If anyone ever tries to tell you Thanksgiving
is all about the food,
don’t you dare believe them.
It’s been twenty years this month, but I’ll never forget my worst Thanksgiving dinner ever and the lessons learned. After living in another state for several years, my husband and I had moved back to the Northwest and were excited to host Thanksgiving dinner for my family. We eagerly decorated our house with Christmas lights, planned the menu, made place cards and invited everyone. I was still young and naïve and dreamed of a perfect family dinner.
My parents raised us to be oscillating vegetarians; we were vegan for six months, then we went back to eating sour cream and ice cream, before switching back to vegan again. Even though my childhood diet changed, two things were consistent; my parents never had an egg in the house, and we always broke the vegan rule during the holidays because our favorite recipes all contained dairy.
While I was planning my family’s favorite dishes, I discovered two of my siblings wouldn’t make it. I’d remained 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 essential not to 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 about the smell of baking turkey making them sick. I think the holidays should be more about sharing time with family, than what we eat, but I didn’t make the rules in this family as I was about to be reminded.
So despite missing 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 creating a delicious dinner for my parents and my remaining sister.
I got up at five in the morning on Wednesday to begin the long process of making seitan or gluten steaks. For those who’ve never made this fake meat substitute, 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 with sour cream to make a thick gravy and bake all of it in the oven until it browns. No, it’s not that healthy, and it’s certainly not vegan or gluten-free, but this was my mom’s signature dish for holiday meals while I was growing up. I’m pretty skilled at making gluten, but the process takes hours–especially if you’re cooking for a crowd.
Next, I rolled out two crusts for the pumpkin pies and made the filling–just like Mom always did, using the recipe from Libby’s pumpkin label. Then I made ambrosia—a fruit salad with marshmallows, sour cream, pineapple bits, and maraschino cherries. To keep my husband happy, I made his favorite vegetarian stuffing, then I baked the sweet potatoes, cutting them up and spreading butter and brown sugar on them. The last thing I did was peel and cut up a large pot of potatoes. I covered them with water and struggled to find a place for them in the fridge. Finally, everything was prepped for the morning when I planned to make some homemade dinner rolls.
I was on my feet all day, first with cooking, then washing dishes for hours without a dishwasher. After mopping the floor and putting away all the dishes, I sat down to rest my painful feet and aching back and noticed it was eight o’clock at night. That’s when I picked up the phone to call my mom.
She told me she and my dad had been thinking about their diet and had decided to go vegan that year. I didn’t know what to say, 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 felt like crying. I’d slaved away all day making food for her that she wasn’t going to eat. I felt like she’d kicked me in the stomach. It seemed she was more interested in controlling what we ate, than seeing each other. No matter how hard I worked, my offerings were never good enough.
After my mom hung up, I didn’t have any time to tell my husband what she said, because I got a call from my sister. She too had decided to go vegan, and she was bringing a vegan pumpkin pie and vegan potatoes. Her voice faded in and out, while I silently screamed in my psyche. Apparently, she and my mom had been in communication with each other long enough to coordinate their vegan food, but neither had the consideration to inform me as the hostess to tell me the menu had changed.
When I hung up, I burst into tears. All my intentions of having a wonderful dinner with my family had evaporated. All of my hard work was unappreciated by them. I knew it wasn’t my cooking, because no one in my family has ever called me a bad cook–besides I was using my mom’s recipes. And if they told me they wanted to go vegan, I could have found a way to adjust my cooking.
Love and empathy from my husband along with a good night’s rest revived me. I got up the next morning, determined to make something my family might enjoy and made homemade dinner rolls from scratch. If only I could go back in time to talk with my younger self, I’d ask her WHY her self-esteem was so caught up in cooking food to get her family’s approval.
The guests arrived while my dinner rolls were still baking. Without asking, someone moved my rolls to the top shelf to fit their casserole in the oven. When my rolls burned, I couldn’t hide my feelings; tears streamed down my face while I vulnerably told my family how much it hurt that no one informed me of their secret agenda. 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 have no idea how I got through that meal. After everyone 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 wouldn’t put up with them again. 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 was. I cried harder, while he yelled louder. He said, “No one but your family can make you so miserable. Why do you even want to spend time with them?”
For years I’d been in the habit of defending my parents for everything from their beating me with a belt to not teaching me how to drive and not allowing me a high school education. I told him it was because I loved them and maybe he didn’t know what love was. He said, “Yeah? Well, I love you, but your family has put a noose around our necks. It’s like they’re pulling us into the undertow of the river.”
We both stared at the Columbia River flowing next to us. Then he said, “I won’t stand by and watch while they abuse you, so you’ll just have to choose between your family or me.”
I screamed back, “I can’t do that. How can you ask me to do that?”
To emphasize he was serious, he threw his keys into the river.
There was a moment of silence as we both realized we were locked out of our house and car. Too sad to talk on the way home, we trudged back to the house in silence, where we sat down on the front porch. We lived in a tiny town with no locksmith, so we decided to break down the back door to get inside the house–where, thank goodness, I had an extra set of keys.
We stared at our messy kitchen filled with extra food. Then we each cut a huge slice of pumpkin pie and loaded it up with vanilla bean ice cream and cool whip and sat down in peace with each other to eat it. It was the most decadent and delicious pie I’ve ever tasted because that was the day I chose my husband, my best friend, the one who loves me.
So if anyone ever tries to tell you 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 these ingredients, you might as well be serving cardboard.