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Marriage, divorce and gluten avoidance: How Thanksgiving evolved to suit my modern family

My first hosting gig will probably be a happy disaster.

This year for Thanksgiving, I’ve volunteered to host for the first time. I’m doing the whole shebang: scrubbing the house guest-ready clean, setting the table with a new Pottery Barn tablecloth and centerpiece of gourds in what I hope is some sort of fall/meal theme, stuffing the bird and praying that it comes out with crispy skin and without a hefty dose of E. coli.

As the unmarried sibling out of four kids, I might not seem like the traditional choice to host, but what is traditional anymore? For us, Thanksgiving has evolved along with my family. My parents divorced when I was 18. After their split, we flipped Thanksgiving and Christmas between our parents each year, and then the family splintered as it grew. Each new marriage and divorce meant the addition (or subtraction) of new parties and their traditions, tastes and vegetarian boyfriends.

In that time, I’ve bounced around between the open seats at various tables, glomming onto other traditions and trying my hand at co-hosting with my then-boyfriend, which meant searching for out-of-season squash blossoms at Reading Terminal Market and driving out to a farm in God Knows Where Pennsylvania to pick up the turkey — all on Thanksgiving eve.

When that relationship ended, I ended up at my father’s Thanksgiving table, which his second wife turned out with a Martha Stewart-like flair that included chargers (which I didn’t know were an actual thing until someone pointed them out to me at Crate & Barrel) and three different forks for three different courses. I was told not to wear jeans. Thanksgiving had become a semiformal affair.

The Thanksgivings of my childhood included Christmas-themed dishes paired with penguin salt and pepper shakers and one sibling, usually, begging to leave the table early to watch football. Once, in my vicious teenage years, I refused to talk to anyone else at the table, and, instead of speaking, mimed when I wanted the penguins passed my way. Anguish then, but a story so often told that it’s now a (funny) part of family lore, a story that will probably be told again on Thursday. Sitting around my stepmother’s table, I thought I miss that, as I folded a real cloth napkin into my lap, but I tried not to care. It’s just a meal, right? Another meal in the cog of a $2.4 billion Thanksgiving dinner industry whose roots lie in the slaughter of indigenous people that today is being eclipsed by worship to the mighty god of shopping — right?

But then Dad’s second marriage ended, and with it went the chargers and forks and real cloth napkins (though we’ll keep the story about my nephew’s diaper overflowing while sitting at that very nice table and onto my sister’s very white dress). Before any of my siblings could discuss who would invite him, and where my mom — who never remarried — would go, I raised my hand.

This is all very messy and complicated, but I don’t know of any family that isn’t, that doesn’t carry around its own encyclopedia of conflicts, resentments, disappointments and fights that have stretched for decades. But that’s what a family is: imperfect, and flawed, one that expands and contracts and sometimes belly-flops. This is how I imagine my dinner will be, with its mix of the modest Thanksgiving foods of my childhood (Stouffer’s stuffing, Pillsbury crescent rolls, cranberry sauce that slides out of a can) and what I want to cook now that I’ve learned how to do it (heritage bird, Brussels sprouts with bacon, wild rice and mushrooms, mashed potatoes not from a mix). My sister-in-law is bringing her mother’s green bean casserole because that’s what she wants, and that’s fine with me. She’s part of our family now too, in the equation it is this year. It might not look like this next year, but that’s okay. I’d rather us evolve than be stuck. We’re not just another family, though we are, in our fracturing and folding, both a modern and a traditional one. In that, I don’t worry about having my divorced parents at my Thanksgiving table, though I will tell them both not to sneak too much turkey to my dog.

The point of Thanksgiving is not to replicate a Rockwell painting. The point is to celebrate family, whatever its form, despite the growing pains and the recent pox my mother put upon gluten. I know we’re lucky to still be together with no one wanting to punch another person over the pumpkin pie (which this year will be frozen, not fresh, because that’s what my brother decided to bring over my emoji-ridden objections).

I have no idea how it’ll go. I don’t even like turkey. But if the bird doesn’t cook quite on time, or I burn the Brussels sprouts as I did on a recent test run, I know that it will be what I’ve wanted to bring into my kitchen with my family since I bought my house: a mess, and a mix of voices and personalities whose lives have been overlapping since my parents met in high school. We won’t have the Christmas dishes (those went to my sister), but we will have penguin salt and pepper shakers, and that’s good enough for me.