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We Gather Together. . .

To celebrate Thanksgiving exactly the way
we've always done, dangit.

 

Thanksgiving, not Christmas, is the big holiday for foodie magazines, whose tables of contents overflow with fresh ideas for family turkey-day feasts. Here are six ways to liven up Grandma's tired old cranberry-sauce recipe, nine exciting twists on mashed potatoes, and more ways to make stuffing than you can shake a loaf of bread at. And then of course there are the turkey recipes: Southwestern Chipotle Turkey with Green Chile-Sausage Dressing, Tangerine-Glazed Turkey, New England Clam Chowder-Brined Turkey with Johnny Cake Stuffing. Okay, I'm making up that last one, but when you see it in the pages of next November's Gourmet or Food and Wine, remember you saw it here first so you can testify when I sue.

As obsessive as I usually am about dog-earing the pages in these magazines, though, the hefty Thanksgiving issues mostly leave me cold. I have zero interest in whipping up Butterscotch Turkey with Brickle-Bits Gravy for this year's Thanksgiving repast, or in varying by even one berry my mom's cranberry-sauce recipe (which, conveniently, the Ocean Spray folks reprint every year on the back of the bag — wonder if Mom gave them the OK?).

For me, the whole point of Thanksgiving is tradition, which means doing pretty much the same thing year after year. It's the comfort of finding a place to stand, even just for one day, in a fast-changing world. If one year Thanksgiving meant turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce and the next we celebrated with roast beef and fireworks, that wouldn't exactly be "tradition," not in my definition of the word.

 

When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving tradition began — as most weekday mornings began — with Captain Kangaroo. I'd roll out of bed and watch raptly as the Captain, Mister Green Jeans (whose identity I had to take on faith, since the TV was black and white), Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose went through their own Thanksgiving rituals, which were as dependable as the fact that the Captain would get doused with ping pong balls.

Captain Kangaroo's televised celebration inevitably included a moving rendition of "We Gather Together" — one of, by my count, only two Thanksgiving songs (the other being "Come, ye Thankful People"). Arguably, "Over the River and Through the Woods" constitutes a third, though it never spells out exactly why everyone's going to grandmother's house. In any case, this seems a strangely unfilled niche, compared to the proliferation of Christmas carols. When some aspiring songwriter reads this and hits the jackpot with "Randy, the Red-Nosed Turkey," "The Pilgrim Song," "A Holly, Jolly Harvest" and "Here Comes Polly Puritan," consider this my claim for royalties.

Before the Captain and the gang's heartfelt closing number, however, they had to make place cards for the Thanksgiving feast. Why, with only the four of them, they needed place cards to mark who's who and who sits where, I have no idea — any more than I can explain why I likewise had to carefully cut and crayon place cards for our own family of three. Handcrafted paper Pilgrims, Indians and turkeys identified where my mom, dad and I would sit for the annual feast, which was exactly the same chairs where we sat the other 364 days of the year.

My grandparents were all dead well before I was beyond "Captain Kangaroo"-watching age, and they and our other relatives all had homes in distant states, so going over the river and through the woods for Thanksgiving was out. Nor did anybody trek to South Dakota to join our family for the holiday, which was fine by me. I had my traditions, and they did not include making more than three place cards.

The traditional Thanksgiving meal, which I continue to replicate with only minor modifications (using actual onions, for instance, in lieu of onion salt) for my family every year, was composed of turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, peas and a simple dressing free of such embellishments as sausage, fruit or, in my mother's original recipe, actual vegetables. Over the years I've made occasional concessions to family tastes or the odd visitor, such as substituting corn for peas or adding mashed potatoes. (When you have dressing that's essentially seasoned butter with a bit of bread to soak it up, why do you need mashed potatoes? Did the Pilgrims have mashed potatoes? Okay, probably they did, but if they'd tasted my dressing they wouldn't have bothered. Heck, they served oysters, too — what did they know?)

A few times, when my sister-in-law had infected our daughter with a dislike for turkey, I even added ham to the menu. "Turkey is so dry," this treasonous duo would whine. Captain Kangaroo would have court-martialed the both of them.

