Adults Only, Please

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Though it has been 20 years since I last celebrated it, my memories of Thanksgiving are quite pleasant ones. The holiday tended to involve curious milestones of growing up, such as the first cup of coffee, the first beer, the first time I was allowed into a toast with actual liquor. Interesting moments, at the very least.

It interesting the ways that Thanksgiving has remained seperate from most American holidays, remaining mainly focused on adult activities and family togetherness without all the marketing nonsense of most American events (save of course for the regrettable rise of the Black Friday phenomenon). In fact, I came across an essay this morning that looks at the curious resistance of Thanksgiving to modern dilutions and childishness.


The following is reposted from the Wall Street Journal.

‘Let All Your Thinks Be Thanks’

An appreciation of an adult holiday.

BY JOSEPH EPSTEIN

Conventional wisdom has it that Thanksgiving is the best of all American holidays. As a contrarian, I’d like to put that wisdom to the test.

Thanksgiving does have the absence of the heavy hand of dreary gift giving that has put the groans in Christmas, the moans in Hanukkah. And no one has written treacly Thanksgiving songs, comparable to “White Christmas” and “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” which, I suspect, have helped make Christmas one of the prime seasons for suicide. Let us not speak of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” of whose travail we shall all have heard more than our fill as we ride up elevators and pass along the aisles of department stores.

For some time in America we have, of course, been living under Kindergarchy, or rule by children. If children do not precisely rule us, then certainly all efforts, in families where the smallish creatures still roam, are directed to relieving their boredom if not (hope against hope) actually pleasing them.

Let us be thankful that Thanksgiving has not yet fallen to the Kindergarchy, as has just about every other holiday on the calendar, with the possible exceptions of Yom Kippur and Ramadan. Thanksgiving is not about children. It remains resolutely an adult holiday about grown-up food and drink and football.

The weather, which provides the backdrop to Thanksgiving, is also much in its favor. In most parts of the country cool, sometimes cold, it doesn’t usually blow the holiday away with tornados, hurricanes or great snow storms. Warm jackets, sweaters, corduroy trousers are the order of the day–comfort clothes, the sartorial equivalent of comfort food.

Comfort food is what Thanksgiving provides, and to the highest possible power. Large browned turkeys, rich heavy stuffings, sweet potatoes, cranberries . . . but enough of this gastronomic porno. Everyone has in mind his or her own memories of splendid Thanksgiving dinners.

My own are those my late mother-in-law used to give at her house on a small lake in Michigan. She was a dab cook, everything fresh, handsomely set out, perfectly prepared, without the least bit of pretension. She invited her extended family, roughly 20 of us, most of whom drove up from Chicago.

The dominant figure at these dinners was a large, ebullient, red-faced man named John Lull, the second husband of my wife’s Aunt Phoebe. John was at what Mencken once called “the country-club stage of culture”: A man who lived for golf and food and drink, had an eye for women. At first sight, he was your homme moyen sensuel, except there was nothing very moyen about his sensuality, which was pretty damn extraordinary. Diet, cholesterol, calories, these were words that I never heard pass his lips.

Thanksgiving dinners at my mother-in-law’s always ended with a choice of three pies: pumpkin, mincemeat and apple. John would choose a large slice of the apple, requesting a slice of cheese placed atop it, whereupon, with a goofy smile he would announce, with a regularity as if it were part of a liturgy, “Pie without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.”

Pro football on television from Detroit on Thanksgiving is a remnant of the old patriarchy. (The patriarchy as we know is now all but dead, and those of us who retain fond if dimming memories of it have, alas, nothing left to fight for but the double standard.) Detroit regularly used to play Green Bay in these Thanksgiving games, and my memory of them is of famous quarterbacks, Bobby Lane, Tobin Rote, Bart Starr, eluding oncoming bruisers to complete impossible passes that won games in their final seconds.

