A Traditional Feast
by Kayla Smith
The 1,500 miles between my dorm room in Rhode Island and my parents’ house in Mississippi made visits difficult. Though I flew home for Thanksgiving my freshman year, I gently explained to my mom that the appalling price of the ticket seemed a bit excessive to attempt four years in a row. And so the following Thanksgiving, my best friend, Gordon, invited me to spend Thanksgiving with his family in Boston instead.
My family’s Thanksgiving had always taken place at my grandmother’s house. There was no fineness or modesty about the event – only the eagerness that 364 days of anticipation had built. The meal was always a buffet-style endeavor, where we would test the strength of our heavy-duty paper trays by piling them so high with food that the dividers did little to contain the portions. Southerners are experts at feasting, but Thanksgiving is perhaps the single day of the year when such expertise is best displayed.
It seemed that in New England, Thanksgiving was a time to display different skills. The event was semi-formal in both attire and etiquette. The fine china emerged from the cabinet to adorn the formal dining room table. There were elaborate place settings with more utensils than I would ever have imagined necessary for one meal. And though Gordon’s family was no less enthusiastic about the feast, the mere size of the dinner plates prevented the kind of impressive portions that the paper trays seemed to encourage.
At Gordon’s house, even the food itself seemed refined. The meal’s main attraction was, of course, the turkey – a pristine dish supplemented by carefully selected sides. At my grandmother’s, the turkey was accompanied by an assortment of additional meat options: a honey-baked ham, a pot roast, chicken and dumplings, and corn and shrimp bisque. Both of our families had vegetables and salad, but the vegetables at Gordon’s house looked like they came from a garden, and the salad was green with homemade vinaigrette. The vegetables at my grandmother’s usually came from cans and were buried in casseroles, and the salads consisted of the main ingredient being mixed with more mayonnaise than I ever want to think about.
And then there were desserts. At Gordon’s, there was no shame in buying already-made desserts. At my grandmother’s this would be akin to blasphemy. None of my family members could ever resist the urge to bring a dessert that they’d “thrown together” at the last minute, so there were often seven or eight desserts for a dozen people. In Gordon’s house, the dessert options were either pumpkin or apple pie, and the bold decision was to take a little of each. At my grandmother’s, everyone knows that Thanksgiving is one of only two days of the year that we are exempt from the regular rules of nutrition, and so it’s best to take advantage of that fact since the next opportunity won’t come until Christmas.
That Thanksgiving was the first holiday I spent away from my family. I listened as his family said “grace” instead of “the blessin’,” and hoped I was being discreet as I waited to see what fork I was supposed to use. But my hesitancy dissipated over the course of the meal, and I felt at ease when I returned for the following Thanksgiving, and then again for the next. I began to feel like I was partaking in the family traditions rather than witnessing them as a contrast to my own.
Last Thanksgiving, Gordon and his mother told me they had a surprise. I entered the dining room and froze, shocked to find one of my all-time favorite desserts – a cream cheese king cake, complete with autumn colors and plastic Thanksgiving decorations, shipped overnight from my favorite bakery in my hometown.
As a member of an overly sentimental family, I recognize the risk of unintentionally letting traditions define holidays. But Thanksgiving should be about more than the food and repetition of our old habits. It should be about everything we’re truly grateful for, and the family and friends we share it with. Last year, I felt at home and thankful as I sat 1,500 miles from south Mississippi, eating king cake on fine china.
Kayla Smith is an intern at Deep South. Find out more about her in our Contributors section.