Letting go of tradition on Thanksgiving

Petula Dvorak
Columnist November 28, 2013

I finally did it.

No midnight brine wrestling match with a slippery turkey.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

No Wednesday grocery cart derby.

And no mountain range of dirty dishes.

This is no-cooking Thanksgiving.

And on Thursday morning, it felt awful.

Turns out we are joining a growing trend. About one in 10 Americans heads to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, according to the National Restaurant Association.

And about half of Americans have ditched tradition for takeout, relying on caterers, restaurants and grocery stores to do all or at least part of the cooking, according to the association’s research.

In the nation’s capital, you can get the Ritz, Georgia Brown’s, Safeway, Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, Wegmans and dozens of other places to do the cooking for you. And their business has been growing year after year.

People are busy, they have family in town, they want a turducken, they don’t want to spend all day in the kitchen.

But that seems icky to me.

I’ve always called Thanksgiving my favorite holiday. We are usually that house where everyone who had to work, didn’t have family close by, had someone in prison (seriously!), just broke up, just moved out or just got into a fight came to eat.

It’s a day of sharing, of blood family, cobbled-together family, of friends and food and — of course — being thankful for all that.

And adventures in turkey?

I’ve done it all.

Brined, barbecued, bagged, smoked, sliced, spiced and even deep-fried. I’ve massaged it with molasses, researched its life to make sure it had been happy and organic before coming to our table, I’ve played it Mozart and read Proust to its corpse.

But this year, I was tired.

As soon as I heard that my favorite kitchen partner — a bachelor who was the best man in our wedding and begins plotting how to cook the bird with me in May — was going to be out of town, the adventure just wasn’t in me.

Then we learned another of our regulars would be out of town.

I told my husband that maybe we shouldn’t cook this year.

He rejoiced. (His job, usually, is the dishes.)

It was decided.

We would take the four-day weekend as a vacation, time to finally take the kids on the New York weekend they’ve been wanting. My Percy Jackson-obsessed 9-year-old wanted to retrace his hero’s steps to the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My 6-year-old, fresh off the animated film “Free Birds” — where avenging turkeys go back in time to make pizza the food originally shared between the Pilgrims and the Indians at the harvest feast — has been lobbying for this tradition. He voted for a slice at Ray’s. The original Ray’s, of course.

I was horrified by the frat boy proposition.

What next? Root beer bonging on Christmas Eve?

I was the one having a hard time letting go.

I had to take drastic measures to stop myself. I didn’t place my order with the Eastern Market turkey guy. Ha! Take that.

But deep down, I knew I could get one of his spare birds on Wednesday.

I did the only thing I could do. I took myself out.

I scheduled my second carpal tunnel hand surgery for the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

That should do it, I thought.

Post-op, with hideous gauze-wrapped hand, I found myself wandering into Eastern Market on Wednesday just to catch that raw-turkey smell and the friendly banter in the turkey line.

On Thursday morning, I felt sickened. My kitchen was clean, my fridge empty. How could I call myself an American?

I couldn’t help it. One-handed, I slowly made one itty-bitty batch of the pumpkin pie bread I usually make for Thanksgiving breakfast before everyone woke up. “For the road,” I told my husband when he came into the kitchen and shook his head in disgust. (One-handed baking is very, very messy.)

We loaded up the car, and traffic wasn’t so bad. I imagined that all the cars had already pulled up to Grandma’s. The dirty old uncles were already getting drunk. The warm kitchens had that amazing smell.

From the back seat, my older son spoke up. “I’m glad it’s just us today,” he said. “You’re not going to be in the kitchen all day, Mom. You’re going to be with us.”

We pulled out of the Lincoln Tunnel. Street parking on the first try! (Thank you!)

We got our slices of pizza. At a deli, I would resist making everyone order turkey sandwiches and indulge in our New York favorite: bowls of matzoh ball soup.

You know what? Most Americans don’t have that Hallmark version of Thanksgiving.

Plenty of folks ate curries or chili or chicken or rice on Thanksgiving.

A bunch of them ate at restaurants. And even more of them ate food that someone else prepared. I was beginning to let go of tradition.

“Can we do our Thanksgiving tradition?” my older son asked over the pizza.

I panicked. I knew I should’ve brought a turkey in Tupperware. Or maybe cranberry sauce? I knew I had messed up.

“Which one?” I asked, confused.

“You know, where we all go around the table and we each say what we’re thankful for,” he said.

“And then you cry.”

Of course.

At least the 9-year-old had it right. And yes, I cried.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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