I love Thanksgiving for all that it represents. I love the idea of being grateful; most of us have so many blessings in our lives. How lovely to have a holiday that helps us to recognize them all!
I love the history behind the holiday. It makes me feel grateful to think about the Puritans celebrating that first harvest. And whether or not their Wompanoag neighbors were invited or simply showed up makes little difference to me. I love the idea that on that first harvest celebration, all of the people in the area were happy to have had a successful growing season. I love the fact that this small celebration happened before the outbreak of war between the two groups. Whatever else it was, the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful celebration.
Thanksgiving means a celebration of bounty, of luck, of health, of our ability to survive in harsh conditions. I love it for all of that symbolism. Even though I am able to feed my family just by going to the farmer’s market or the store, I still feel as if I am one with the rugged settlers of the past who carved out a new life for their families in a dangerous wilderness.
And I love Thanksgiving because Abe Lincoln was the one who made it a real holiday. I love that it gained its status as a national day of celebration out of the President’s desire to recreate a sense of forgiveness and gratitude among us. After our four years of war with each other, after all of those thousands of deaths, I love the idea that this holiday was created to help us to celebrate our continued unity.
Mostly, though, I love Thanksgiving because it is so uniquely made of a mix of so-called “American tradition” and all of the multi-national traditions we’ve brought to the day since 1863.
For me, Thanksgiving will always make me think of figs and dates; those beautiful Mediterranean sweets were always a part of our after dinner ritual on Thanksgiving. Before the pie, before the sour cream coffee cake made my Nana, we would sit with a big bowl of perfectly ripe fruit, a bowl of nuts and smaller dishes of those luscious dates and figs.
Thanksgiving is full of memories of special family foods, family rituals, family traditions. In my family, the meal used to start with turkey soup, and then moved on to big platters of ravioli. My Sicilian Grandfather wouldn’t eat turkey, so we had ravioli and meatballs. Then the traditional meal of turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, squash. But there was always a dish of fennel on the table, too. Lovely, crisp fennel that we would dip into a little bowl of olive oil, salt and pepper.
Just thinking of those meals makes me miss my grandparents so much. Grampa, my Sicilian Grampa, could crack two walnuts in one hand, with no nutcracker. I thought that was the greatest feat ever. And he would eat roasted chestnuts with us, letting us sip his red wine as we did. He would eat those plump sweet figs, and talk to me about the fig tree in his yard in Augusta, Sicily, when he was a boy.
And I remember Nana, all 84 pounds of her, eating her Thanksgiving dinner at the big table at my Mom’s house. She would take dainty bites of everything, from the turkey soup to the pumpkin pie, commenting on all of it as she did.
I will never, ever forget the holiday of 2001, not long after the terrible attack of 9/11. At that point, Nana was losing her hearing and often simply faded out during large group conversation. On that day, as about 30 of us sat around Mom’s long table eating, drinking wine and talking, Nana suddenly looked up from her plate and said, “This is so delicious! I bet that Osama wouldn’t have been so mean if he could have had food like this!”
It was hilarious. We all imagined the US Army ordering up an airdrop of eggplant parmigiana. What a simplistic idea! And yet…..there was something so poignant about it for me; Nana realizing and expressing that “food is love” and that if only we could all be nurtured well, maybe we would be more peaceful. Maybe the world would be kinder, if only we all had enough to eat, enough to feel nurtured.
Thanksgiving in our house also meant Liz’s birthday. My sweet baby sister Liz, my funny, smart, loving, amazing sister Lizzie; her birthday was always on Thanksgiving, or a day or to to either side. We always stuck a candle in a pumpkin pie, and she was always so good natured about it. Thanksgiving meant giving Liz her presents, singing to her, hugging her and telling her that we loved her.
I love this holiday because it is about repeating old themes. Repeating recipes and birthdays and jokes and traditions. The same foods on the same serving platters, with the same faces gathered around the table, sometimes telling the same stories. I picture my Dad, seated at the head of the table. Jovial, warm, funny, pouring the wine and telling stories. Complimenting Mom on another job well done. My Dad.
But then enough time has gone by, and the faces around the table have changed. Babies have grown up, grandparents and parents are gone. The table is different, the platters are new, the wine glasses are from a different set.
This year we will be celebrating Thanksgiving at the new home of our daughter and son-in-law. It feels so very different from all of those celebrations of the past.
But you know what?
There will be fennel, and there will be figs. And we will remember.