Opinions on Thanksgiving

posted November 19, 2004

Thanksgiving is coming, and for the first time in my adult life, I am hosting the big Turkey meal. There’s one problem: I don’t like turkey. (I like duck). I know I will receive lots of opinionated e-mails for saying this, but I’m a brave lady, and right this moment, there is no one in my sight. Therefore, I have the illusion that I can say whatever I want with impunity. So here goes: Turkey is pathetically inadequate compared to any other variety of poultry (especially duck.) It’s practically all white meat, and its legs and wings are bizarrely gigantic. In order to keep it from being dry, one has to baste it all morning or afternoon long. You have to put the rack in your oven down to the bottom and you can’t cook much of anything else in there while your turkey roasts. And what if it’s underdone by mealtime? Did I mention I have a phobia of food not being ready on time when throwing a dinner party? Did I mention my phobia of having people judge my housecleaning/cooking/hostessing skills in general? Especially my mother and assorted female relatives?

The good friends I turn to for advice when it looks likely that I might start making bad decisions said this: “Don’t try to please everyone at Thanksgiving. Everyone has his or her own favorite traditions from childhood. You will not be able to replicate them all. Just do your best and make sure the food is fresh and not burned. Try to have fun. And don’t overwhelm yourself.”

So what did I do? I sent out a group e-mail to my family (fourteen of them, going on fifteen—as of this writing Baby November is still not born). Among the many questions I asked was “When should we have the meal? Lunch or dinner?” Those family members who are parents of young children (my sisters and brothers-in-law) opted for noon; it’s too much of a hassle for them to try to eat a fancy meal at any time approaching bed time (5:30-midnight, in the case of Amelia, Emmett and Reese). But my parents said they wanted the meal at dinnertime. They said a lunchtime meal would knock them out and they wouldn’t have the energy for touch football, our family tradition (naturally).

I also foolishly mentioned my aversion to turkey in the family newsletter (“Why do people even bother with the whole buy/freeze/thaw/cook for twelve hours nightmare? Can’t we just pick the frozen bits out of the turkey pot pie?”) And received mostly agreeable feedback and votes for the much tastier and easier to cook duck, which I had proposed as the alternative. “Hooray for duck!” wrote one family member. “A much better national bird! Although both birds resemble our president: he IS a turkey and he ducks all the issues!”

However, one family member who shall remain nameless and unidentifiable said–poignantly but annoyingly–“if it’s not a horrible imposition, I’m a huge fan of a small, but whole turkey-one of my traditions is hacking off a leg and eating it.”

This one lone sentence sent me into a tailspin of despair and rampant people pleasing. For now I will have to serve turkey AND what Tom has taken to calling “duckey.” In the middle of the night, I am tormented by visions of me on Thanksgiving morning, basting, sweating, hacking at poultry, the duck undercooked, the turkey overcooked—or vice versa. And what about the apple pie? And the chocolate coffee cheesecake? And the garlic mashed potatoes for my parents but garlic free mashed potatoes for Katryna? And the green beans with almonds for Dave but almond free green beans for Abigail? And should there be a paper turkey centerpiece? Tom wants cranberry sauce in a can and to make sure that the can lines are clearly visible. Wait– shouldn’t we acknowledge the genocide of the Indians at this point in time? And what about the Electoral College? Should it be abolished or not? My mother says yes, my sister Abigail says no. They are both brilliant students and teachers of US History, and if we don’t take this particular opportunity to have them each debate the merits of the system, we will have lost some crucial porthole into The Next Phase of our Republic. Why oh why did I ask anyone what they wanted? Why did I have to make this a democracy when a dictatorship has served hostesses of Thanksgiving perfectly well for almost four hundred years? Did the Indians ask the pilgrims if they liked corn pudding?

In the middle of the night, these thoughts swirl through my poor tired mind, alongside visions of Iran going nuclear, Condaleeza Rice taking over Colin Powell’s job, Tom DeLay getting away with criminal acts and poor John Kerry eating Chinese take out in his Senate office because he’s too ashamed and depressed to join his colleagues at the Capitol Hill luncheon. In the middle of the night, I carry on arguments with people who call themselves Christians and also voted for Bush. I point to all the Bible passages that support my side. I show them images of the powerless and downtrodden and beg them to have mercy. I dream of powerful men becoming impotent and crumbling into the arms of a loving God. I get it that we cannot come to God with our minds. It’s got to be our hearts. And no one can drag us there. I’m not even sure it’s a choice.

If my family can’t even agree on a time to have the Thanksgiving meal, what hope is there for peace for the world?

