The Thanksgiving Rebellion

If you had told me, as a child, that Thanksgiving would one day be a favorite holiday, I might’ve laughed. For the younger me, the fourth Thursday in November was a day of dread.

Me and mom, around the time of the Thanksgiving Rebellion

The memories are hazy. As I’ve remained close to my extended family on my mother’s side, I can only assume they were my father’s relatives. I can still remember rolling up to a curb somewhere in the Southern California suburbs, and not wanting to get out of the car. There in the yard were children I’d met before but didn’t really know nor particularly like that I would have to try to integrate with. Inside the house the couch smelled of cigarettes, and there were heavy women and forlorn men who mostly ignored me. “Dinner” would begin around 3 in the afternoon, and was interminable. As much as I might wish and request to be seated near my parents, I would be exiled to the kids’ end of the long table. And then we would eat. I recall slices of turkey as tender as pieces of compressed wood board, insipid gray gravy, soggy stuffing where every second or third bite carried the sock in the palate of a piece of liver, the much feared round slices of canned cranberry “sauce”, something with marshmallows in it. And then I black out.

My mother, who feels an instinctual compulsion to flee from anything traditional, also disliked the holiday. Whether it was simply her rebellious nature or in-law fatigue from one (or two) too many bad marriages, she wanted nothing to do with Thanksgiving either. I had found a kindred spirit. So, in the years following her divorce from my father, my mother and I began our own non-traditional tradition.

The first year of the Thanksgiving revolt, we went AWOL. I was 12 or 13, and this would be liberation from everything I loathed about the holiday. I don’t recall where my siblings were, but my mom and I hopped in her white Toyota Celica and hit the Ventura Freeway headed north. Where we were going, we did not know. The first thing that attracted our attention was a miniature golf course, delightfully empty on the holiday. So we stopped and played a leisurely round. A couple hours later, we were well north of Santa Barbara, running around the Danish town of Solvang in a rainstorm, then drinking hot chocolate and looking for shells on a windswept autumn beach. On our way back, we stopped at a fish house in Oxnard for our own Thanksgiving dinner. I started with New England clam chowder, and can’t remember what I had after that, but you can be pretty sure there was no turkey on my plate.

In the years that followed, we took a slow and roundabout route back toward tradition — sort of. Instead of fleeing, we seized control of Thanksgiving dinner, inviting select friends and the most intrepid of our immediate family. We got out the Time-Life “Foods of the World” books and let our imaginations run wild. Our inaugural exotic Thanksgiving featured African food — I don’t remember everything we made, but I do recall personally preparing a West African peanut soup. The following year, it was a Thai Thanksgiving, and the year after that was spent at my gypsy aunt’s house off-the-grid in the forest of Mendocino — playing music, hunting for mushrooms and eating Moroccan food.

Eventually we’d excised the wanderlust from our system, rediscovered what was valuable about gathering family and celebrating thankfulness, and reconnected with the essential Americanness that is at the core of the holiday. Stepping gently back into the fold one year like prodigal children, we prepared game hens with stuffing. If you were to be invited to my mom’s for Thanksgiving now, it would be exactly the dinner you would expect — albeit a really good version.

While I have warmed somewhat to the traditional meal of turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberries and so forth, it is still not my favorite. Unlike the average American, I look at Thanksgiving dinner as a time of restraint. I eat one small plate and am done — especially if dessert should include one of my most reviled confections, the pumpkin pie. My favorite part is what I used to hate the most — sitting for long hours with family or friends, drinking wine, and being thankful. And if there are unwanted bones, meat and cartilage left at the end, I like to make a hearty nourishing soup to keep in the fridge for the days after.

My non-traditional contribution to Thanksgiving 2012

These days, we alternate Thanksgivings between my wife’s family and mine. This is her year, so we’ll load up the car and head north on the Ventura Freeway to her sister Laina’s farm in Oxnard, where we got married — just a short drive from that miniature golf course. I emailed Laina to find out what I could bring. She said to bring whatever I wanted, and I volunteered a wild mushroom squash-blossom risotto. I guess I’ve still got a little rebel left in me yet…

20 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. virginiaplantation
    Nov 22, 2012 @ 22:18:18

    Happy Thanksgiving from Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia!

    Brett and Michelle Darnell


  2. Andrea thompson
    Nov 22, 2012 @ 22:24:29

    Who were the wretched people on your fathers side at the beggining of this story?


  3. Lisa
    Nov 22, 2012 @ 22:24:37

    Ha…yes, aaahhhhh Thanksgiving…the dreaded holiday 😉


  4. Lisa
    Nov 22, 2012 @ 22:25:01

    You know who Andy…. 😉


  5. Mom
    Nov 23, 2012 @ 03:36:12

    Fun memories Seanie, We just returned from your sister’s house who in the tweaked family style, served a mid-eastern rice and chicken dish, a Greek cucumber salad, smoked salmon on deviled eggs and stuffed jalapenos along with all the ‘supposed to’ stuff.


  6. Greggie
    Nov 23, 2012 @ 07:54:25

    Happy Thanksgiving! My childhood memories of the holiday in Wisconsin were like the scene in Annie Hall with relatives (mostly who we would only see once a year) yelling about something like who had recently died and who got what from the estate. I’m happy to say that for the past decade or so I spend Thanksgiving at my friend Connie’s (who sometimes reads your blog especially the Spanish recipes) among friends. It is traditional turkey and side dishes but all made lovingly from scratch and no condiment bottles allowed on the table. I can imagine that lovely farm and barn a delightful place to spend the day though the menu your mom had at your sister’s sounds tempting as well.


  7. Kathy (Encell) Rautureau
    Nov 24, 2012 @ 17:52:16

    Love the photo!!


  8. Chris W.
    Nov 25, 2012 @ 01:39:33

    Great piece, Sean. I doubt the Pilgrims would have enjoyed canned cranberry loaf….


    • scolgin
      Nov 25, 2012 @ 15:06:20

      Who knows. They were kicked out of Europe for being too weird, you know. They may be the very ones to blame for some of this!


      • Chris W.
        Nov 25, 2012 @ 19:49:28

        Sooooo….the mundane IS the exotic…nice….always thought there was something transgressive about Thanksgiving glop.

  9. Michelle
    Nov 25, 2012 @ 14:12:44

    I’ve always thought Calvin Trillin had the right idea. I’d much prefer pasta carbonara.


  10. g
    Nov 25, 2012 @ 19:11:21

    Salmon fillet, planked with a mustard glaze, little steamed potatoes and roasted brussels sprouts. Leftovers? salmon cakes!


  11. rachelocal
    Nov 26, 2012 @ 15:19:18

    Love this! And LOVE that photo! 🙂 My favorite part of Thanksgiving is picking the meat off the turkey and stealing the carcass for stock. Oh, and I also love canned cranberry sauce (the whole berry kind–so that makes it a little more sophisticated, right?). But this year, my mom had an orange and cranberry relish that was so tangy and sweet and fresh–it rivaled the canned stuff.


  12. Lisa
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 00:19:16

    Look at Mom’s rebellious face in that photo 😉


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