This Thanksgiving, Remember, Traditions are Meant to be Revised

Submittd by Janet Stone McGuigan, Old Greenwich

Like so many across the country this year, my family paused our Thanksgiving plans to consider what the safest and most sensible approach should be. 

The pandemic is certainly a reason to revisit traditions that have become habit, though our circumstances were already changing long before the arrival of the corona virus.  Growing up in Upstate New York, my large extended family lived near one another.  To the extent that the day was all about food and family, Thanksgiving was an undemanding holiday.  The items on the day’s menu were divvied up.  Each contributing family was assigned a dish that was inexpensive and simple to prepare.  With a narrowed focus, attention could be lavished on each component, and the results were delicious.

But fast forward a generation and the cooking responsibility has fallen to me and my sweet hubby.  I am not a kitchen talent, and we have compensated by simplifying and deconstructing.  For instance, breakfast consists of corn bread made the night before; seasonal soup serves as an early lunch before the main action in mid-afternoon; apple pie paired with cheddar cheese – a nod to my dairy farming roots – substitutes for supper.  Even so, the day has turned into one dictated by elaborate spreadsheets.  Preparation means visiting several different grocery stores, not in the cards this year.  It is time for another rethink.  

When my tradition-loving sous chef and I were expats early in our marriage, we were also forced to reconsider this very American holiday — whole turkeys are hard to find in Belgium, and in Ireland turkey tends to be a Christmas item not available in November. 

Indeed, looking at the day from a distance helped us understand what it means to be American.  My mother’s family notes – with a conflicting mix of pride and self-consciousness – that some of our ancestors were passengers on the Mayflower. 

But history is not written on the DNA, and I had to do a little research before talking about Thanksgiving for a French class assignment.  What I learned surprised me.

For the first Thanksgiving, the Mayflower passengers could only dream of a turkey dinner, or harvest dinner as it was called in their England.  They were so unprepared for their new life it would be some time before they learned that turkeys were native to North America.  (When turkeys were first introduced to Europe by early explorers, the English ignorantly supposed this strange and exotic looking creature came from Turkey, the French assumed it came from India  – d’Inde in French –  so that is how the bird was named.) 

Instead of turkey with all the sides, the desperate Pilgrims ate lobster, in their time a plentiful trash fish.  Let us think about this for a moment.  Why all this worry about whether the turkey is safely cooked, or over roasted and dry, when the day could be celebrated with lobster?

This year, then, some pieces of our tradition will be altered by the pandemic, but we will hold on to the parts that make us happy.  We will tune in to the Macy’s Day Parade and fondly recall the years we attended in person.  Later we will safely Zoom with distant family members.  Maybe we will go for a walk or pull out a puzzle or board game or watch a family movie. 

We will share our reasons to be grateful, even in this challenging time, just as the Pilgrims did after seeing half of their community succumb to hardship and disease in the first year.  I will reflect that they were as unprepared for their arrival in North America as we were for the arrival of the corona virus four hundred years later. 

I will consider that happiness does not require traditions to be preserved like leaves in amber.  That the same thoughtfulness that helps us adapt to our changing circumstances may allow us to create a better, more enlightened, post-pandemic world.

And on Friday I will treat myself to a lobster roll.