One of my favorite quotations of all time is by A.J. Muste, the great activist for peace in the 20th Century. He said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Peace is a lot harder than the alternatives. Staying with people you disagree with is one of the most difficult things to do, and as history marches on, the whole notion of staying seems to become less and less appealing. Isn’t that one of the messages of 1620 and The New World? If you don’t like the people you’re with, sail across the ocean and found a colony. Or get in a covered wagon and ride across the plains, found a homestead. If you don’t like your relatives, go to a spa for the holidays. If you don’t get along with your partner anymore, move out, move on.

Are we letting our compromising muscles atrophy? When do we acquiesce and cook two different birds? When do we say, instead, “I’m sorry. I know you’ll be disappointed, but it’s going to be duck instead of turkey.” I am curious about this process, and something convinces me that arriving at some answers in myself is the route to arriving at the answers for the greater community.

A few days after the election, a group of us gathered for potluck, singing and debriefing about the way things went down on November second. We sat in a circle and shared war stories (funny that we call them that, isn’t it.) One person had been a part of a program that brought the conversation across party lines, asking questions instead of arguing. And it occurred to me that the old truth that you can’t change anyone—they have to change themselves—might hold true for the political discussions as well. In my whole life of debating and arguing (the local pastime where I grew up, inside the Beltway of Washington DC) I have never once, in all my brilliance and determination and terrier-like adhesion to pet issues, EVER convinced anyone to believe what I believe. And the same holds true for me—no one has EVER been able to convince me of anything through intellectual arguments. The only time I’ve ever changed my own mind about some issue is when I’ve been asked questions, gently, when the questioner is full of non judgmental curiosity. As in, “What’s wrong with turkey? What if you got it pre cooked?”

“Hmm,” I would say, “That’s okay then. In fact, that’s a great idea.”

To counteract the swirling thoughts and the insomnia, Tom and I are hosting a project called Journaling For Peace. It will be an eight week course starting with a Day of Peace at our house in Northampton, where we will practice talking and writing and thinking from our own centers, our own hearts. Where we practice listening. Tom’s been trained as a mediator, a practice that’s all about finding the space in your self where compromise is possible, poking around at all the firmly held beliefs to see if there’s a little wiggle room. For instance, you might be passionately pro choice but not chose to have an abortion yourself, when the time came. Or you might be passionately pro life but rethink the matter when your sister’s life is threatened by a pregnancy. You might really like duck a lot, but if faced with the task of cooking it yourself on Thanksgiving morning versus reading the New York Times, you might decide turkey would be just fine after all. You get to see which is your attachment to essential truths and which is your attachment to being right. Those are rarely the same thing.

What if, instead of telling my conservative friend who thinks the Bible is the literal word of God and that George W. Bush has been chosen by God to save us from the scourge of Satan in the person of Saddam Hussein—what if instead of telling that person, gently but firmly that he is irrational and wrong, what if instead of that, I started to ask questions: “Why? Oh. Interesting. Tell me more.” What if I sat for a half an hour and without making rude faces or rolling my eyes, actually listened, as if I were listening to a friend whom I loved, telling me she really thought the Bay City Rollers were a better band than the Beatles? At the age of seventeen, I would have divorced this friend. At thirty-seven, I can forgive her ignorance and poor taste. What if I treated my Republican friend the same way? (Without my characteristic patronizing superiority—which is my gift.) Would the world really end if I let him keep believing his delusion? Probably not. And maybe he would, after getting to talk all he wanted without interruption, for half an hour, maybe he would return the favor and start asking me some questions. Either way, I would change. Either way, I would get to have my tight fist opened and begin to acknowledge that perhaps I might not have all the answers.

It’s so hard to know when to quite kicking and screaming about this election. Some days I want to give up, shrug my shoulders, say, “I lived through Reagan, I can live through Bush II,” and delete all the MoveOn.org messages in my in box. Some days I want to weep about Tom DeLay getting away with his crimes against Democracy. Almost every day I feel powerless. Was there voter fraud? If there were, would I feel any better? One friend says the idea that the Republicans stole this election is comforting because then they’re not really in the majority. Another friend says the opposite: “Face it, we’re in the minority. I’m moving to Toronto where people think like me.”

What I’m hoping to get out of the eight week course, Journaling for Peace, is a place within me where I can rest in the knowledge that peace is possible. That change is possible. As that old hymn goes, “Let there be peace on earth and let peace begin with me.”

