If anyone tries to tell you Thanksgiving is all about the food, don’t believe them. Giving thanks takes us beyond ourselves and turns our thoughts toward our Life-giver. Focusing on the menu makes the holiday about gratification and gratification is the polar opposite of gratitude. I’m not saying we shouldn’t cook up some great gastronomical delights, but it’s important to remember why we are giving thanks in the first place or we might wander off the gratitude track. It’s been over ten years, but I will never forget my worst Thanksgiving dinner and the lessons learned.
After living in another state for several years, my husband and I moved back to the Northwest. We were excited to host Thanksgiving dinner for my family. We eagerly decorated the house with Christmas lights and planned the menu and invited everyone. Of course a lot had changed in the years we were gone.
My parents had raised us to be what I call oscillating vegetarians; we would be vegans for six months then we would go back to eating some milk products, then we went back to being vegan again. In childhood our diet was a constant tottering back and forth, but two things were for certain:
1. My parents were vegan while I was growing up–except for when they bought ice cream. They also never had an egg in their house. And yet, they ate eggs in store bought cakes and cookies.
2. When it came to holiday meals we always broke the vegan rule because many of our holiday favorites contained dairy especially sour cream and ice cream.
I stayed a vegetarian, but two of my siblings had started their own traditions with turkey and decided not to join us that year. I understood their absence because in our family it’s really important to not break the rules. There was shame surrounding the eating of a turkey. My brother was the first to break with all our family traditions and when certain family members ate dinner at his house one year they complained how the smell made them sick. When I served turkey to the homeless, my mom told me it would be better to give the tofurky. I told her I wished to return home alive that day and turkey was the only acceptable food on Thanksgiving as far as most people are concerned.
So while we were going to miss two of my siblings, it still looked like we were going to have a good ol’ vegetarian Thanksgiving. We were renting an old farmhouse with a leaky oven and no dishwasher, but my heart soared in anticipation of hosting dinner for my parents and my remaining vegetarian sister.
I got up at five in the morning, the day before Thanksgiving. For those who have never made gluten steaks, let me just say it’s an arduous process. First you make a thick dough out of gluten flour, then you slice it into strips and boil them. After they cool, you bread and fry the “steaks.” Then you sauté lots of onions and mushrooms and add it to sour cream to make a gravy which you pour over the steaks and bake for an hour in the oven until it browns. No, it’s not that healthy, and it’s certainly not gluten free, but that was our signature dish for holiday meals while I was growing up. I am pretty fast at making gluten, but the process takes hours–especially if you are cooking it for a crowd.
Next I made two crusts for the pumpkin pies and added the filling and made ambrosia–all with dairy of course. I made vegetarian stuffing to keep my husband happy, then baked sweet potatoes, cutting them up and spreading butter and brown sugar on them with pineapple tidbits. I washed dishes for what seemed like hours without a dishwasher. The last thing I did was peel and cut up the potatoes. I covered them with water and struggled to find a place for them in the fridge. Finally everything was prepped for the morning. After mopping the floor and putting away the dishes, I sat down to rest my painful feet and aching back. I noticed it was eight o’clock at night. That’s when I called my mom.
She said that she and my dad had been thinking about their diets and had decided to go vegan that year. I didn’t know what to say to her, but what I wanted to say was, “After all these years of oscillating back and forth, can’t you just wait one more day?” It wasn’t like the concept of being a vegan was new to any of us. She went on to explain how she had “experimented” and she and my dad planned to eat her non-dairy gluten steaks. Exhausted from all my hard work, I wanted to cry. I had slaved away all day making food for them and now they wouldn’t eat any of it. I felt like her message to me was it didn’t matter how hard I had worked, I would never be good enough.
After she hung up, I didn’t even have time to tell my husband, because I heard from my sister. She said she had decided to go vegan also and that she was bringing a vegan pumpkin pie and vegan potatoes. Her voice faded in and out while I silently screamed in my psyche. Apparently they had been in communication with each other long enough to prepare their vegan food, but neither had the consideration to call their hostess to let her know the menu had changed. I felt all the hard work I had done was unappreciated by them. I knew it wasn’t my cooking, because no one has ever called me a bad cook and I was using my mom’s recipes. When I hung up, all my intentions of having a wonderful dinner with my family evaporated because it felt like they were more concerned with controlling the menu than enjoying a meal with me.
The next morning, I was still determined to make something my family would eat so I got up early to make homemade dinner rolls.
If only I could go back in time to have a talk with my younger self,
I would ask why her self-esteem was so caught up
in cooking food for her family’s approval.
As the guests arrived, someone moved my rolls to the top shelf so they could put their casserole in the oven. When the rolls burned, I couldn’t hide my feelings any longer. Tears streamed down my face as I told my family how it hurt because nothing I cooked seemed good enough for them to eat. There was silence for about a minute, then my dad told me to stop being so sensitive before he asked someone to pass him the vegan casserole.
I still have no idea how I got through that meal. When they left, my husband and I went for a walk. He was angry at my parents’ lack of respect. He said he was through having them over to our house and he would not put up with them again. Then I started to cry. I had no other parents to compare them with and I wanted to have a relationship with them. He said they didn’t know what a relationship is. I cried harder and he yelled louder. He said,”No one but your family can make you feel so miserable? Why do you even want spend time with them?”
For years I had been in the habit of defending my parents for everything from their beating me with a belt or not teaching me to drive and not allowing me a high school education. I defended them by saying that he didn’t know what love is. He said yeah? Well I love you, but your family has put a noose around our necks and it’s like they are pulling us into the undertow of the river. We both stared at the Columbia River flowing next to us. Then he said it. “I won’t stand by and watch while they abuse you, so you’ll just have to choose between me or your family.” I screamed back that I couldn’t do that. How could he ask me to do that? To emphasize he was serious, he threw his keys into the river.
We had to break down the back door to get inside the house. Thank goodness, I had an extra set of keys. We were both too sad to talk for a while but we sat down in peace with each other. Then we each had a huge piece of pumpkin pie and loaded it up with vanilla ice cream and cool whip. The pie was the most delicious pie ever because that was the day we decided we lived too close to family for comfort. (You’d think I’d learned my lesson, but before we moved away there would still be the incident where I put an egg in a birthday cake, but that’s a story for another time.)
If anyone ever tries to tell you that Thanksgiving is all about the food, don’t you dare believe them. Sure, some people will try to make it about the food, but it’s really about love, respect and gratitude. Without those ingredients, you might as well be serving cardboard.
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink.
The man who eats everything
must not look down on him who does not,
and the man who does not eat everything
must not condemn the man who does,
for God has accepted him.