“What are your plans for Thanksgiving this year?” my friend Beth asked over the phone. Since it was early September, I was caught off guard when she called, even though she had been calling every September with the same question for the past five years. “I don’t currently have any plans,” I replied. With delight, Beth asked if I wanted to have Thanksgiving together, with her.
I agreed cautiously, knowing a long debate would follow. Whose apartment would host? Beth always wanted to have Thanksgiving at her place, but there were 26 reasons why this couldn’t happen, so I always said, “I’m happy to have it at mine.” And yet my offer to host always came with a major caveat.
“I’m not going to cook a turkey," I reminded Beth.
"I can make lots of other things, like my rosemary garlic mashed potatoes," I said. "Aside from the fact that I don’t eat meat, I don’t have time for the hassle.”
“But we have to have a turkey!” Beth makes the same incredulous exclamation every year.
I offered to cook a turkey breast instead. She doesn't like white meat. I suggested we move Thanksgiving to her place instead so she can cook the turkey. She doesn't have room for a group. (It's a handy excuse any of us could make; we all live in tiny New York City apartments.)
“Beth" — and now the negotiations were in full swing — "so far, no one else is coming.”
“I can’t relax in my own apartment,” she said.
“You’re welcome to come to my apartment to cook a turkey.”
“I’d have to be there at 6:00 a.m.!”
“You can spend the night before.”
“I can’t because of the dog.”
“Bring Sammy over!”
“It’s hard for me to get a car service that will take him."
Sammy is an Irish Wolfhound.
At this point, she sensed my patience wearing thin and offered to cook a turkey leg for herself. Perfect. But the debate wasn't over.
“Who are we going to invite?”
Most of my friends already had plans. They were coupled up, and at least one half of each couple was on good terms with some family member somewhere, with whom they could spend the holiday. Someday I'll have a girlfriend too, I think — and in my fantasy, she has lovely relatives in Vermont who invite us up for Thanksgiving.
But then I'd remember how much I hate traditional family Thanksgivings. After decades of suffering through the November holiday with my immediate family, my motto was born: "Tradition Blows." And even though Beth had a thing about turkey and a guest head-count, she's the best non-traditional Thanksgiving companion I've ever had — she's loads of fun and never gets crabby, makes the best sweet potatoes in the whole world, can throw together a beautiful spontaneous pagan dinner blessing and play a wild game of charades for hours after dessert. Plus, she helps with clean-up.
“You’ll probably have a new girlfriend by November," I offered. "So there will be at least three of us.”
But Beth never backed down about wanting more people around the table, so two days before every Thanksgiving I'd call every person I knew before managing to find at least one vegetarian who could join us.
Year after year, a tiny band of two or three vegetarians, plus one Thanksgiving-loving meat-eater, gathered at my apartment for a meal of tofu, sweet potatoes, rosemary garlic mashed potatoes, and Beth’s turkey leg.
One year my friend Mary told me she wasn’t taking her normal trip to spend Thanksgiving with her family. She wanted to stay home and have a more relaxing time with a few close friends. When I invited her to join us, she offered her new apartment instead, a spacious co-op.
Beth and I were thrilled. Mary had real furniture — a couch, comfortable seating, and even a big table. Thanksgiving at Mary's would be a welcome departure from our usual elbow-to-elbow gatherings of mismatched chairs.
Mary welcomed us into her apartment. Beth, in turn, welcomed Mary into our Thanksgiving negotiations.
The flurry of emails and calls started. Would Mary cook a turkey? No. Would Mary let Beth come over and cook a turkey? Yes? Great! Beth was, however, going to be a little busy on Thanksgiving day before we all met. Could she come over to Mary’s apartment early in the morning, get the turkey started, and take off to run errands while Mary basted the turkey?
“If I get one more email from Beth, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown," Mary told me.
The turkey anxiety reminded us both of unpleasant past Thanksgivings with our families of origin where the meal always had to be cooked to perfection or else. The ritual roasting of the turkey came with 48 hours of no sleep and non-stop kitchen prep that had to be executed in the exact same way each year. And if anything was out of place, a total family meltdown followed, because OMG, Thanksgiving was under the threat of being completely ruined.
We — queer women who had moved to the big city — wanted our lives to be different. We wanted a free-wheeling, uncensored Thanksgiving, where we could leave the demands of others and the expectations of traditions behind and talk about sex and women instead.
Beth was gracious about Mary’s boundaries. After all, she had her fall-back. "Would you mind if I cooked a turkey leg in your oven?”
Mary would allow the leg.
The next day I arrived at Mary’s on time. Beth was an hour late. She had found the very last turkey leg in Brooklyn and started it in her own oven. When she finally showed up, she burst through the door with a huge smile on her face, lugging her sweet potatoes and a half-cooked turkey leg.
The following September, I got my ritual call from Beth about Thanksgiving. During the next 30 days intense discussion followed, concluding with me hosting Thanksgiving at my apartment again, followed by another month of brainstorming about who to invite. Mary had decided to return to her family that year, so we needed to find other guests.
In a moment of generosity — or was it weakness? — I announced, "And I will cook a turkey."
Beth was over-joyed. “You’ll make your rosemary garlic mashed potatoes too?!”
