With a Family of Friends, We Made Our Own Holiday

By Erin Zimmer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; Page F06

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?"

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