercials!—on the three channels on Thanksgiving afternoon but football. (I swear, if Howard Cosell prank called me right now, I’d know immediately it was him.)
I can’t be the only one who used to tear up at the Folgers coffee commercials of grown kids surprising their moms for the holidays. (What these didn’t show was that the big duffle bag they shlepped home was full of dirty laundry or that they’d promise to get up early to make the cranberry sauce then sleep until noon.)
Obviously, everything got more complicated as we got older. Preparation became stressful, travel a nightmare, indigestion rampant. Many of us learned to slip the noose of uncomfortable family functions with various unorthodox Friendsgiving gatherings (I hear someone is hosting an all-chili spread this year? Bold!) Many indigenous Americans understandably choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving at all or observe it as a day of mourning.
At our house, the holiday comes with all the fixin’s but has become a bit more fraught over the years. Since 2015, Thanksgiving has been the anniversary of my dear mother-in-law’s passing, which cast a bittersweet pall on the day and bequeathed me with the task of making her wildly unpopular, labor intensive sweet potato orange balls. (I may finally eschew them this year. Seriously, no one eats them!)
Yet even the prescribed meal has been called into question. These days, the traditions of Thanksgiving are denounced as super basic, with the lifestyle influencers and recipe mags forever trying to fancy up the conventional bird-with-sides tableau. I liked it when you could just cobble together a centerpiece from a few hand-traced turkeys on popsicle sticks and some red and brown crayons and that was that.
And obviously, nobody likes roast turkey, but replacing it with salmon just seems sacrilegious. Though Thanksgiving’s lack of religiosity is part of why I still hew to my simplistic first grade clichés.
What’s wonderful about Thanksgiving is that it’s not special: Vague patriotic vibes, generic gentile food, an ambiguous mandate to look out to the people around the table and express some fuzzy platitudes, then eat until our faces fall off. If you keep your history straight and your boundaries clear, you can’t really fuck it up.
While I keep to the blueprint of my 70s upbringing, it doesn’t matter if you use canned green beans in the casserole or get Chinese takeout or didn’t invite drunk Aunt Fran who “doesn’t believe in the new pronouns” and eats pie with her fingers. Thanksgiving can be as basic or as messy as you like and still be completely legit, though it remains a fact that the Pilgrims would have most definitely become vulture food without the generous benevolence of the people who were here in the first place.
Other than correcting the historical record (and anyone’s preferred pronouns, if necessary,) I’m all for keeping Thanksgiving as simple as hand-traced turkey on a popsicle stick. May you have a seat at the table of your choice, and may the day be full of nourishment and blessings.
You wanna muck it up with cardamom gravy or your Trumpy aunt, that’s on you.
Grateful for y’all ~ JLL
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