At the Cheer Up Post 11/2 party, our friend, Hal, read us this article by Michael Ventura from the Austin Chronicle last week: “Don’t demonize people who disagree with you. That’s how Bush and Cheney behave. Behavior is more important than belief. What does belief matter, if your behavior apes your enemy’s? Behavior shapes reality. Belief merely justifies reality. Demonization creates demons. Your enemies are as human as you are. If you treat them that way, the outcome may surprise you.”

I want to learn how to shape reality through my behavior. What better use of my time is there? And what better way of practicing Thanksgiving?

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. Wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your posts. Even though they are longer than I usually read (I have a very short attention span when it comes to staring at a computer screen), they never fail to make me think or help me feel better about life. Your posts are something to be thankful for.

    What’s Journaling for Peace?

    Stewart (hapgood@livejournal.com)

  2. Nerissa,

    I agree that open discussion instead of open debate is a much better way to achieve change. I shy away from political discussions because I hate it when people tell me what I should think.

    With regard to your Thanksgiving dinner, first off, good luck. My family always has Thanksgiving (and Christmas) dinner in the evening, but my in-laws always have the big meal at noon. I’m not sure how it’s going to work this year, when I get to host Christmas for the first time. Based on your experience, I’m not sure that I’ll ask for everyone’s opinion. 🙂

    Regardless of how the food turns out, you’ll be spending the time with your loved ones, and that’s really what matters. Memories will be made no matter what.

    On that note, I do feel I have to share a story. Don’t let it freak you out, though – I’m sure you’re a much better cook than my mom was 35 years ago. It was my parents’ first Thanksgiving. My dad had shot a couple ducks and suggested that they have duck for Thanksgiving. Mom had the meal all planned. She would have mashed potatos, beans, rutabega and she had called Grandma (dad’s mom) to get her dressing recipe. Now, Grandma was a good cook, and certain things were obvious to her that wouldn’t be to a real novice. Long story short, Grandma didn’t tell mom to add water to the dressing. The duck turned out dry, the dressing was croutons, she forgot to add brown sugar to the rutabega so it was bitter and the potatos were lumpy. The only thing that turned out well was the pumpkin pie. Thankfully, my dad didn’t complain…and, thankfully, mom’s cooking has gotten a whole lot better. 🙂

    Thanks for indulging my nostalgia. Have a great Thanksgiving!

  3. Nerissa,

    Thanks for starting my Friday with a good laugh and some good thoughts. Good luck with Thanksgiving, enjoy the day, your nieces and nephew (and baby #4?)…that’s what Turkey/Duckey Day is all about!

    I, too, can drive myself nuts thinking about the election and the direction of our country right now. Who in the Capitol building or in the White House is thinking about my students in South Central L.A.? Who is doing something about the violence and fear that surrounds them as they grow up? Who is thinking about our nation’s poor, elderly, homeless, jobless? Why is Every Child Left Behind? Who is thinking about the women, children and men of Iraq who are innocent and watching their whole worlds be torn apart?

    I am grateful that I’m not the only one with these questions. I look forward to Journaling for Peace and discussing these issues and more!

  4. Well first of all, i don’t like turkey either. I always go for the ham.

    Secondly, i think i’m sort of an oddity, in that i’m a Christian who leans more to the republican side (even though politics annoy me in general) yet loves stuff like Nields, dar williams, and various other folky kinda music that tends to be more of the liberal crowd. Maybe there’s more like me than i think, i dunno…probably not. But anyways…

    As for the bible being the literal word of God, that’s a tricky subject to think about. That can mean different things to different people. But i believe that it is the truth, and it can’t be taken in pieces. By that, I mean we can’t just pull out the parts we like and live by that and then dismiss the parts we don’t like.

    I certainly agree with your description of listening to an opposing view point. I think the range in variations of people’s viewpoints/opinions/beliefs is fascinating, and I’d like to be able to listen and understand, but often that proves impossible with all the insults and accusations that get in the way. I wish everybody could ask calm questions and know that their opinion or belief just might not be infallible.

    In the end, our peace in light of war or lost elections should come in knowing that God is sovereign and that it’s part of His perfect plan. Whether we see the war as immoral and illegal or as something that could save the lives of millions in the future (though costing lives now), the important thing is to try to discover God’s will and purpose in our life and know that His hand is in all things, even if they seem terrible at the time.

