The holiday of Thanksgiving has been celebrated in America since 1682 or 1789 or possibly 1939, depending who’s counting. Nailed in 1963 by JFK to the last Thursday of November, it is not just a a four-day weekend with the opportunity to eat huge amounts of traditional food without apology. The whole point of Thanksgiving is that it brings members of a family together at a single table.
In the Olden Days,* branches of a family still lived near enough to one another that you could make it over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, eat up, and still get home before dark. With the advent of highways, fast cars and airports, it has become a time when everyone risks death and delay to be at the Designated Homestead for reunion (and that is Pre-Covid!), and will probably be caught in a freak snowstorm in Pennsylvania and have to spend the night in a dodgy motel (don’t ask me how I know).
This is the story of how I opted out of Thanksgiving and have never looked back.
Before I begin, though, I fully acknowledge the sorrow of a great many friends who are devastated by not being able to be with family this year on November 26th. I do not in any way mock the desire to be together. It is great and precious, whenever it occurs. I’m only cavalier about it personally for two main reasons:
I hate crowded airports - or crowded anything, really. It may stem from my atavistic belief that if hordes of other people are doing something, it probably means I shouldn’t be.
We Jews already have our own Thanksgiving. It’s the holiday of Passover, and it comes in the spring.
All the family - aunts and grandfathers, sisters and cousins and honorary uncles and your college friend’s kid who’s far from home - gathers around a table for not one but two nights of the sung and spoken ritual called Seder which precedes a massive dinner full of traditional favorites — and woe to the relative who forgets to bring their specialty! To miss Passover with my family feels just awful. In April 2020, when it became clear that the Family Seder was definitely Not Happening, Jews all over the world (and their parents and grandparents) suddenly discovered Zoom (and learned that Group Singing was not going to be a feature of the otherwise brave new world).
I have traveled many miles for Passover, braving crowded airports full of stressed-out Jews. Does it seem right that I must go through it for Thanksgiving, too? Don’t answer that; just listen:
In November of 2000, my partner Delia Sherman & I were trying to finish the revisions on our novel The Fall of the Kings (a collaborative sequel-of-sorts to my novel Swordspoint, set about 60 years later) to get it in to the publisher so that it could come out on schedule in November 2002.
At the same time, I was working round the clock on my national public radio series, Sound & Spirit, at WGBH in Boston. I was writer, host and co-producer on a weekly hour of dense and thought-out material mixing music and words.
Four precious days of holiday to work at home with Delia was just too great a gift to waste.
So we let our Boston friends assume that we were going home to my family in Cleveland. And let the family assume that we’d been invited to friends in Boston. And we stayed in our jammies and wrote for four days straight, nourished by a big pot of stew on the wood stove!
Delia, however, is a traditionalist. So on Thanksgiving Day she insisted on cooking us a little duck breast. For a side dish I dug out the many jars of home-canned applesauce that she’d brought to the marriage from her previous life. But though they looked all right, I realized that they could have botulism (a scentless, tasteless poison brewed in old canned goods, of which I have been terrified ever since my physician father made us read Berton Roueché’s medical thriller collection Eleven Blue Men** to scare all his kids into washing their hands regularly). The only sure defense against that was to open and BOIL THEM ALL.
So I did. And when it was done to my satisfaction, only about a cup of highly refined homemade applesauce remained.
Which is how we came to invent what has become our one true original family Thanksgiving recipe, ORANGE SMOOSH (rhymes with Kush), the recipe which I will now share with you because it is excellent.
* ELLEN & DELIA’S ORANGE SMOOSH *
APPLES: peel, cut up and cook down some apples, as smooth or a chunky as you want them. Or just open a jar of applesauce.
SWEET POTATOES/YAMS: peel, cut up and cook down a few. Roughly 1 part applestuff to 3 parts Yams.
Crystallized (or Candied) GINGER!!! (not raw ginger) Mince some up.
Mix and heat it all up together. It will need a little liquid to finish it. I warmly recommend just a splash of a liqueur called TRIPLE SEC. You won’t taste the alcohol, but it gives it some zing. Apple cider works, too, and I’m sure plenty of other things you have lying around (don’t get crazy; just choose one). Maybe a little nutmeg. That’s it.
It is immensely rich and yumsome and everyone always wants more. Notice something missing? Yep: there is absolute no fat in this. It is terribly good for you, and tastes utterly sinful.
I’ve got plenty more bad advice for you . . . but for now, that’s a good place to stop.
Thank you so much for your warm comments on my last letter, and for opening this one. It may be too much to hope that you have the Thanksgiving you want this year - but please accept my wishes that you end up with one that you remember as a good story about the year that everything was upside-down, and still you managed to find friendship, and food, and to be thankful. If you’ve got recipes or stories to share, I’d love to see them in Comments.
*The Olden Days: a time I consecrated as a child as being when there were horses and much more interesting clothes
** For decades I’ve been absolutely sure that Eleven Blue Men was the botulism story (and that botulism turns you blue!). In writing this up, I have discovered that I am 100% wrong. The botulism story is in a completely different Roueché collection. Which I clearly also read.