Adventurous Families Spice Up Thanksgiving Traditions
Across the country, families representing different cultures and backgrounds share similar Thanksgiving rituals. Traditional holiday pastimes include the turkey-and-all-the-trimmings dinner with family and friends, followed by viewing endless football games on TV. Yet plenty of people around the U.S. break with tradition in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons — family dynamics, geography and the desire to put their personal stamp on the fourth Thursday in November among them.
Thanksgiving has become a time to try new meat-free recipes for Marcy Bauer of Raleigh. She and her husband, William, gave up eating all meat except fish in 2007 for moral and health reasons. That first Thanksgiving, Bauer wanted to prepare a fish dish in recognition of what the first American native hosts likely served their newly arrived guests.
So she made fish tamales, which she, her husband and her then-4-year-old son had as their main dish, and guests enjoyed as a side dish. The next year, Bauer made a salmon main course for her family of three.
“For the first two years (of foregoing most meat), it was very important to me to do something that the Native Americans would have prepared,” Bauer says, to imbue their new dietary changes with more meaning. “And it’s fun for me to come up with different meal ideas that don’t involve turkey.”
Bauer says although she and her husband were careful not to impose their values on extended family — with whom they often spend holidays — her parents were a little defensive. “When first we told them about going meatless, our family reacted like, ‘Well, Thanksgiving is turkey, and Christmas is turkey,’ even though we weren’t asking them to give up having turkey,” Bauer says.
Over the years, Bauer’s family has come to appreciate her jazzy veggie dishes, particularly a meatless shepherd’s pie she served one year.
This year, Bauer and her family will spend Thanksgiving at her in-laws’ home in Arizona. She plans to make a lentil coconut soup over chopped greens, with a scoop of brown rice and some jalapeno and cilantro on top.
“I may swap out the coconut milk with something else so that it pairs better with the sides that our meat-eating family will most likely prepare,” she says.
While their menu will be traditional, Tania Grant, her husband, Brian, and their three children aren’t going to be at their Raleigh home for Thanksgiving — or at any home, for that matter. The Grants are meeting Brian’s parents, who live in Ohio, in Gatlinburg, Tenn., home of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park.
“Since Thanksgiving break is so short, it doesn’t always work out to travel far,” Grant says. “Gatlinburg is kind of halfway between Raleigh and where my in-laws live, and they’ve been there before.”
The Grants will stay in a cabin near the hotel where Brian’s parents will lodge, and they’ll meet for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant called the Apple Barn for turkey and down-home side dishes. Because they’ll be surrounded by family and familiar food, Tania isn’t concerned that her children — who are in sixth, fifth and first grade — will miss not being at her in-laws’ home or with her brother in Atlanta, where they usually spend Thanksgiving.
“We always say grace and what we’re thankful for, and we will do that this year, too,” she says. “Another of our traditions is to go to the mall to see Santa the day after Thanksgiving, and since Gatlinburg has many year-round Christmas attractions, we’ll also get to do that.”
The Bauers and Grants are varying a traditional holiday to suit their unique needs. Whether they have different food preferences or live too far to host or visit loved ones, any family can take a creative approach to Thanksgiving, according to traditions expert Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day.
Cox describes a chance meeting with an Indian immigrant who wanted to celebrate her new country’s most celebrated national holiday, but couldn’t serve turkey because she and her family, like most Hindus, are vegetarians. So they enjoyed a vegetarian feast and said a blessing for all the turkeys being served that day, Cox recalls.
For families with young children, there are plenty of easy ways to change up Thanksgiving. For example, Cox says, a family could vote on one new dish to add to the table that year. Or if there is a particular food that figures prominently in your family’s history, consider serving that, like one family whose ancestors subsisted on turnips during a famine, she says.
“In my book, I describe how some families create a Thanksgiving scroll that is taken out each year for people to write down what they’re grateful for,” she says. “There are also directions for a gratitude tree.”
Cox practices what she preaches. When she and her family spent one long-ago Thanksgiving at her stepdaughter’s home, her son, who was very young at the time, felt homesick. Longing for the familiar, he asked his mother to go outside with him to complete their gratitude tree, which she had brought with them. They didn’t want to disturb or involve the other guests.
“One of the things I talk about is the importance of being flexible,” she says. “The theatrics of expressing gratitude is full of opportunities to create your own traditions.”
Suzanne M. Wood is a Raleigh-based freelance writer and mother of three.
Two Holidays in One
This year, Thanksgiving falls on Nov. 28, the first day of Hanukkah — an eight-day-long Jewish festival of lights that typically occurs a couple of weeks before Christmas.
This unique convergence of two holidays falling on the same date happened once before — in 1888, when Thanksgiving was officially recognized as the “last” instead of “fourth” Thursday in November. (Congress passed a law on Dec. 26, 1941, officially making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.)
According to bloggers and calendar math whizzes Jonathan Mizrahi (jonathanmizrahi.blogspot.com), the Lansey Brothers (lanseybrothers.blogspot.com) and Steve Morse (stevemorse.org), this will happen again in 2070 and 2165, when the first day of Hanukkah falls the day after Thanksgiving, since the first night’s candles are lit the night before, which will be Thanksgiving night. Needless to say, it’s a rare occurrence.
Robin Dorfman of Raleigh is looking forward to this unique event. Her enthusiasm was stoked when her mother sent her a newspaper clipping about a New York City boy who was creating a unique Menorah to commemorate the holiday: a plaster or ceramic turkey whose tail feathers hold the candles. Nine-year-old Asher Weintraub raised $48,000 from “crowd sourcing” website Kickstarter to fund production of his product, which he calls a “Menurkey.” (Photo of Menurkey above courtesy of Anthony Weintraub)
Dorfman, who has sixth- and third-grade daughters, was one of the Menurkey’s first backers. “When I read about it, I knew I had to have one, since this is such a crazy, weird event,” she says. Dorfman will take the Menurkey and special Menorah candles to the home of Rachelle Schwartz, who annually hosts a Thanksgiving get-together for about 30 friends and family. This year, Schwartz will get into the spirit of both holidays. In addition to the deep-fried turkey plus all the fixings she and her husband prepare, Schwartz will serve traditional Hanukkah foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (a fried, jelly-filled doughnut).
“We’ll also light the Menurkey centerpiece before dinner — probably some of the kids will get to light the two candles — and spin the dreidel afterward,” Dorfman says. “And, of course, all the boys will be watching football.”
Nov. 28 will be such a remarkable event in the life of American Jews that Dorfman fully expects artifacts created for the day “to end up in museums like the Museum of Modern Art or the Smithsonian.”
— Suzanne Wood