    “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – Matthew 10:34

    p.s. thanks for writing a song with my name in the title (Jeremy Newborn Street) 🙂

  5. First caveat – I was born on Thanksgiving Day, which was the 28th that year. (Here’s hoping baby November and I share a b-day)
    Second caveat – Because of #1 my family always celebrates my birthday on Thanksgiving day, regardless of how far from the real day it is. Therefore…
    Numero tres – we always have turkey when celebrating my birthday. I love turkey – especially gnawing on a cold leftover drumstick – but enough is too much. So what do I do? I smile through the big dead bird and am thankful for food and friends and family.
    🙂 Stephen

  6. It’s all a matter of cultural vs. moral relativity (in the microcosm of America). That is, agreeing to try eating a different sort of bird, or even listen to a new kind of music, falls under cultural relativity and is necessary for people to understand each other and not be terribly divided. But there are major problems with moral relativity; i.e. accepting Bad Things (such as humans inflicting pain unnecessarily on one another) as all right because it’s ‘just their culture.’

    Where do politics fall? Some people think of this choice as absolute, believing that Bush will be a worse president than Kerry. That Bush is morally reprehensible. If it’s an unambiguous moral issue, is it even ethical to accept other people’s practices as perfectly okay? Or are we so saturated with our own progressive politics that we fail to see the complexities, and the candidates are just different, not better and worse?

    In any case, conversation can never hurt, though it is — duly noted — often futile. What a depressing realization.

    On a completely separate note: I would warn ALL people to be very careful about making passing references to sending snipers to DC. Any livejournal user has read the post about the person whose innocuous reference brought the Secret Service to her doorstep.
    http://www.livejournal.com/users/anniesj/331112.html for those who haven’t seen it.


  7. Hey there, Nerissa!

    It seemed an appropriate moment to extend my thanks. I really enjoy reading your Blogs! Thank you for continuing to put your thoughts out there for all of us to share!

    As for the Holiday, I guess I am blessed to have little opinion as to what is served.
    First, I don’t have to cook it, which is a delight, I have to admit. I get to be The Cool Aunt, who brings the games, and cheese and crackers, and a pie or two!
    I have not even worried much over what kind of pie, knowing merely that Miss Amanda (my youngest niece) cares little for the taste and texture of Apple Pie, “Thankyouverymuch”. Armed with that knowledge, all else is fair game.

    Second, I am just so grateful to have my little tribe all together that we could be eating green eggs and ham and I would still be content. This year has been witness to the many losses of our senior-most loved ones. My parents now are our greatest Elders. Much has happened to change the shape of our lives and bring us all together, and while I doubted the journey often, I am revelling in the results. My life may never be what it was… but I am overjoyed at what it is becoming! My nieces are getting to know me as a person, not a photo in an album, and there just is no better feeling than that right now.

    My family is far from perfect. The food will not be perfect, one of my pies will have a dry crust, the house will never be clean enough, a conversation will become too much of a debate, (which I can never ‘win’ when pitted against my brother), the girls will tire quickly and become grumpy, someone will be angry about not winning a game, the dogs will be tumbling underfoot and undoubtedly knock something or someone over… it will be a chaotic mess! But I get to be a part of this joyous chaotic mess. It will be my family, together, under one roof. The rest, two weeks from now, won’t matter.

    So- life is good. Far from peaceful, but full of things for which to be thanful! I guess I can’t ask for more than that!

    I hope you have a wonderful Holiday! Good luck with it all, and with Journaling for Peace! What a terrific concept!



  8. A pressure cooker for Thanksgiving and stew in the pot! 🙂

    Let’s count our blessings and be thankful. Even when things aren’t looking up, we can be. 🙂


  9. My family eats the meal around 2pm and plays touch-football beforehand. Just another schedule to consider 🙂 It does seem to satisfy both the old folks and the young ones…. Anyway, no matter how the turkey and duck turn out, having one’s family all together is really the best thing about the day and what will be remembered in times to come. I’m sure you, too, Nerissa, will find this to be true, despite your fretting!

  10. Dear Nerissa and all her wonderful blogging respondents,

    Part of the art of mediation is finding a “third way” to resolve an issue. In this case, it would resolve two issues.

    The best way to practice peace is to not raise a sword oneself. In the case of Thanksgiving, it would mean not raising a carving knife. I won’t shock you with the details about how these poor birds are tortured. Suffice to say that God did not put animals on this planet to be treated so horribly.

    So, the resoluton to the turkey vs duck issue is to have neither, thus allowing peace to prevail on the (factory) farm and at the dinner table. Then your prayers of peace and thanksgiving can be aligned with your behavior.

    In the name of peace and love (and lentil loaf)

    Jeff from Charlotte (jpasse@uncc.edu)

  11. Lots of various thoughts:

    * If everyone is coming to your house for Thanksgiving put into play the well-understood rule “Your House, Your Rules.” And, since this is the first year for you taking on Thanksgiving, you get to make ALL of the rules as they best suit you.

