I remember clearly a Wednesday evening, many years ago, the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, when my mother taught me a life-lesson…I think it was as long ago as 1972. She and I were in the kitchen de-crusting and dicing loaves of bread so they could dry overnight to be mixed up as stuffing in the morning. My father came into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator door and stood back to register the full sight: the door and all the shelves were laden with every imaginable ingredient that would become our Thanksgiving dinner…or so I thought. My father said, “Do we really need all this food for just one dinner?”
My mother answered without missing a single dicing motion on the bread, “Thanksgiving isn’t a dinner. Thanksgiving is a feast.” My life-lesson was learned that instant and I’ve observed it ever since. Thanksgiving is a feast and a feast means abundance and excess and abundant enjoyment. A feast is an occasion, not just a meal, where food and drink and people and celebration all meld.
Thus my sense of Thanksgiving was burnished. In my earliest years, we’d travel to my grandparents’ house where my mom would join her mom and her aunt in the small rowhome kitchen, where they’d dance around each other for hours of preparation. Later when my mother took over the holiday, I always made an effort to ensure a feast. I’d try to help my mother’s efforts, dicing the bread into cubes or making the cranberry sauce or mashing the potatoes. When I’ve been invited to a Thanksgiving feast, I’ve arrived with cranberry-nut bread or eggnog or bottles of wine, just to expand the feast. Then for years, my mother-in-law created the Italian version of the Thanksgiving feast, beginning the meal with pasta and meatballs and salad and string bean salad before clearing the table to make room for the turkey, stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce—whole and jellied! In recent years, we’ve hosted the feast, my wife working for days to duplicate the model of a feast that her mother had delivered. Now my responsibilities have expanded to include the hors d’oeuvres: jumbo stuffed olives and tiny pickles and cheeses and crackers and brie with fig jam and radishes and nuts.
No Thanksgiving feast would be complete without too many dessert options: the table cleared once again to make room for a display of pies and breads and whipped cream to decorate them and clementines and figs and raisins. Pumpkin pie (always), apple or apple-cranberry pie, sometimes a mincemeat pie, applesauce bread, ginger bread, dessert wines and cordials, and coffee. Ironically, sinful eating to give thanks to God for everything that we have.
In James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” he describes an elaborate holiday party full of lively conversation and song and dancing and just as much food and drink as I’ve listed above. He spends 250 words describing the dinner table, food, wine and beer…it is a wonderful temptation to recount the bounty of such feasts. His biographer claims that Joyce went to such lengths to describe the party feast because he had been living in relative poverty and could enjoy such abundance only in the retelling of it. I believe that that is a second life-lesson: one of the added beauties of a Thanksgiving feast is that it can feed our imaginations and hearts long after the table has been cleared. In the words of a friend, “Buon appetito!”