Doing Thanksgiving Differently During the Pandemic

If you trust infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice about COVID-19, you may know that he’s advised Americans to have smaller Thanksgiving celebrations this year, acknowledging that his three adult daughters will not be flying home for the holiday this year “out of concern for me and my age.” He’s urged everyone to carefully […] Continue Reading ⬇︎
By: Martha Wagner
Posted in: General
Posted on: 11/06/2020

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Doing Thanksgiving Differently During the Pandemic

If you trust infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice about COVID-19, you may know that he’s advised Americans to have smaller Thanksgiving celebrations this year, acknowledging that his three adult daughters will not be flying home for the holiday this year “out of concern for me and my age.” He’s urged everyone to carefully evaluate their own personal and family levels of risk before making holiday plans.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released lists detailing what lower, moderate, and higher risk holiday gatherings would entail. These lists are meant to supplement—not replace—state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety regulations.

If you live in a warm enough climate, you may be planning an outdoor Thanksgiving, or you might have moved your Turkey Day gathering to an earlier date to try for better weather. Perhaps you’ve purchased an outdoor heater for a covered patio or decided to gather with family and friends on Zoom for safety. I spoke with three people I know in Washington State, Oregon, and Northern California about how they plan to celebrate with loved ones while also keeping themselves and others safe.

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Pie Zooms and Horse Ovaries

My friend Ann Greenberger, an editor and ESL tutor, is the youngest of four children who grew up in Ohio in the 1960s and ‘70s, when a traditional Thanksgiving meal often still included a neon-color Jell-O mold. She spent her earlier adult life in Boston and now lives in Corvallis, Oregon, having followed her older sister Ellen and mother Marjorie, now 96, to the West Coast.

Their COVID-safe 2020 Thanksgiving may be just the three of them, unless Ellen’s daughter Lily joins them, in which case they’ll all have masks to put on as needed. Marjorie lives independently in her home, where the family usually gathers on holidays, and will host again this Thanksgiving. But, up until about 10 years ago, she no longer cooks what Ann recalls as “the big production” for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Ann and Ellen also no longer attempt to replicate that elaborate menu; this year they’re contemplating a takeout roast chicken with homemade side dishes. A new tradition they’re considering is a “Pie Zoom” with out-of-state family, which Ann predicts “might end up with all of us chiding each other about who has the best pie or other dessert.”

Another highlight of the holiday weekend will likely be one or several other Zoom calls with Ann’s two brothers in New York City, as well as Marjorie’s brother in Wisconsin, now 102, and his wife, who’s in her late 80s.

Ann Greenberger with her 96-year-old mother Marjorie.

Ann Greenberger with her 96-year-old mother Marjorie.

I asked Ann her thoughts as she contemplates this Thanksgiving season.

What are a few favorite Thanksgiving memories?When I was growing up, we would have chicken liver pate and other appetizers that my aunt always referred to jokingly as ‘horses ovaries’ rather than hors d’oeuvres! When I lived in Boston, I sometimes went with my two brothers, Joe and Mike, to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York, which was very fun. Also, when I lived in Boston, a friend of mine started a tradition with me and two other close friends, inviting us for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with her children in order to have a new ‘family’ of her own for Thanksgiving because her kids went to their dad’s family on Thanksgiving Day.”

What makes all the effort that goes into a good Thanksgiving—with or without a pandemic—worth it? “I’m not doing very much compared to what my mother used to when we were growing up, but the family connections we have at Thanksgiving and Christmas are really important to me. Last year both of my brothers came out from NYC at Christmas and stayed for awhile, so that was great! My mother loves whatever we plan. She and her brother also talk on Skype every week, which she really enjoys.”

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Dinner Drop-Offs and Transport Missions

Pm Weizenbaum, a semiretired editor in Seattle, is accustomed to a full house on Thanksgiving, but things will be different this year! She and her husband Jack Lee usually host 12 to 16 people for a potluck Thanksgiving meal that includes their two grown children and some members of their children’s extended families.

Pm Weizenbaum (foreground bottom right) with their Thanksgiving crowd, prepandemic.

Pm Weizenbaum (foreground bottom right) with their Thanksgiving crowd, prepandemic.

This year Pm and Jack will sit down at one end of a table that seats 10-plus, and none of the people invited will be attending in person. Instead, Pm and Jack will join their guests on Zoom, beginning with cocktails before the main course. This year it’s smoked turkey with sausage stuffing, which Jack and Pm will carefully pack up before Jack sets out for what Pm calls the LeeWeiz Transport Mission to deliver, along with containers of mashed potatoes prepared by another dinner guest, to the first of four dinner drop-offs that Jack will make at the homes of the invited guests. There is also a plan for another guest’s desserts to intercept the Transport Mission, ensuring a sweet end to the meal. Every household is expected to add other dishes to their meal as they choose.

Pm and Jack have seen their son Jeremy and daughter Natalie, plus their children’s partners, on porches and in backyards several times since the pandemic started, but the usual Thanksgiving group has not been together for a year. Seattle’s high coronavirus numbers account for Pm and Jack’s table for two this year. Says Pm, “I found the first couple weeks of April quite difficult. But once I took myself in hand and tracked the 14 days from my prior contact with the World At Large, I found a decent balance! And it’s been surprisingly manageable for us as a couple.”

This year’s Thanksgiving—table for two, complete with a laptop for a Zoom gathering.

This year’s Thanksgiving—table for two, complete with a laptop for a Zoom gathering.

What are a few favorite Thanksgiving memories? “When my husband and I moved from New England to Seattle, it became the most lonely holiday of the year before we had kids. It finally transformed to a joyous holiday when the family of our daughter’s partner joined us at our dinner table in 2013. The meal finally became a true holiday. Even the sewer line that broke that evening became a hilarious, extended-family adventure. A couple of years later, our son invited his partner’s parents as well. Finally, we had the groaning table that I’d only read about before! From that time until this year, we’ve delighted in sharing food, stories, and camaraderie.”

