When you look through 2020 eyes at photos from your previous Thanksgiving family meals, things that once might have seemed charming suddenly appear horrifying: Everyone is sitting so close together! Grandma and Grandpa are high-risk! And why is the turkey so huge?
Whatever your version of a "traditional" holiday is, it might not be happening this year.
The pandemic is keeping apart many families and friends who would typically gather together. That might be painful, but there's good reason for it. Public health experts are warning that indoor family get-togethers, particularly for the holidays, will be major drivers of a deadly spike in cases this fall and winter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that travel, often a feature of Thanksgiving, is risky.
Even infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci is skipping his usual gathering with his adult children.
But if there's anything Americans like more than road trips, it's reinventing stuff, and home cooks across the country are coming up with ways to make the holiday feel special even in these strange times. And somehow, stripping away the trappings of Thanksgiving - whether that's a big crowd, the turkey or even the traditional dinner-table gathering - has made people understand the more fundamental things about the holiday: cooking as a way of staying connected, expressing gratitude and making memories, even if they look far different than they used to.
Keep it outdoors
Nothing about this year has felt normal to Tarah Johnson, an administrative manager from North Providence, R.I. And so "the usual" wasn't on the menu when it came to planning the family's Thanksgiving dinner - typically a sprawling, day-long affair where extended family gathers at her mother's house. There would be no lingering over the table, no after-dinner cocktails, games of cards and a laughter-filled "airing of grievances" inspired by "Seinfeld."
Instead, over an ongoing family group text, she introduced an alternative. "I said, 'Let's blow it up and do something completely different.'"
A smaller group of family members will convene in her cousin's spacious backyard nearby for a socially distanced soup buffet. So far, they've agreed the spread will include chili, cream of potato and possibly a lobster bisque. There will be hot toddies and Irish coffee. Each attendee will bring their own comfy, zero-gravity folding chair and blankets. Johnson knows it could be nippy.
But they'll have a chance to toast their grandmother, who died in March of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, with her favorite drink, Wild Turkey, and it will be a time for her 2-year-old daughter to see family. "I want her to have those memories of the family," she says. "They don't have to be the same ones I have."
Take it virtual
"How can we make this Thanksgiving-ish?" That was the goal for retired educator Barbara Free Osterwisch, who landed on the idea of having the families who would typically be gathering together each make a dish and then distribute them around the Dallas suburbs where they live. At an appointed time, they will all Zoom together for the meal.
Osterwisch wasn't so much concerned for her own experience of the holiday, but she said it felt important to make sure that the older members of the family still got to contribute to the meal, as they would have in the Before Times. "I thought, 'What might we do to give them a feeling of life as usual - that touchstone?'" she said. "And I wanted to give my grandsons that feeling of continuity."
Logistics still have to be worked out, but she has thought through a few things to make it easier. She wants to make sure that the cooks, particularly the older ones, have the right serving containers ahead of time, and she's mindful of not creating too many dishes that have to be returned.
Make it dinner and a show
Thanksgiving dinner isn't just about food, of course. And so plenty of people are thinking up substitutes for the fanfare that often accompanies the meal. For some staying put this year, a little production might be in order.
For Taylor Cavin, the solution is a pasta-making experiment. 2020 would have been the year that she and her girlfriend would have made their first visits to each other's families for big holiday dinners, after dating for a little more than a year. But they're both teachers in Austin, Texas, exposed to dozens of children a day, and worried about potentially sickening vulnerable relatives. Instead, they're planning to stay in and whip up homemade pumpkin ravioli.
It will be a project, Cavin says, because they haven't tried it before. But she's optimistic: They've leaned into cooking as a pandemic pastime, and a previous attempt at gnocchi had been a hit. A leisurely day in the kitchen feels like a treat - and a break from their usual routine of getting home too exhausted to tackle an elaborate dinner.
It's not close to traditional - and that's the point. "I'm not thinking of it as a substitution," she says. "It doesn't feel like I'm missing out, because I have something else that I'm making a memory from and celebrating."
For a similarly festive feel, University of Michigan professor Anna Kirkland and her family settled on a fondue night, with a pot for dipping bread and a chocolate fondue fountain, that she won at a PTA fundraiser, for dunking fruit. She and her husband are academics, and their schedules usually made a complicated Thanksgiving impossible. In past years, they've gone to restaurants, done quick trips to somewhere warm or had a local "friends-giving," none of which are options this year.
The family usually breaks out the fondue supplies on New Year's Eve, and Kirkland likes that it's not just a meal but an activity. "It's special and a little elaborate," she says. "The kids like it, yet it's something we don't do all the time." Not overthinking things feels like a relief. "We'll probably do it for Christmas and New Year's, too," she says.
Outsource what doesn't excite you
While talking to people about their plans for a modified or completely rethought Thanksgiving feast, several confessed to something that previously might have seemed verboten: Plenty of people out there just don't like turkey. Perhaps it took a pandemic to free us from the clutches of this holiday icon?
"Actually, my favorite part of Thanksgiving is the sides," says Cortney Johnson, a culinary school student from Douglasville, Ga. This year, Johnson is making dinner for her husband and 9-year-old son and skipping the travel to far-flung parents' homes. And she's outsourcing the bird to a to-be-determined local restaurant.
That will allow her to focus on the parts of the meal she's most excited about. Maybe she'll try mac and cheese in cupcake tins, she thinks, and maybe she'll explore combining savory and sweet flavors in the vegetables. Johnson is researching independent restaurants that offer to-go turkeys, glad for the chance to support establishments that have suffered in the pandemic. And another bonus? Many of the options in Atlanta she's found are smoked or barbecued, a treatment for the holiday bird that's unfamiliar to the New York native.
This year, some things feel familiar. The Macy's parade she loves is going to be on TV, even if it's a little smaller. The National Dog Show is a go. She, her son and husband will go around the table and say what they're grateful for.
"We'll miss our family and friends, but maybe this is going to allow me to create some new traditions," Johnson says.
This article was written by Emily Heil, a reporter for The Washington Post.