    Enjoy, have fun and make sure you are part of the festivities, not the frantic person screaming in the kitchen when something doesn’t go right. Delegate. Ask people to bring things, starting with dessert. And wine.

    * As for turkey, Benjamin Franklin even proposed that it be our national emblem over the Bald Eagle. Something about the eagle being a scavanger and the turkey being a more noble creature. (On the other hand, since living in NC, a major turkey producing state, I’ve also learned that turkeys are pretty dumb animals, willing to stare up into the raining sky until they drown)

    Not that this has anything to do with anything else.

    Being a Pesky Vegetarian, I haven’t eaten turkey in years. Being a diehard Alton Brown and “Good Eats” fan, I was intrigued by the science behind Brining. I read the transcript of the show posted at the most amazing fansite I’ve ever seen for anyone or anything, the Good Eats Fan Page (http://www.goodeatsfanpage.com/GEFP/index.htm — look up Turkey) and decided I had to try it. It’s an easy process — you soak the turkey in a solution of veggie stock, salt and other seasonings and then bake. Soaking in the solution exchanges water inside the turkey for the brined solution producing a moist, delicious bird every time, guaranteed.

    The first time I made a brined turkey there was silence at the table when everyone started eating. I nervously asked if it was that bad. It turned out it was that *good* instead.

    * Thanksgiving. We’re artists of a different stripe — my wife is a jeweler and sells at Arts and Crafts shows all around our area. For all but one of the past 12 years we’ve spent Thanksgiving Day setting up for a three-day show that starts way too early in the morning on Friday.

    By the time we’ll be finished with the booth setup this year the only place that will be open is a Chinese Buffet a few miles away (that we were lucky enough to find last year). Sushi with lots of wasabi and ginger makes a fine start to any meal. 🙂

    * Political healing. A local psychologist has made the newspapers around here by looking to start a support group for people who still are suffering from the outcome of the election. I know several people who could benefit from this group. Hopefully your Journalling group will help others.

    * The Electoral College should definitely be abolished.

    * Listening to the opposition. We are incredibly divided as a nation. The most disturbing aspect of this to me is that with 51% of the vote the Right has declared a Mandate and appears to be actively ridding themselves of other opinions. I find the contrast between the photographs posted at:




    to be most distressing.

    I’m honestly not sure how to heal this cultural divide. I do know, however, that it’s going to take a lot of work from both sides. I only wonder if either side is willing to do the work necessary.

    Politics and growing up in the shadow of DC. I was born in NW DC and grew up in PG County in Maryland. I know from whence you speak.

    And remember, as long as the pumpkin pies (that your family bring with them because you’re going to Delegate dessert), no one will care what the rest of the meal is like. 🙂


  12. Good luck!! We are doing our first solo Thanksgiving tomorrow … I went and got the smallest turkey we could find, and we’re going to enjoy a quiet day together.

    The best way to avoid a dry turkey is to cook it in a bag. There is no basting required, and best of all, it cuts the cooking time in half!

  13. Happy Thanksgiving Nerissa… thank you for your very thought-filled post, as always I enjoyed reading it and it streched my mind a bit 🙂 Being a vegetarian I cringe every time someone says “Happy Turkey Day!!!” My Mom makes veggie lasagna & turkey. She cooks the turkey out in the backyard on the grill and everyone seems to love it year after year. This also frees up space in the oven for other baked goodies.

    I don’t like that one of the main themes of this holiday is eating meat, and over-indulging. But I *love* that it’s a chance to get together with family and give thanks. I have so much to be thankful for in my life…and much of that stems from my family, so it’s most appropriate that I have the chance to express that thankfullness with them today 🙂

    My suggestion is that regardless of how the food comes out, let those you love know that you are thankful for them and give them a big hug. The fact that we get the privlage of worrying about having turkey, or duck, or whatever means that we are lucky indeed. For me, living on Cape Cod and being in love makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world.

    ~ April

  14. BTW, basting doesn’t work. Period. Skin is designed to act as a barrier, keeping water on the outside out as it dries out in the oven. Basting is a wasted excercise that only increases the cooking time due to opening the oven door (which drops the internal oven temperature necessitating extra time to get the oven back up to the propre baking temp).

    Oh, and stuffing in the bird is evil. Really. (It’s not rocket science, but it is food science. Seriously, read Alton Brown’s Turkey brining episode. Once you read it, the science will all make sense — and your turkey will be the best you’ve ever had)

    So, with all that having been said, I think your loyal blogreaders are due a recap of Thanksgiving With the Nields. Don’t you? 🙂

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