What makes all the effort that goes into a good Thanksgiving—with or without a pandemic—worth it? “The deep enjoyment of sharing love, potluck, and memories with our ‘constructed’ family reshapes this year’s ‘work’ of transporting meal components into one aspect of the COVID-2020 social Thanksgiving experience.”

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An Outdoor Thanksgiving

My cousin Paula Wagner lives in the East Bay across from San Francisco, is currently working on a second memoir, and has a large, extended family in Northern California. She’s an expert on outdoor Thanksgivings. Here are her thoughts:

“Celebrating Thanksgiving outdoors is not for everyone or every climate, but it’s been our Bay Area tradition for our blended family since the mid-‘70s. It all started with some friends whose kids were young, like our four. But who wanted a posse of preschoolers prancing through the house on Thanksgiving Day? The solution was simple: Why not let the kids run free outdoor while the grown-ups hang out?

“Then, as now, California was in a deep drought, so the threat of rain was minimal. (In all the years since, it’s barely drizzled on that day.) What began as an act of self-preservation proved so much fun that we decided to repeat it over the years until it became a tradition. While the venue has shifted over the years from redwood parks to urban pavilions, and the menu now includes prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and osso buco along with the traditional turkey and mashed potatoes, you can still hear English, French, Hebrew, Chinese, and Tagalog in a modest sampling of the Bay Area’s stimulating diversity. Over three generations, our original circle has grown to include not only lifelong friends and now-adult children, but also their partners, aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, and our eight grandchildren. Out in the fresh air, love, and laughter expand like oxygen.

Paula Wagner with her husband Gib Cattanach under their huge fig tree in their northern California backyard.

Paula Wagner with her husband Gib Cattanach under their huge fig tree in their Northern California backyard.

“Granted, an alfresco feast is much closer to camping than fine dining, but the prep time is surprisingly similar. With fresh pumpkin pies baked the day before and our gear packed, the biggest challenge for me is rising before dawn to have the turkey roasted by noon. (Given the limited daylight, it’s a must to eat by two in the afternoon.) I’m decidedly not a morning person, but my fatigue gives way to gratitude as I work undisturbed in my kitchen, then creep outside to savor a magnificent sunrise over a soothing cup of tea.

“Instead of feeling rushed and confined as I would indoors, the brisk autumn air invigorates me so I can truly enjoy the feast with family and friends. Our hearts are warm despite the chill, and when the sun sets in a fiery blaze, it’s hard to say goodbye. But when I get home, my house will be clean. Like a secret sauce, it’s a small bonus that enhances all the other blessings of our outdoor escapade. Instead of the exhausting clean-cook-clean routine of an indoor Thanksgiving, I can sink onto the couch, fulfilled in body and spirit.

Scenes from Paula’s outdoor Thanksgivings past, including kids playing on a huge California redwood tree!

Scenes from Paula’s outdoor Thanksgivings past, including kids playing on a huge California redwood tree!

This year the drill will be similar, except that a maximum of 12 immediate family members will gather in our backyard—masks, social distancing, and hand sanitizer required. Over the weekend, we hope to see small pods of our extended family. Like so many aspects of our lives, this holiday may be simpler, but all the more appreciated for happening at all. We’ll raise a toast to health, family, friends, and bounty, and another one for an effective, free vaccine by next Thanksgiving, if not sooner! May the circle be unbroken.”

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How We Can Help This Holiday

Across the country, in cities and small towns, thousands of community organizations have a tradition of serving free meals that are open to anyone at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many of these events have been canceled this year because of the pandemic, but not all. In Albany, New York, for example, the annual free Thanksgiving dinner provided by the social service agency Equinox is being replaced by an estimated 10,000 meals prepared to COVID-safe standards by local restaurants, caterers, and food service programs. Meals will be delivered by volunteer drivers offering contactless delivery.

If you want to volunteer or donate money to help support a community Thanksgiving meal, contact your nearby community center, church, or food bank early in November to ask about what opportunities are available. With pandemic-related unemployment, natural disasters like wildfires, and many other sources of hardship this year, there’s no question that the need for help in many, many communities is unprecedented.

Man delivering food to elderly woman during pandemic

And, if you know friends or neighbors who live alone, are elderly and at higher health risk, or who, prior to COVID, you might have taken a pie or some other tasty food for them to enjoy over the holiday weekend, this year it’s even more important to check in with them beforehand to ask how you can safely help. Maybe you can bring over prepared food on Thanksgiving or arrange to drop off a takeout meal from a nearby grocery store. Same thing with families in need or single parents.

We all know that isolation and loneliness have loomed large in our landscape this year in unprecedented ways. While we need to be careful about protecting our physical health, we also mustn’t ignore our intense need for social connection, especially in a time that’s already so difficult for many. A FaceTime session, an instant message chat, a Skype or Zoom meeting, a simple phone call, an email, or even an old-fashioned handwritten letter and a food care package can literally be lifelines these days.

If you’re thinking about someone you haven’t connected with in a long time, do it. And maybe try reaching out not just to people you know but those you don’t—chances are, they’ll be so thankful you did.

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Looking for ideas for tasty Thanksgiving dishes? Check out our searchable Recipes section for delicious, seasonal main entrées, side dishes, desserts, and salads!

About the author: Martha Wagner is a Corvallis, Oregon-based food and health writer and passionate advocate for sustainable living, wellness, and organic agriculture.

Photo credits: Featured photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash; photos courtesy of Ann Greenberger, Pm Weizenbaum, and Paula Wagner; bottom photo: Peter Maszlen of Dreamstime.com.

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