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Giving Thanks

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Wally Neibart

We are preparing for an arduous November ritual. Not Thanksgiving dinner. That's the easy part. The challenge is trying to explain, through word and food, a "typical" Thanksgiving to foreign-born friends. This endeavor began several years ago in Italy, where we re-created a typical Thanksgiving dinner, thereby confirming every prejudice Italians ever had about American cuisine. We even found a turkey, delivered to the door by a guy on a motor scooter. From the battered appearance of the bird, we suspected that the scooter was also the cause of death.

Part of the problem in explaining Thanksgiving to foreign guests is that over the years my wife and I have altered the holiday to keep the best of it: the friendship, sharing, and hospitality--all the more important this sad year. That has also meant jettisoning, as much as possible, the bad parts, of which there are at least three. The first is the harried chef, usually Mom, who spends all day in the kitchen, feeling oppressed, perhaps using food as a form of revenge. (How else to explain mini-marshmallows in sweet potatoes or a hostess who once announced that "there might be some glass fragments in the stuffing"?) Our solution is to have two harried chefs in the kitchen, both feeling oppressed.

The second thing we've jettisoned is the monochromatic meals our mothers cooked. Only cranberry sauce--the kind straight out of the can, that jiggles--enlivened the color scheme, which otherwise was pretty much some permutation of tan and drab orange. The taste range wasn't much greater. Our solution is to take traditional ingredients and do strange and colorful things with them. There is now a small group of Europeans who think the Pilgrim Mothers glazed their turkeys with jalapeno jelly, laced sweet potatoes with cumin, and mixed their cranberries with horseradish. Of some of these experiments I can only say, "Don't try this at home."

The final--and hardest--thing we've tried to jettison is bad behavior. Like weddings and funerals, holidays seem to distill people to their essences. The good ones are really good; the bad ones are really bad; and the mediocre ones are along for the ride. When a foreign-born student asked his American colleagues in my seminar what a traditional Thanksgiving is all about, the first response was, "dysfunctional families." The only advice I can give on that score is to invite lots of friends to the feast. Good behavior seems to vary inversely with the amount of DNA guests have in common.

The question asked by the grad student led me to assemble a little manual for explaining the holiday. In the spirit of the season, I'll share it with you, either to treat as a test of your family's typicality or to help explain Thanksgiving to foreigners. It comes complete with multiple answers so you can tailor your response to fit your own family:

The purpose of Thanksgiving is

a) To give thanks for the blessings of the past year

b) To thank the Indians for giving us all this land

c) To eat things we otherwise avoid

At Thanksgiving, we give thanks for

a) Friends and family

b) Pre-Christmas sales

c) Antacids

The purpose of the dinner is to

a) Symbolize the bounty of the fall harvest

b) Have leftovers

c) Do something with mini-marshmallows and crispy onion things

A gracious host says

a) I am so pleased everyone could be here

b) I don't care what some doctor says, you have to cook dressing in the bird

c) It's someone else's turn next year

We make our child's new "friend" feel comfortable by saying

a) We've heard wonderful things about you

b) You wouldn't want to be a part of this family, would you?

c) We thought you'd be a girl

At Thanksgiving we sit around and

a) Remember those who can't be with us

b) Talk about eating and drinking too much while eating and drinking too much

c) Complain

At this Thanksgiving, we promise that next Thanksgiving we will

a) Gather here once again to give thanks for our blessings

b) Go somewhere else

c) Order carry-out

If this were a test, I hope everyone got straight "A's."

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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