It’s no secret that food brings people together. During the Holidays, most event preparation centers around the menu, at least in my household. We don’t plan so much for what we will DO at these gatherings, we plan what we will EAT (and drink, don’t forget that part). Yes, there will be giving of thanks, exchanging of gifts...but, will there be mimosas at breakfast and who is bringing the champagne for those? (Brendon, that’s you!) My holiday planning starts with a menu and a grocery shopping list because food is how I show love. Assorted meats and artisan cheeses to put out before dinner? ✓ Non-perishables to bring to the community pantry? ✓ And the rest falls into place from there.
I’ll leave the bickering over the “correct” foods, the best recipes, and the seating arrangements up to you. The only way it could go wrong is if the food runs out, so stock up and cook for an Army. At least that’s my greatest fear, so I always make too much, haha! You can send the leftovers home or freeze them.
The rest of my advice gained from my 40 odd years of experience: Family is who you make it, keep family food traditions alive, and serve others before yourself.
Family is who you make it. When you grow up as a military brat, most holidays are spent far from home. The good news was everyone on base was also displaced and three years or newer to the area. When you’re all stuck in the same boat, friends become family. Find the people who don’t have family nearby, send out the invites (I’m sure social media which we didn’t have back then is handy for this), set a big table, find the extra chairs, put out the turkey or ham, and the people will come with side dishes. It might not be the exact crew you’re used to, but inevitably there will be folks who fill in the role of bossy sister, meddling aunt, doting granny, oddball uncle, and hilarious cousin. Before you can say, “Bob’s your uncle,” Political Pablo will be arguing with Wine-sipping Wendy and everyone will laughing, singing, dancing, and having a good old time over dinner.
Family is who you choose. Regarding “Family,” during this, er, trying Covid year. Yes, it might not be safe to go to Grandma’s. Perhaps you're quarantining at home and sick of each other. You might be pivoting and adapting ad nauseum this year. Believe me, I GET IT! We always believe that family can be chosen, those people most important to you, the people there for you in your daily life. You might not be related by blood, but neighbors, coworkers, and even people you barely know can create wonderful holiday memories together. We surely have done so! Consider hosting a Misfits’ Holiday and include those that might be estranged from family for whatever reason. Don’t have a place to go because of your sexual orientation/gender identity, the loss of a loved one, or you’re just tired of the toxicity? You especially have a seat at our table. We’re your family now.
My inner wise old lady's second piece of advice is to keep your family’s food traditions alive! The aromas alone will trigger happy memories. The distinct bacon/onion/clove smell of red cabbage simmering on the stove that hits you before you get in the door instantly transports me back to my grandparents’ house at the holidays. Not everyone loves the smell of cooking cabbage, but it gets me verklempt thinking about my Oma. It was a given that someone always brought the German red cabbage (blaukraut or rotkohl) to every major holiday gathering, and it wasn’t until I was well into my twenties before I realized that not every family in America did so. When I lived hundreds of miles from home and cheerfully announced that I would bring the red cabbage to the party, I was met with blank stares. My new family of friends were used to traditional sides of mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, or corn. A funky, spiced purple German staple? Not so much. But I say those are the exact dishes that should be shared, so be sure to put them on the menu because the joy they bring you will be contagious! (which is the only thing that should be contagious at this point #2020)
My favorite recipes in my collection are ones that a family member shared with me. I treasure those recipes as part of my family heritage and legacy from Aunts and Grandmothers generations back (and one Army cook Great-Grandfather). Make for your children and grandchildren the things that you loved as a child the way my grandpa shared scratch-made latkes with me. Bring samples of your ethnic traditions to the neighbors. Invite others to bring their favorite quintessential Thanksgiving dish, being flexible and open-minded. I have learned that I like baked pineapple casserole (who ever heard of such a thing?), sampled varieties of new-to-me stuffing from sausage to oyster that we never had growing up, and discovered Puerto Rican staples all from being invited to someone’s curated celebration. Recreate that sense of “home,” in whatever way warms your heart and share the stories that go with it. Often it’s the simple recipes or dish on the table that make it feel like the holidays with family, even if you’re miles away.
And my final suggestion: Serve others before you serve yourself — and not just out of courtesy during the meal. I get much more enjoyment out of my own feast when I have donated to make sure others have a nice meal first. Make extra to bring over to a homebound person earlier in the day. Check on the elderly neighbors and folks with disabilities to see if they need some groceries or an errand. Donate a bag of Thanksgiving staples to a local food pantry. Send extra money to the child you sponsor in another country in advance for their celebrations.
When you love on others by providing them with a hearty, soul-filling meal, there’s always plenty to go around.