“Let’s have a family Thanksgiving,” I said to my friend Mary, “without any blood relatives.” It was a time a few years ago when I had had my fill of filial histrionics and was fed up with the my-way-or-the-highway holiday hosts. I wanted a tradition without the traditional baggage, a happy feast prepared and shared by all — and lots of decent wine.
Mary and I couldn’t make it work that year; there were too many miles and too few days between us. And my frustration was a temporary thing, for as my younger siblings matured, then later found partners and had children of their own, they brought new traditions to the standard Southern mix. They nixed the tomato aspic but added organic winter salad; preserved my mother’s giblet gravy but offered vegetarian alternatives; gave in to my father’s love of sweet potatoes but acknowledged that caramelized acorn squash might be even better. They became adept at shaking up the kitchen without stepping on toes.
This was not an easy thing and, as the oldest child, I couldn’t do it alone. The centerpiece on the family table is a cornucopia of pithy opinions, fruit sometimes unpalatable or so full of seeds as to require an iron gut. I was the royal taster for quite some time.
In the mid-1980s, when Robert and I were graduate students and newly engaged, fellow scholars interning in France and Germany joined those of us in Brussels to share the American holiday. Each of us was assigned a Thanksgiving dish, and then set out on the adventure of finding a European equivalent. I searched everywhere for yams. I found them, finally, at the African market, a tented shop that appeared at the neighborhood square every weekend and quickly filled with women of the Congo, exotically perfumed and draped in their traditional garb. Those yams had an alien destiny.
Fifteen of us, all recent college grads, devoted that foreign Thanksgiving Day to talking, laughing, music and dancing as we prepared food and drank local beer and sipped French wine. It was casual, the way student gatherings must be, and pure fun. Our feast tasted authentically American and was absolutely wonderful. We had no room left for homesickness. Incredibly, it was not a holiday without family. One of my brothers, who was taking a backpacking gap year through Europe, found his way to Brussels just in time for turkey and dressing.
That same brother is hosting Thanksgiving this year. Everyone will be at his 19th-century farm in Virginia, a property he acquired when he was still a bachelor and that now serves as a country retreat for his growing family. His estate consists of the rustic main house, a pre–Civil War building which sits among 15 remote acres of fields and woods; a family graveyard up on the hill, heavy with history and surrounded by wrought iron fencing; a manmade pond for fishing and muddy dog play; a shallow stone fireplace on the banks of the pond, where children can roast marshmallows as the grownups sit and sip bourbon (and eat roasted marshmallows) in the late afternoon; and several ancient outbuildings, begging to be explored, that served as kitchen, laundry, tack room and workers’ quarters when the farm was in it’s prime. The place is pure magic for children and dogs, and a great escape from the modern world for the rest of us.
It’s a pity that we can’t be there. It’s just the sort of place I’d like to be for Thanksgiving, and my brother and his wife are easygoing hosts. Everyone has been asked to bring one or two platters of their culinary best, whatever that may be. My brother, not known for his cooking skills, discovered persimmon trees on the property and has succeeded in harnessing the only good that can come from that fruit. Persimmon pudding is now, proudly, his signature dish.
Here in San Diego, it will be an intimate family Thanksgiving: no extended family or friends. The children will be home for just a few days. We’ll all work together to make the feast—traditional fare from previous generations, a few family favorites and, from the next generation, a surprise, something delicious that none of us has ever tasted before.