We can’t save this Thanksgiving

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)

The cooking sections of two major newspapers offered a proposition to make this Thanksgiving a little simpler: Cook everything on a single sheet-pan or in a single pot. This, to me, is almost unbearably sad.

The fourth Thursday of November, with all its trimmings and drippings, has always rubbed me the right way — except, of course, for its commemoration of the bad old days of colonial genocide. Thanksgiving means family gathered from out of town, a pantry stuffed as fully as the turkey, parlor games we’ve spent 12 months scheming over, folks laid out on the floor in front of the fireplace, pillows propping up their sleepy heads because there’s no room on the couches.

Usually. This year, amid the pandemic, it doesn’t mean any of that.

This isn’t a sob story about me, because it’s a story about pretty much everyone who has opted for safety this holiday, too. We’re all implacably glum, and we aren’t sure besides the simplest of explanations precisely why.

Thanksgiving, conceived as a celebration of bounty, is difficult to scale down. Three pies is a lot for two people — but can anyone bear to sacrifice apple, or pecan, or pumpkin? There’s an episode of “Friends” in which Monica must serve multiple potato dishes to satisfy her guests’ nostalgia: with lumps, without lumps and in the form of tots. This year we’re wondering whether we ought to give up the potatoes altogether to leave room for the rolls, or the green beans, or all manner of casseroles.

Those of us who think we’ve figured it out realize after the most mundane setbacks that we’re wrecks after all. My friend cheerfully plotted out a whole meal for him and his boyfriend that involved roasting a whole chicken rather than parts of a turkey. The chicken arrived, and it was smaller than he had imagined. They ordered another chicken, also too small. This he described to me as cataclysmic; he retreated into a sullen and stricken silence from which his boyfriend tried to rouse him by running out for a bigger bird.

My friend stopped him: “Big chicken,” he said, “is not going to make things better.”

Big chicken, indeed, will not make things better. We’ve been asked so many times to scale down all aspects of our lives for eight months that you’d think scaling down Thanksgiving would come naturally. Obviously we’ll miss seeing family. Yet many of us have been missing seeing family for months now, and we’ve been missing seeing friends, too. Obviously we don’t like change when changing isn’t our choice. Yet we’ve changed plenty already.

And that’s just it — that’s why it hurts so much. These changes, until now, were daily adjustments. They mattered, and we noticed them, but we noticed them as a steady accumulation of evenings spent in indoor silence, of solitary strolls through the neighborhood on the edges of a six-foot-wide sidewalk. These were just days, one at a time. Thanksgiving is the day. We only get it once every year, and we aren’t really getting it this time. Suddenly, the sum total of all those other lost days materializes before us, as empty seats at a long table.

The departures from what’s normal are more obvious than ever, because Thanksgiving runs on repetition — on tradition. Hence those three types of potatoes; hence the so-called haricots verts in my family and the pineapple-cheese casseroles in my colleague’s. Recipes may be dog-eared in a Fannie Farmer cookbook from the 1970s, or jotted down on a fraying and yellowed notebook page, but they are nonetheless treated as if inscribed in stone. My mother has never let me deviate even a pinch of salt from the recipes. Recommending an egg wash on the top crust of the apple pie was treated as a personal affront; suggesting sourdough in the stuffing amounted to sacrilege.

I want it all back. The full house; the sacrosanct stuffing recipe; the turkey whose timing popper never pops in time; the alarming amount of store-bought spinach dip my uncle always supplies despite widespread indifference to its presence; even my aunt’s post-pie nap taken unannounced and uninvited in my childhood bedroom.

My friends with the small chicken decided to love their humble bird as best they could. They say they will focus on enjoying the sides. Which is all any of us can manage on a day that reminds us we have, at least for now, a little less to be thankful for.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Yes, the stock market broke 30,000, but you can’t feed people with that

Lucy Jones: Covid-19 doesn’t care about the holidays. It’s more dangerous than ever.

Govs. Gretchen Whitmer, Mike DeWine, Tony Evers, Tim Walz, J.B. Pritzker, Eric Holcomb and Andy Beshear: Americans need to stay home this Thanksgiving

Megan McArdle: My No. 1 Thanksgiving tip: Don’t gather this year

John K. Delaney: Pay Americans to take a coronavirus vaccine

Kate Cohen: Why we are canceling our family Thanksgiving trip this year

Leana S. Wen: It’s time to rethink how we celebrate Thanksgiving

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