With a Family of Friends, We Made Our Own Holiday

By Erin Zimmer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

At 22, I had my first parent-less Thanksgiving last year in a U Street rowhouse. Nothing major was pulling me anywhere else: no cheap flights home to California, no boyfriend, definitely no kids and no invites too awkward to deny.

"Wait, you're sure about this?" My mom, across the country, sounded offended. She was e-mailing flight options, offering to buy the $500 ticket. But as a recent college grad, I wouldn't let her.

This Thanksgiving felt different, anyway. Without academic cues such as midterms and campus Halloween parties, the holiday had crept up unexpectedly. I felt more grown-up; or maybe I just didn't want the mess of airport checkpoints, three-hour time changes and rushing back to work Monday morning.

I had a better idea: an "orphan" Thanksgiving social experiment. Enlisting roommates, friends and friends of friends, I kept the invitation open. The last thing I wanted was emptiness, especially on a holiday that is contingent upon too many people eating too much with too many leftovers.

Since our house was the venue, I jumped into hyper-autumnal mode, lining the front stoop and the fireplace hearth with pumpkins. Despite the orange color scheme, though, the place didn't feel homey. At least not Thanksgiving-caliber homey. With six tenants, all "creative type" 20-somethings working in Washington, the vibe was more like "Animal House" meets Berkeley co-op. Six diets competed for cupboard space. Stale leftovers shared the fridge with imported beers. Unlike my childhood kitchen, ours had no eclectic spice rack, no fancier set of "holiday" china, and as for a turkey baster? Ha.

Nonetheless, my two roommates on board (Chrissy and Annelies) were inspired and committed to the project. With no parents within a 300-mile radius, we felt culinarily liberated. We could embrace experimental dishes that relatives had politely called "interesting" or "foreign" in years past. Don't get me wrong; I love the classics (marshmallowy yams included), but the no-rules factor was thrilling.

Flipping through old issues of Gourmet and clicking around online, we salivated over gussied-up photos of curried turkey and pumpkin creme brulee. Shopping lists multiplied, and it soon became clear that one tradition we wish hadn't disappeared was that of our parents' credit cards.

"Do we really need two types of stuffing?" The grocery basket was a mess, trying to hug so many worlds: the experimental and the established (from three families' traditions). I needed sausage for my Nana's stuffing, while Chrissy grabbed parsnips and rosemary for her fancier vegetarian version. We were both fixated on a cranberry sauce recipe with pomegranate seeds, even if the pomegranates cost six bucks. "You know, people might also want the canned jiggly stuff." We threw that in, too.

Despite the growing heap of supplies, those elusive "people" on the guest list were still a big question mark. It was Thanksgiving eve, and a headcount didn't exist. Launching into grass-roots outreach mode, the three of us began texting and e-mailing around. In response, invitees treated it like a hot Friday night in Adams Morgan: "Maybe" or "Ooh, fun. We'll see." Nobody was willing to commit. And to make matters worse, we hinted at a small "Thanksgiving cover charge." Perhaps rude, but receipts from Trader Joe's, Giant and Safeway now totaled $300-plus, and next month's rent was coming due.

Numbers aside, we tried to focus on the fun part: the menu. The kitchen chalkboards, usually used for haiku brainstorming while coffee brewed, got divided into starters, main dishes, sides and desserts. With Chrissy's iPod playing in the background, we prepped recipes into the wee hours.

Thursday morning, we were up early and ready for turkey duty. What came next, none of us was prepared for: an invasive procedure with a fleshy bird. The kitchen became a chorus of eeews as we dialed up our parents back home in California, Texas and New York.

"Wait, I have to reach my hand in there? . . . People actually eat the gizzard? . . . Where does gravy come from?"

Once the bird was in the oven, our orphan family started forming, earlier than planned.

"You're friends with Amelia, right?" Two sweaty backpackers strolled inside, taking advantage of the open front door. Neither looked familiar, but they needed a place to "crash."

Once Amelia walked in with her ingredients for a dessert bread, Mike arrived, and right behind him was Andy, a Georgetown senior, who had biked over from campus with a bottle of applejack. While explaining the history of the apple brandy, he mixed cider cocktails as others trickled in, joining the human melting pot.

Some of us mixed batters in the kitchen, others were glued to the NFL game and another contingent nursed cider cocktails on the front stoop. I hung leaves all over the living room. The kindergarten-style art project, which required guests to write "I am thankful for" testimonials on the foliage, was to remind us why we were here.

At about 5 p.m., a movement formed toward the dining room. Though some dishes were done and others were not (we never mastered the timing part), it seemed as good a time as any to start. So we grabbed wayward chairs (including rolling office ones), ottomans and stools from all over the house and created the semblance of a dining room table.

Seven place settings were set, though a total of 10 bodies popped in and out during the day, cooking and celebrating. If anyone threw money at us, remembering our cover-charge comment, we accepted, but we never insisted. With no more than $35 collected, we stopped worrying about the money thing (and were still able to pay the rent, by the way).

The turkey sat front and center. We all waited for someone to assume the carving role, but when my dad didn't appear out of thin air, I felt the hostess pressure. Grabbing the sharpest thing in the drawer, I started separating dark and white on a platter, polling the room for orders. Andrew, Annelies's older brother (and the oldest in the room at 26), stepped up, promising he had "done this before."

As we started eating, moans and groans confirmed the yumminess, but the in-between silences reminded me: This wasn't my home. This wasn't my family. My little brother Joey and I couldn't make eye contact as my dad made jokes, and Penny was not begging at our feet. But the quiet was good. We could focus on our families far away, how their table looked, what pies they had probably baked.

Technically, it was the first year I could have eaten Chinese or delivery pizza instead of turkey, but that was never really an option. We each felt the duty to represent our own traditions and to go to bed that night full of pie and a sense of family. Even if it was a family we had never met.

Erin Zimmer is an assistant editor at http://www.seriouseats.com.

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