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Column: A year after pandemic-altered Thanksgiving, traditions new and old return

When Thanksgiving plans came up for discussion at the weekly family video meeting, my mother asked if we could celebrate this year like we did not last year. 

At the time, a wildfire was consuming the part of California where my sister Ellen lives, another was burning a few miles from my mother’s place in Nevada, a violent tornado-laden storm was about to pass over the part of Arkansas where my sister Judith lives, and I had been awakened a few nights before by a Biblical downpour that sent the dog under the dining room table. 

Compared to the weather, the question of how we could celebrate Thanksgiving felt like a safe subject.

Thanksgiving, that cherished family meal we’ve been celebrating all our lives, was cut off at the knees last year by quarantine, health-related isolation, and fear of travel. My immediate family managed to have dinner together anyway: turkey sandwiches with cranberry dressing at a picnic table in a public park. Not only did we skip the touch football, we didn’t really even touch. 

This year I’m ready to rethink Thanksgiving. 

The last time we really changed our Thanksgiving practices was in 1980 when my sister came home from her second year of college, looked across the table at my father, and announced she was now a vegetarian. Although she laid no judgment on the meat-eating rest of the family, my father reacted as if she had changed her name and joined a cult. 

It was a good change. We started to get more creative with the side dishes. We stopped cooking all the stuffing inside the bird, eventually going to a system that treated the dressing as the meal’s centerpiece, and not something that had to be dug from the recesses of a 20-pound avian.

It’s not just in my family. A fascination with elaborate, nontraditional side dishes is in the zeitgeist. It’s suave to say you don’t particularly care for turkey, fashionable to eat only sides and festive to adorn your dressing of dried brioche with nuts and olives — so rich and eggy that it’s a sheet-pan meal disguised as a side dish. 

Thanksgiving as an official American holiday is not as old as you think. 1941 was the first year that it was recognized as a national day of feasting with closed schools and offices. Before that it was celebrated in some places and not others, and the menu varied depending on where you lived. 

The line between the three-day feast in 1621 at which Wampanoag natives and Plymouth colonists may have eaten together in harmony and friendship, and the Norman Rockwell Thanksgivings of the 20th century is a sketchy one, blurred by myth-making and romantic ideas. 

How happy were the local people to share their bounty with newly arrived Europeans? Were Native Americans trying to tolerate these transplanted colonists, and help them live sustainably on the land? And whether the story is true or not, should we follow that example today, by putting up with politically misguided friends and conspiracy theorist relatives and by eating things that were grown nearby? 

Thanksgiving is an eating holiday, and if the thing you ate at your earliest Thanksgivings was a one-inch high puree of sweet potatoes with three inches of foamy, gooey, toasted marshmallows on top, no other sweet potato treatment will do. Nothing pours the shellac of sentiment onto a menu like childhood memories. If you want to goad someone (not a very First-Thanksgiving thing to do), challenge the foods of their childhood and stand back as they hold forth about whether it’s acceptable to cook a turkey in a roasting pan instead of deep frying it in the back yard. 

When I started hearing about the broken supply chain and how it might affect the supply of turkeys this year, I was hit with the same wave of panic I felt during the shortages in the early days of the pandemic. Would I have to stalk Sachem’s Woods with a slingshot and bring down my own? Without a small-game hunting license?

I’ve resolved not to worry about getting back to a normal Thanksgiving. 

It will be better than last year, and different from the past. Two years ago, I thought I’d never be able to adjust to life without grocery-store-supplied shopping bags, and now I walk into the IGA with enough bags tucked under my arm to carry home the entire dairy case, and 16 rolls of paper towels. This year, out with the turkey sandwiches eaten at a picnic table, and in with an indigenous dish of corn, beans and squash to tell the story of a new Thanksgiving. 

I just have to figure out how to get local marshmallows.