A dish for when you don’t want to be alone on Thanksgiving

On sheet-pan cornbread stuffing, and loneliness

Published November 22, 2018 7:29AM (EST)

 (Getty/Rawpixel Ltd)
(Getty/Rawpixel Ltd)

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Last Friday night at the office, it was getting late and a few of us were still here, finishing up the week’s work. On nights like those, when I don’t have plans after work, I tend not to want to leave the office right away because that means going home to an empty apartment. Don’t get me wrong—there are days when I love being alone, cuddled up in bed with my dog and a bowl of stew. But as is the case with living by yourself, there are days too when even those slow-cooked comforts can leave you feeling empty.

So I stayed. I poured myself another cup of coffee and pulled up an essay to edit when I got this text from Scott: “So, my flight's going nuts and I'm at JFK right now. Can I come stay with you this weekend?”

Scott is my long-distance “friend” (as my mother calls him), whom I only get to see three or four times a year, usually on our birthday, wedding weekends, and Christmas to New Year’s. The first snow had messed up his route from Dublin, where he was for business, back home to Atlanta, where he lives now.

This was such a surprise that I almost cried right there at my desk, but held back (the office wasn't empty just yet). It felt like one of those dreams I often have when I miss him most, nothing big, just...Scott and me sitting across from each other at my kitchen island, drinking coffee and eating eggs out of those little egg cups, in my tiny studio apartment in Manhattan, a 250–square foot shoebox that can barely fit a shoe.

The prospect of getting to spend an entire weekend together like this meant the world to me, even more because it was the weekend before Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. One of my best friends was hosting a Friendsgiving dinner; everyone would finally get to meet this man who’s meant so much to me over the years.

When Scott got to my apartment, we sat in my kitchen. There were no eggs; just some bread, soup, and cheese, my last-minute rummage of a supper for us. In between sips of stout, we talked about his trip and what we might do with this rare gem of a weekend together. It was the golden opportunity to ask him to come to Friendsgiving with me. I was nervous, I don't know why; maybe because I didn't want to assume he'd want to spend his entire evening with my friends and me. But I asked, and he said, "Sure, I could get down with a Friendsgiving."

And that was that.

* * *

The next morning, I started chopping the onions and celery for the dish I had promised to bring to my friend's house. The dish I’m most known for: my sheet-pan cornbread stuffing with sage. It’s my favorite thing to eat at Thanksgiving.

The sheet pan really does makes a difference: Uber-buttery cornbread stuffing gets crispy at the edges, almost chewy. The vegetables are just cooked with a little bite. Also, I use milk instead of stock, which keeps this not only vegetarian, but also incredibly rich and comforting in a nursery-food kind of way. I was excited for Scott to try it at Friendsgiving.

Which is why I was so upset when he said, "There's a game at 3:30 p.m. downtown. When's your Friendsgiving again?" His friends from back home were meeting at a bar for a college football game, and I didn't feel that I had ownership over his schedule, didn't want to be pushy. Maybe I didn't want to let on how important it was to me that he come, because that would make me vulnerable. And I hate being vulnerable. So I told him he should meet his friends.

"My thing is in deep Brooklyn! I'll meet you at the bar after."

"OK!" he said.

My back was turned to him, so he couldn't see my face, how mad I was. I kept chopping the onions and celery, then the bread, then the sage and parsley. I went on making the stuffing, which I'd always wanted him to taste, and now he wouldn't.

As I let the butter and milk come to a simmer, and my blood boiled, I couldn't help but think back on all of the Thanksgivings we've spent apart. Sometimes it makes me so angry watching other people get to be together without even trying. Here Scott and I were in the same city for the first time around this holiday in four years, and we couldn't even be together for it.

When the stuffing was done, I tossed it onto a buttered sheet pan, covered it with foil, and put on my jacket. "See you later," I said, curtly, and stormed out.

* * *

I was fuming at my friend's house. Scott and I had this one weekend together, and we were spending hours of it apart. When we met up again later in the night, I finally decided to say something about it when he noticed me pouting.

"Are you mad I didn't come?" he asked.

"Of course I'm mad," I said.

He hugged me and apologized, said he didn't know how much it meant to me and that he would've come had he known. We talked about a lot of other things, too. About how there's so little we can do for each other because of the distance, and how he loves me but doesn't know how to be there for me.

If we consider that Thanksgiving, contrary to popular belief, is not just a memorial of the Pilgrims’ feast in 1621, but of Lincoln’s effort in 1863 to bring together two divisive states during the Civil War—over food, that great mediator—then I’m able to appreciate even more that the point of this holiday is for people to gather.

But I think there's another kind of Thanksgiving for the rest of us, who live far from home. For those of us who care about this holiday, anyway, Friendsgiving may not be enough—so instead we opt for Lonesgiving. I used to always joke to my editors that I wanted to develop a full Thanksgiving dinner just for one. How funny would that be? But then it'd be less funny as the actual day inched closer, and I found myself alone in my kitchen on Thursday, eating leftover stew out of my slow cooker.

I don't know why, but this time of year—as full of food, friends, and festivities as it is—seems always just a reminder that I'm alone, and that I live miles away from the people I love and need most. My parents, my brother, Scott. That's why I get especially meditative around Thanksgiving, and why it felt like such a gift to have him at my fingertips this weekend.

Eventually, after Scott and I talked it out and drank an entire bottle of Cabernet in the bathtub, we went to bed and everything was a little better. Talking always helps. But when you're long-distance, it's hard to want to talk through the hard stuff, and to confront your feelings, because every second is precious and fighting during any of it feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth.

But you have to fight. Maybe sometimes that's what the holidays are for: to hash it out with the people in your life. Because every other day of the year, you're just ignoring all of it, letting it fester and fester below the surface so you don't have to address the impact of your loneliness.

As we laid there in bed, drunk, I started to cry.

"Sad boy," he said, holding my face in his hands. "Why are you always so sad?"

* * *

When we woke up the next morning (to my dog Q's kisses), we sat at the kitchen island and drank coffee. I boiled two large organic eggs for six minutes exactly, like I always do, cracked off the tops, sprinkled some of my Magic Spice Blend on the side of each plate, and placed tiny spoons next to them.

I loved watching him sprinkle the egg with the spice blend, his giant fingers holding the tiny spoon. "Wait, you eat this every morning?" he laughed, making fun of me for my precious egg cup with the blue heart, something I got in London one year.

"Shut up," I said. "It's good and you know it."

When he left my apartment that morning for the airport, I didn't feel as bad as I usually do. I hugged him tight, but didn't cry this time. He said, "See you later"—which was true. I'd see him at Christmas, then New Year's. There was always a later and being alone on Thanksgiving isn't the worst thing in the world when there's a later.

Sheet-Pan Cornbread Stuffing With Sage
Serves: 6 to 8

1 (8.5-ounce) box corn muffin mix, especially Jiffy
1 egg
2 1/3 cups milk, divided
6 ounces sourdough bread, cubed small
1 stick unsalted butter
1 onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
2 tablespoons fresh chopped sage, plus whole leaves for topping later
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil

Click here to read the full recipe.

By Eric Kim


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