 

So I'm not inflexible in my clinging to tradition. Some years, we'd even go back to South Dakota for Thanksgiving and somehow manage to squeeze in two holiday feasts — one with each set of parents/in-laws. I'd dutifully chow down on my mother-in-law's notion of a Thanksgiving meal, stifling my inner outcry against her various holiday heresies. (Salad? Who needs salad at Thanksgiving? Is that sage in the stuffing? And where are the place cards?)

We also long ago incorporated my wife's version of pumpkin pie for dessert. Indeed, I can no longer remember what if any dessert my mom used to serve at Thanksgiving, so heavenly is this pumpkin pie. We've also happily added the tradition of gobbling the leftover pumpkin pie for breakfast the next morning.

Some years, we've even experimented with frying the turkey — using a vat of oil adequate to meet the nation's biodiesel demands for the next 17 years, heated with a propane nozzle scarily reminiscent of the business end of an F-22 jet fighter plane. Not once, I might add, have we set the entire neighborhood on fire.

Most important, we've moved the traditional Thanksgiving meal time from six o'clock on the dot (my mom's dinner time, come hell or high water) to more of a midday feast. That means clicking off the early football game — another heresy! — to sit down at the table. But it allows for dozing off during the second football game, collectively lapsing into carbohydrate-induced comas.

Watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has also supplanted the morning tradition of waking up to "Captain Kangaroo," of course. The good Captain has gone to TV-star heaven, where I hope he's at least spared the daily barrage of ping pong balls he bore so patiently in life.

 

Where in all this annual ritual, you may be wondering, is there room for thankfulness? Isn't that the whole point of the holiday, after all?

Thankfulness runs like a thread through it all, of course. Unspoken but not unnoticed is our thankfulness for being together, just like always, and for the small pleasures of hearth and home. We have almost made it through another year, with all its joys and tears. The seasons have begun the long tilt toward winter, and even though the snowy season in southwest New Mexico doesn't pack quite the punch that it did in South Dakota, it's time to cuddle up against the dark and cold. We give thanks for all that the warmer-weather months have brought us, and for the family and comforts of home that will get us through to spring. Though, unlike the Pilgrims or our farming forebears, we no longer harvest anything besides the apples off our backyard trees, Thanksgiving gives us a pause to reflect on all that we have harvested in our lives since last we enacted these rituals around the dinner table.

This year's Thanksgiving meal will taste especially sweet, since last year's celebration was the first our own little family of three (plus cats, of course) had to spend apart. The weekend before Thanksgiving, our daughter got food poisoning; she was in Washington, DC, starting a new job and apartment-hunting. Eventually, she got so sick that the family friend she was staying with took our daughter to the emergency room. Over the next week, a bevy of incredibly inept physicians — including, I kid you not, a doctor named Muhammad Ali, who perhaps should have stuck with boxing as a career choice — diagnosed our daughter with everything from appendicitis to Crohn's disease. All the while, Dr. Dad and Dr. Mom kept piping up, "Couldn't it be food poisoning?"

Food poisoning indeed it was, but that diagnosis wasn't made until long after Dr. Mom had flown to our nation's capital. Her Thanksgiving meal came from a hospital cafeteria. Mine was eaten, sullenly, alone except for the cats, in a brief break from cobbling together our December issue single-handedly. Our daughter? Well, she didn't feel much like eating.

We will be especially thankful, then, to be all three of us together (plus the cats). We'll give thanks that our daughter has settled into Washington, DC, and that she doesn't really have Crohn's disease or any other life-altering condition. We'll revel in our rituals as they remind us that we've made it through, again, to this place on the calendar.

I'll make the meal I've made so many times before and that my mother made for all those years before that — before even the invention of vegetables. You can keep your Cinnamon-Glazed Turkey with Candy-Apple Dressing, thanks all the same. We have our traditions, and each other.

Who knows? Maybe this year we'll even make place cards for the table.

 

David A. Fryxell gives thanks that another issue
of Desert Exposure is done.

 

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