Kids, so conventional wisdom goes, love tradition. Nay, they thrive on it, and children deprived of predictable repetition of favorite things — generally at certain times of the year — grow up bitter, confused and prone to madhouse behavior. Stripped, say, of the annualized appearance of a whole cooked turkey on the last Thursday of November, a child may grow up to consume pizza on the sacred day, or moussaka, or even just Twinkies.
Well, scratch the Twinkies, but you get the idea.
One of the most memorable Thanksgivings I ever spent was made so not by its wondrous array of food and family but, rather, the opposite. Living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in my early 20s, I somehow found myself alone in the city for Thanksgiving. I wandered over to Tom’s Restaurant on the corner of 112th and Broadway and contemplated the Thanksgiving Special Plate. It appeared all the different components had been boiled and bathed in margarine, and I poked at the unappealing mound of food while surrounded by a great many Asian students from nearby Columbia University. Somewhat at sea over this foreign holiday, they smoked Marlboro Lights between bites, having no more sense of what was proper on Thanksgiving than I would of what to do on Tet or the Lantern Festival or whatever.
Nowadays, Jen and I need only summon all of our five children to the table to have a healthy quorum for the feast. This is generally how we prefer it. Although we have other extended family in Colorado, we found long ago that happiness and harmony doesn’t necessarily coexist with all these folks in the pressure-cooker situation of a holiday gathering. Someone’s bound to resent the manner in which the potatoes were served, too much spiked eggnog could prompt an untoward diatribe regarding the outcome of the recent elections, or the drooling mastiff, emphatically proscribed by the hostess, yet appearing anyway, could defile the carpet.
I’m not suggesting any of this has happened in our family recently, but I’ve heard tell … and we all have our horror stories.
No, best to keep it tight, in our view, which in our family means a small cast and a predictable menu of items we all expect to see — the appearance of which surely promotes overall mental wellbeing as tradition is reinforced. As the family cook, I know deviation from the formulaic lineup of comestibles could lead to disappointment, at best, and outright rebellion at worst. I found on one recent Turkey Day that even my attempt to moosh up the jellied cranberry (so the ridges didn’t so blatantly advertise “I came from a can!”) was perceived as heretical by some. Looking back on my own childhood, my grandmother used to make the cranberry stuff from scratch, lovingly and with a cornucopia of family tradition going back to The Old World.
We all hated it, but when Gram died and we were forced to resort to the canned variety, we waxed nostalgic about that stuff she made — the recipe lost to time.
Were I explaining Thanksgiving to a newly arrived person from another galaxy, I might say “It’s a day when everyone in the country eats the same stuff, more or less, and mumbles some thanks for, y’know, all of that stuff.” The “true meaning” of Thanksgiving — and the factual and contextual details of the original event itself — may be lost in the wanton consumption of calories, but the notion of gathering family and/or friends is still an appealing diversion from the daily grind. Many turkeys will have lost their lives in the process, but they probably deserved it. And when Aunt Helen wheels out her famed Creamed Cornucopia disaster for the umpteenth time, we shall feign delight and thank our lucky stars for the tradition, if not the taste.
Alex Miller is a former editor of the Summit Daily and Vail Daily newspapers who recently moved to Highlands Ranch with his family. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.