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Re-Visiting Thanksgiving

Story and photo by Paul F. Vang


On November 23, 2023, families will again gather at tables for a day of feasting, socializing, football, or whatever things are done in the name of tradition, or, sometimes, in the breaking of tradition.

Jenny Rostenstrach, a cookbook author, and blogger wrote a Thanksgiving essay for the New York Times last year. She described her usual kitchen scene as a last-minute scramble as all the various parts of a Thanksgiving dinner seem to come together all at once, with family members bustling around, getting in each other’s way, a last-minute search for serving dishes and utensils, gravy boiling over, etc.; a stressful occasion for all.

Yet, she concludes, “And truthfully, this is what we remember way more than whether a 14-pound turkey was enough or if that trendy cranberry custard pie was worth it. The chaos is the point.”

Yes, a little chaos does make the day memorable. When we look back at holidays of past years, it usually isn’t the rare occasion when everything goes like clockwork that we remember. It’s the mix-ups and misadventures that make a day memorable.

Our daughter, Erin, went to graduate school at Northwestern University in Evanston IL, on the north side of Chicago. After getting her music degree she stayed in Evanston a few more years after she got a job with a local software company as well as scrambling for gigs in area orchestras. She was far from family, though she was acquainted with a wide range of people in the area. For her first Thanksgiving as an independent self-supporting adult, she put out the word as follows: Erin’s Semi-Annual Potluck Thanksgiving for Homeless Waifs and Wayward Strays in which Homelessness and Waifliness Are Optional and Bringing Wine is Not, or ESAPTHWWSHWOBWN for short, and pronounced, Esaps-thwiss-wow-bwin.

She had the idea from her undergrad years, where an off-campus house held an annual potluck Thanksgiving dinner, recalling a standard feature of the day was Winter Croquet, playing croquet on a course set around leaf piles, trees, or snow drifts, depending on the weather. She remembers, “It was impossible, of course, but that was the point. It also seemed mandatory to carry a can of beer while playing.”

For that first potluck dinner in Chicago, she and a friend did some advance planning, to the point of getting a big turkey and a jar of olives, on the premise that she couldn’t rely on the hope that someone would bring olives. One person brought a bottle of Boodle’s Gin, which, paired with olives, resulted in her first martini.

She remembers one friend, Josie, who brought a special dish, Orange Bourbon Yams. Josie said the dish was a combination of two recipes, as she couldn’t decide which one to use, so combined them. Also, the dish called for just a quarter cup of bourbon, “But I just kinda poured it on.” Orange Bourbon Yams have become our family tradition. (See sidebar)

Erin also recalls that one of her friends, who was studying to become a rabbi, went through a big production to make sure the dinner, or at least the main parts, would be kosher.

In any event, the potluck Thanksgiving dinner was a big hit, and upwards of 20 people annually crowded into her tiny apartment near Lake Michigan to celebrate the day.

Erin later moved to California’s Bay Area, and she took the dinner tradition with her. My wife and I made annual trips to California to celebrate Thanksgiving with everybody, along with going wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma.

Sometimes, traditions change, such as a rebellion against the usual turkey dinner, with one year featuring two versions of the classic Spanish rice dish, paella.

On another Thanksgiving dinner, the theme was for a deconstructed take on traditional dishes. One couple brought a traditional green bean casserole, though this was made with fresh green beans, freshly made fried onion rings (not the canned type), and homemade cream of mushroom soup.

I will note that one curmudgeon in the family protested deconstructed and turkey-less Thanksgiving dinners and so traditional holiday fare made its return.

In 2013, in a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of varying calendars, Thanksgiving coincided with the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, and dinner was at the home of a Jewish friend. A menorah with Hanukkah candles shared the dinner table with the turkey, and readings from the family’s Torah followed dessert. That holiday was dubbed, “Thanksgivukkah.”

In 2017, Erin moved to Helena, Montana, so scary winter trips across Donner Pass are no longer part of our Thanksgiving ritual. Winter drives between Butte and Helena can be scary enough. The ESAPTHWWSHWOBWN continues, though not every year. My first and only wild turkey was featured in one of those dinners. One of the guests still gives me a hard time about my failure to make that an annual feature.

The point of all these Thanksgiving memories is that we don’t have to celebrate Thanksgiving in the same way every year.

An oven-roasted turkey may be the traditional centerpiece of most people’s Thanksgiving dinners. On the other hand, I have often cooked the Thanksgiving turkey over charcoal on a Weber grill. The house might not have the usual aroma of a turkey in the oven, but that smoky grilled turkey is darned good, even if making gravy gets tricky.

Life is full of changes. I have fond memories of childhood Thanksgiving dinners at my grandmother’s house, with a house full of extended family, many speaking Norwegian, gathered around the table, with likely a card table or two off to the side for kids. The biggest change for my wife and I is that we are now the grandparents, and most of that old extended family is now long gone.

One constant of dinners of past years to the present is that we are thankful for the blessings of family, friends, and good food. In this turbulent world, a festive table surrounded by beloved friends and family isn’t something to take for granted.

SIDEBAR – Josie’s Orange Bourbon Yams

6 medium-sized yams or sweet potatoes – cooked, peeled and cubed (canned sweet potatoes work also)

1 Cup orange juice

2 teaspoons orange zest or ground peel

1 Tablespoon cornstarch

3 Tablespoons melted butter

½ Cup brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

¼ Cup bourbon whiskey (at a minimum!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Place cubed sweet potatoes/yams in a greased baking dish

Combine and stir remaining ingredients and pour over yams

Bake for 30 minutes, occasionally basting the yams

Serve and enjoy!