Family Matters, November 2021

Traditionally untraditional

My family’s flexible Thanksgiving feast

BY CLAIRE MULLEN

When I look back on it, I think that a seed was planted several Thanksgivings ago when my baby brother suggested that we have Caesar salad along with our turkey, dressing and sweet potato casserole. After the cooks of our family balked at his wildly untraditional proposal and unanimously shot it down, my brother simply replied, “Ok, but why not?”

Which got me to thinking … why couldn’t a Caesar salad exist on the Thanksgiving table beside the other “vegetables” du jour – collard greens seasoned with smoked ham hocks and simmered in two sticks of butter, and green bean casserole topped with extra fried onions? Why are we so resistant to change when it comes to our holiday celebrations? As the years of my adult life have gone by, I’ve witnessed my family’s growing willingness to adapt some of our rigid, decades-old holiday traditions and entertain more practical plans. It has been a slow evolution, but we’ve made a collective effort to let go of the “just because we’ve always done it that way” approach in favor of flexible plans that account for the changing seasons of life.

Historically, sometime around mid-October, a self-appointed family member would send out a text message on our family thread that said something along the lines of, “Has anyone thought about plans for Thanksgiving yet?” And then, the ball would officially be rolling on the Herculean task of agreeing on a get-together date and time that accommodated the schedules of one parent, his four adult children, their three spouses, and, ultimately, five grandchildren. Two of the adults are medical professionals with on-call schedules that sometimes come into play. We married siblings must also be mindful of our in-laws’ holiday plans, and several of us have mapped out agendas that involve alternating Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with each side of the family in a rotation that switches every year. While great in theory, the problem with this is that no one can ever really seem to remember exactly where we all were the year before.

Over the years, we’ve had to work our feast around hospital rounds, babies’ naptimes, deer hunts, duck hunts and Turkey Trots. On a few occasions, some of us have attempted the virtually impossible feat of attending two family Thanksgiving meals in the same day. One year, we all trickled into Dad’s house at suppertime for Round 2, everyone except Dad and my bachelor brother already as stuffed as the turkey, toting overly tired little ones and side dishes. That was the first Thanksgiving that my family sat down to eat after dark. I recall unbuttoning my jeans and thinking that I should have brought a family-sized bottle of Pepto-Bismol in place of my untouched pecan pie.

It was after that year that my dad, typically a traditionalist in every sense of the word, proposed a radical solution to the growing challenge of gathering every member of our growing family for Thanksgiving. What if, Dad asked, our Thanksgiving didn’t even happen on Thanksgiving? He reasoned that this would give his kids the chance to enjoy Thanksgiving Thursday with their in-laws in an unrushed fashion, and we could all gather later in the weekend for our own feast. After all, said my dad, we can be thankful any day of the week, and what really matters is being together.

And so, this past Thanksgiving, my family all convened at my house on Saturday. I set the table with pumpkin-themed paper plates and napkins after I took inventory of my china cabinet and realized that family members had already far outnumbered the eight-place-setting china collection that I’d added to my wedding registry as a 22-year-old. As I divvied out plastic utensils, I wondered if my mother and grandmothers, each a quintessential Southern hostess, were looking down on me with great judgement. I could almost hear them exclaiming, “Awwww Lawd!” in their sweet drawls. Of course not. They would all just be “tickled” that their family would be together making new memories.

Before the 12 of us sat down to feast, we grazed on an on-trend charcuterie board. I can’t say that I remember the Pilgrims and Native Americans gathering over artisan cheeses, gluten-free flaxseed crackers and salami shaped into a rosebud, but I do know that there was not a crumb left by the time we were all done. My brothers-in-law fried a turkey for the first time that we all picked to the bone and agreed should be a new staple. My jokester little brother surveyed the spread and, as he now does every year, dramatically asked the whereabouts of the Caesar salad. We said a blessing in memory of my grandfather who had recently passed, and in thanks for the baby boy growing in my sister’s belly who would come to be named after him.

After our meal, everyone (including me) made their way to the backyard to enjoy my sister’s amazing pumpkin cheesecake, sip coffee and a new recipe for Apple Cider Mimosas while we watched the little ones play in the November sunshine. It was not lost on me that, thanks to my disposable scores, I did not have to stay behind in the kitchen as I recall my grandmother doing to hand-wash the fine china plates, crystal goblets and sterling silver cutlery that I remember from the tables of my youth.

We’ve spent the year since last Thanksgiving randomly reminiscing about what a wonderful day that was. My sister’s husband proclaimed it the best Thanksgiving yet. And, in a happy turn of events, my dad since has married a wonderful woman with three grown kids, two sons-in-laws, one daughter-in-law and four grandchildren of her own. I don’t think any of us have quite yet figured out the best way to blend our customs or whether it’s even possible to gather such an enormous family under one roof. But what I do know is that we have all learned that change can be good as long as the important things remain: thankfulness and togetherness. And I also know that we’re going to need a bigger table. Claire Mullen can be reached at clairejlmullen@gmail.com.