Gratitude in a Pilgrim’s Hat

(This piece was originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

Of all the Thanksgiving traditions I inherited from my family, “Always invite someone new” is my favorite. Over the years, this tradition has created some memorable feasts: I’ve reconnected with old friends, made new friends and watched as the “someone new” drunkenly unraveled a tearful prayer of gratitude to all who would listen.

Last year, despite the fact that my entire family was valiantly battling what I’m convinced was the superflu, my mother decided she would stick to the tradition and invited someone new. We were all terrified that this person would botch the evening, but she turned out to be a delightful and eccentric woman who spoke five different languages and sang a Chinese song for us, accompanied by sign language, about gratitude.

In my early days in Fairbanks, I knew a woman (I’ll call her Julia) who was a fantastic cook, and I loved having Thanksgiving with her around. What little I know about baking bread, I know from her. Julia is a sweet and generous woman. When I hosted my first Thanksgiving, she asked to invite two guys she knew from college. I happily obliged and just before they arrived, Julia pulled me aside and said, “Listen, I sort of told these guys a bit of a fib. I told them that you were really into Thanksgiving dinner and that you like to dress up in Pilgrim costumes and that you make your guests do it too.”

As she’s telling me this, there is a knock on the door and, lo and behold, there are two nice fellas dressed in construction paper Pilgrim hats. One was even wearing black dress shoes with large buckles he found at Value Village expressly for this event.

They were a little confused, to say the least, when they realized that we were all wearing modern attire. They were very good guests and made my first Thanksgiving memorable.

It turns out inviting people you don’t know to Thanksgiving is an old tradition. The original Thanksgiving in 1609 was a three-day feast that included Pilgrims who identified themselves as “Saints,” other Dutch settlers they called “Strangers,” and the surrounding Wampanoag people who had saved all of their starving behinds the year before. Actually, there were far more Native Americans at this feast than settlers, and it has always seemed sad to me that years later, the Wampanoag must have regretted sharing anything with the people who eventually hoarded the land one which they had lived for thousands of years and, well, you know the rest.

Yet that’s the true sense of generosity we should be celebrating at Thanksgiving. Giving freely of your home and table to strangers should be risky, otherwise it isn’t real generosity; some people reciprocate generosity and others take advantage of it. If you’re inviting strangers to dinner, there is always the chance that your guests won’t reciprocate, but there is also the chance that they will.

In the spirit of the season, and since I cannot invite you all to Thanksgiving, I’ve decided to share with you the Thanksgiving advice that others have been sharing with me over the last few days. I put out a call to family and friends to offer up their best Turkey Day feasting tips and they were more than happy to share:

1. Don’t forget to take the giblets out before you cook the turkey. (This was by far the most common piece of advice. I think it must happen pretty often.)

2. Give the turkey plenty of time to thaw (24 hrs per 5 lbs) and if you can prepare anything the night before, then do so.

3. Put out sand or gravel on the driveway (in case your guests are litigious).

4. Pre-program your playlist (I’m always Last Minute Sally on this one).

5. Put snacks out so that the wine doesn’t go straight to anyone’s head (especially the cook).

6. Remember to get ice.

7. If you have a dog, don’t use the back porch as another fridge, you may lose your pies.

8. Those who cook the least, clean the most.

9. Keep hot chicken stock within reach. You will inevitably need it.

10. Clean your cupboards of all those lidless pieces of Tupperware and the jars you’ve been collecting. Put foil on the Tupperware and send leftovers home with guests.

11. Try a new dish every year. Failures make great stories for next year.

12. Never let the most intoxicated person in the room say grace.

13. “Easy Mac.” This was the only piece of advice I got from my boyfriend’s twenty-something little brother. I guess if all else fails …

14. Invite someone new, or, if you can’t cook, try to be the “someone new” for a person who can.

15. Be generous. Be grateful.

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