“I can’t do both," I said. Suddenly overwhelmed, I raised my voice. "For God's sake, I said I’d cook a turkey!”
“But I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without them," Beth said. "It’s like our family tradition.”
“I HATE FAMILY TRADITIONS!” I yelled.
A long silence followed. Finally, in a very hurt and quiet voice, Beth said, “I’ve made you angry.”
I finally confessed how emotionally taxing our annual negotiations surrounding Thanksgiving were for me. And we talked about our unpleasant childhood Thanksgivings. Beth felt abandoned. I felt smothered. Had we unconsciously come together to work out our unresolved shit about families, traditions and holidays?
After two hours of impromptu psychoanalysis, I wiped away my tears and agreed that I would still host Thanksgiving. And I would cook a turkey. And make the rosemary garlic mashed potatoes.
I expected Beth to be happy. What I didn't expect was everyone else to be so invested in my bird. At the office, when I mentioned to co-workers that I had decided to cook a turkey, they responded as if I had announced my first pregnancy.
“WOW! Congratulations! That’s such a big deal!!” said my supervisor while giving me a hug.
Female friends swarmed around me to offer emotional support. My responsibilities were steep. I had committed to selecting a turkey — ideally, free-range — carrying it home on the subway and buying a proper roasting pan.
One Saturday night the phone rang. It was my mom. Our conversation started out strained, as it always did. Since I moved from Colorado to New York, she had a permanent wrinkle on her forehead from the thought of her daughter leading a life of debauchery in that hub of sexual deviancy. We discussed benign things: local weather, national weather, the price of gas. Then I blurted out, “I’m cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving.”
Suddenly, my mother came alive. It was as if a wall had come down and we had our most intimate conversation in ten years. You’d think I had said, “Mom, I’m getting married! To a man! Won’t you join us in planning our wedding?”
During the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving there was no end to the advice I received — all unsolicited — about how to cook the turkey.
My roommate, an experienced cook, was going out of town for Thanksgiving but remained invested in the process. She told me in no uncertain terms exactly what I was going to do to that turkey, step by step. The night before she sat in the kitchen, arms folded and overnight bag by her side, supervising my every move.
“Rub salt into its skin. Rub harder. You will be marinating this, so I suggest you chop some garlic, onion and parsley into olive oil and start slopping it onto the turkey, and make sure it sticks. What time are you serving dinner? OK, I want this in the oven NO later than ten a.m. and I want you to put an apple inside the cavity while it cooks.”
I followed her orders. The next day I put the turkey in at ten sharp and prepared for my guests. That afternoon, all three lesbians arrived: Beth with a smile on her face followed by her girlfriend Paula and our friend Cindy, all bearing delicious Thanksgiving treats. But nothing caused as much excitement as the turkey.
Paula, impressed by my daring, couldn't believe it was my first turkey. Cindy, another lost-soul vegetarian I invited that year, brought tofu with vegan mushroom gravy. She struggled through both shock and joy at the sight of the bird.
It occurred to me that perhaps our meatless diets owed more to a lack of traditional cooking knowledge than political or health reasons.
When the time came to take the turkey out, my kitchen transformed into a delivery room of sorts: makeshift medical staff stationed around the oven door, waiting for the birth of the perfectly browned bird.
Beth, undoubtedly the most ecstatic person in the room, donned oven mitts and pulled the turkey from the oven to a chorus of oohs and ahhs. Then she whipped out a camera and shot the bird from all angles, followed by a portrait of me with it, looking like a hero, and then closed by taking a group photo around the turkey.
I asked Beth to do the honors of carving, and she got a little teary-eyed. “But you’re the host," she said. "I couldn’t!”
“Beth, the thought of cutting up a turkey repulses me.” And I could tell by the anemic looking complexions on the other guests' faces, they were likely repulsed, too.
“In that case, I’d be honored.” With a look of serenity and with great ceremony, Beth began slicing. We photographed that too.
Long after finishing the dairy-free dessert, as the guests were getting ready to leave, I told Beth I would wrap up the leftover bird for her. She protested — I cooked it, I should keep it — and I had to remind her that I don't eat meat, and neither did anyone else in the room. She was the last out the door, hugging a bag full of turkey.
In the year after, life went on as usual. One day I received a call from Beth, and it wasn't even September. She had to go out of town to deal with an urgent matter and asked if I could dog sit for Sammy, her Irish Wolfhound.
It rained all weekend, which Sammy hated. I could hardly get him to go outside for potty breaks. Finally, on Sunday afternoon when Sammy again refused to leave the apartment, I decided to give myself a break and go out for coffee to a new little café around the corner, where I hoped to find a brownie and some conversation. But the café was empty, the cashier uninterested in anything but her magazine.
Feeling gloomy, I got my coffee to go and walked back to Beth’s apartment, where Sammy greeted me with a big canine yawn and followed me into the kitchen. I spotted a photo of Sammy as a baby on the refrigerator door. “You were even a big puppy!” I said. And Sammy — a sensitive soul — joined me as I looked at the fridge, where Beth reserved space for the things most precious to her. Photos of Sammy in a Halloween costume, Sammy in a parade, Sammy at the beach. