On Thanksgivings Past
As a self-professed foodie, Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I can recall a childhood’s worth of large plates piled high with savory stuffing, creamy mashed potatoes, and mouth-wateringly tart cranberry sauce. There always seemed to be an infinite number of homemade desserts to devour at my grandparent’s house—chocolate chip cookies and mousses, apple and cherry pies, ice creams and “Bubbe’s surprise”—and I always partook proudly in the feasting while surrounded by family from near and far. As a family, we have always loved our gravy and, what we call, ‘picking’. You are considered a true Perlmuter if you are found with your fingers scraping stuffing out of the leftover pan moments after the meal ends. I confess, this is a family tradition that I’m quite proud of: hovering over the kitchen counter sneaking third or fourth helpings, the split second of shame in getting caught, and then the relief and glee in having another family member join you on your mission. As an adult, I realize it’s something I can only rightfully do when I’m with family—try picking the crispy bits of potatoes out of a pan at a boyfriend’s house and you’re just strange.
Since leaving home, Thanksgiving’s have been as much about family as (what I call) transplant families—these are the friends that have celebrated with me in only ways that family would. When I can spare the time and the cash, I trek to Chicago to join my grandparents and extended family at the annual feast. A couple of times, we’ve planned it well and my mother or brothers have joined from Israel. Even when my Bubbe experiments with a recipe or two, everything always tastes the same, year in and year out: of family, of home, of full bellies and even fuller hearts.
When I can’t make it back to my Bubbe and Zayde’s, I find a transplant family. My first Thanksgiving as an adult out on the world on my own was cooked for me by my new roommates in North Carolina; a couple of 20-something girls who welcomed me into their lives like a long lost sister. They cooked a Thanksgiving-themed feast a whole week late, waiting for me to get to town and doubling up the celebrations with my birthday. They added their own flare to the meal with a delicious homemade turtle cheesecake (oh, what I would give for a bite of that cheesecake today). We ate until our bellies hurt and our knees buckled under our footsteps, and then we ate some more. I found myself not just among new friends, but a family; our bellies full and hearts even fuller.
A year later, living in London at nineteen, the one American I knew already had plans for the holidays. So I asked another friend if I could hijack her kitchen and thus I hosted my first international Thanksgiving (the guests were British, Spanish, South African and Australian)! I spent 8 hours in the kitchen cooking 10 traditional dishes from scratch while praying that I wouldn’t give my dinner guests food poisoning from the 14lb. turkey that hadn’t finished defrosting before going in the oven. There were so many firsts for me that day and I felt both freed and frantic in my chef’s apron: this was my guests’ first Thanksgiving and I was representing my family and even a bit of America—a lot of responsibility! I was trying to channel Julia Child and a bit of my Bubbe but by the time my guests arrived I was more like the headless turkey in the oven, covered in patches of flour and miscellaneous herbs. And yet, through the miracle of Thanksgiving, everything turned out great. The turkey was juicy and flavorful, the stuffing fragrant and moreish, and the sweet potato casserole was devoured in one round despite vocal skepticism from my guests. There were several firsts that day for me, but there was one familiar feeling: I was surrounded by a family, our bellies full and hearts even fuller.
During college, I had a serious boyfriend whose lovely family welcomed me to their holiday celebrations with arms wide open. I was doubly grateful for the long weekend escapes from campus life and the ability to contribute to the meal with a dish or two of my own. I found myself surrounded by fellow foodies and discovered my new, favorite Thanksgiving Day activity (one that I hope to make a tradition in my future): filling up on a cheese plate prior to the feast. We were a family of food nuances (one was gluten free, another vegetarian, and mostly into healthy eating) and yet we created feasts that mirrored the ones I remembered from my childhood—scrumptious and indulgent and seemingly never-ending in the best way possible. Despite not being a true member of the family, I felt at home. The merging of traditions—old, new and different—only gave me more to be grateful for and I found myself once again celebrating a day of thanksgiving with family, my belly full and my heart even fuller.
All of these feasts, these ghosts of Thanksgiving’s past, are thankfully too ingrained inside my memory to ever be lost. And although it may have been the food that brought us together, it is the people that I shared these moments with that made them so special. So here’s a written toast to Thanksgiving’s past.
On Thanksgiving’s Present
This year, as I find the term ‘American abroad’ becoming a larger part of my identity, my desire to have a traditional Thanksgiving feast was stronger than ever. Luckily, my island hosts a handful of volunteers, including a very kind couple in their 20’s who opened their doors to nine of us for a Peace Corps Thanksgiving. We made it a potluck ordeal and everyone brought a dish or two to contribute to the meal. In true Thanksgiving tradition… a few things went wrong: our turkey provider threw out his back (don’t worry, he’s on the mend) and our cranberry sauce supplier got stuck on her island due to stormy weather. But then, in true Thanksgiving tradition… the meal was perfect just the way it was.
We stuffed our faces on an amazing plate of imported cheeses (local cheese is sweet and I still haven’t gotten over that), jars of pickles and olives, and warm bread with tomatoes and spiced olive oil for dipping. The smorgasbord of table offerings brought me back to Thanksgiving’s of my recent past, to family and friends, and feelings of home in places that were never really my own. And yet again, I found myself surrounded by another transplant family: my Peace Corps family. When it finally came time to eat our Filipino feast, with all its local quirks and substitutions, I found my heart full again. And before we ate, we fulfilled yet another tradition. We went around the table and talked about the things we were thankful for with the clear consensus of food, friends, and family.
I must admit, after a day filled with friendly faces and familiar foods I hit a small slump. It was my brother’s birthday the day after Thanksgiving and my thoughts were with him and my family and friends celebrating their festivities without me. I also lost my appetite for my typical local cuisines and broke down and bought my first jar of peanut butter since I’ve been at site—it’s half gone already. But the holiday is about food, friends, family and being thankful, so instead of sinking into the slump, I spent much of the weekend trying to focus on what I am thankful for, which brought me to this list:
- My parents: for several years they have been proud supporters of my adventures and travels, no matter how far it takes me from them. I wouldn’t be where I am without them, and that’s the least of it.
- Both my grandmother’s: for teaching me their ways in the kitchen and the real meaning of comfort food.
- My brothers: big, little, and littlest. For being there for me always and making being the ‘only girl’ in the family such a treat.
- Sarah & Danielle: my best friends of sixteen years. I never thought a girl on the road could have childhood friends and yet, years later, we still manage to meet up from different continents and make ourselves feel like kids again.
- The Peace Corps: for continuing to promote the vision of world peace and friendship through shared education and experiences across the globe. And for giving me this opportunity to be a part of this special mission to serve.
- Cheese. Well, I think this speaks for itself.
- My Filipino host families. I have had the pleasure of living with two local families here. They have opened their doors to me and my quirks and only responded to my needs with more caring and concern. I hope one day I could offer the same kind of hospitality to guests in my own home.
- The internet: for keeping me connected. As much as I love disconnecting and getting outdoors, I’m grateful for the ability to keep in touch with my family and friends and for being able to share this journey with you.
- My transplant families: for my friends around the world who have made me feel at home when I was without one. Especially thankful to the family in St. Pete that opened their doors to me for four years of college and their continued messages of support and kindness from across the globe.
- My site mates. Peace Corps life, as I’ve mentioned, is like a roller coaster without brakes. I happen to hate actual roller coasters and am not too fond of this metaphor (one day I’ll come up with a better one) but I am so grateful for those that are on the journey with me. I feel incredibly lucky to have been placed on this island with a handful of volunteers whose bright spirits and loving nature have quickly found a way to my heart. After just a few months together, I know my service would not be the same without them.
On Thanksgivings Yet To Come
I don’t know what next year will bring and who will be around for Thanksgiving 2017 but I look forward to it and each Thanksgiving to follow knowing that there is always a way to celebrate. Maybe it’s just one traditional dish or a whole feast or the act of doing something good on a special day of the year. Maybe it’ll be surrounded by family, or old friends, or new friends, or people that have never celebrated Thanksgiving before. Maybe I will celebrate somewhere warm with familiarity or somewhere new and exciting. Whatever comes of it, I look to those Thanksgivings Yet To Come, knowing that I will find myself surrounded by family, my belly full, and my heart even fuller.