An aging couch potato–au gratin, to be sure–I still watch these Thanksgiving games. Not having a horse in the race–I am a Chicago Bears fan–I view them with a fine detachment, noting changes in the game since I long ago began wasting my time watching it, among them the advent of 6-foot-6-inch quarterbacks, the 300-plus pound linemen, the human equivalents of SUVs.

Thanksgiving also has inclusiveness going for it. The holiday really is for all Americans, though I suppose a sourpuss leftist might, with boring trenchancy, be able to interject it isn’t such a fine day for Native Americans.

While secular in tone, Thanksgiving is also slightly religious in spirit. I am having Thanksgiving this year at the home of my son and daughter-in-law, and because of the slight religious nature of the holiday have asked them not to invite Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens or any of the rest of the atheist gang, all of whom seem likely, if on the premises, to put a dampening spirit onto the proceedings. I wish the poet W. H. Auden were still alive, so that he might be at the same table where I eat my Thanksgiving dinner. Auden, I think, nicely captured the spirit of Thanksgiving when he wrote that, in prayer, it is best to get the begging part over with quickly and get on to the gratitude part. He also wrote, “let all your thinks be thanks.”

To be living in a prosperous and boundlessly interesting country, at a time of high technological achievement, and of widening tolerance –much to be thankful for here. “Wystan,” I’d like to tell the poet, “you got it right, kid. Now how about a drumstick.”

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1 Comment

  1. Not that it ever really caught on, but a handful of years ago, or so, there was an effort at reinvisioning in the neopagan community. Harvest Home, they wanted to call the day. To make it less about we few, we merry few survivors who had endured another year in the struggling Colonies, and more about the end days of harvest, bringing the last of the season’s bounty in, beginning to break into the reserves. The one last celebration before the ice and snow, the acceptance that now, we were truly in death’s grip until spring.

    Of course, it wasn’t entirely successful–the neopagan community is too diverse and fractious for any *one* single concept to be entirely embraced–but it struck me well enough to be a mild thought in the back of the mind.

    One year I decided to play it out.

    We had just moved to the state we now live in for the second time. It had been a rough passage–mayhap the modern equivalent of the Pilgrims’ crossing–rife with skidding out and nearly leaving the tops of iced-over mountains, travel sickness, getting lost more than once, and running out of finances for continuing on (at least once). When we arrived, we barely had the energy to unpack the one vital box–four plates, four spoons, four glasses, a cutting knife, a cutting board, two pots, the kettle–the *essentials* for eating, at least–before collapsing for the night.

    Two days hence was Thanksgiving. The day following, we went out and got a small turkey; a bag of potatoes; flour, salt, vegetables…a small spare list. I tossed on heavy cream and dried fruits and nuts to the list, and homeward we went.

    The next morning I rose early, and set to work. I scrubbed the bird, patted it dry, rubbed the cavity with herbs and stuffed it with dried fruit and nuts that had simmered in broth until soft. I made cornbread from toasted cornmeal done the night before. I churned butter–something I hadn’t done since grade school–sprinkling in bits of salt along the way.

    I set potatoes to boiling in one pot, cranberries to cook in another, sweetening the one with honey and the other with basil and pepper. I stirred in the pale-as-snow butter into the potatoes, mashing them with their skins on, and a bit more of the heavy cream. I made spoon bread, a family tradition, and corn pudding, and once the cranberry sauce was done, I set a bunch of winter roots–carrots, turnips, parsnips–to boil, and from then into the oven to crisp alongside the last cooking of the bird.

    I made journeycakes, crisp and flat, setting them on a low slate stone I’d cleaned off and carried in from outside, giggling over the impromptu ‘cookie sheet’. There was little I served, little I made, that day that couldn’t–though some wouldn’t–be found on a Colonial table.

    And we dressed the table and carried the foodstuphs out and sat, and ate, and were thankful we’d made it, were thankful we’d gotten here, and were thankful for good friends and the support of family, far away.

    Harvest Home, as close as I could come. It’s still one of my better Thanksgiving memories.

    Now, you’ll pardon me, the TVP loaf has to be reheated, and I need to track down the soy sauce and the cream cheese…oh, how meals have changed… :)


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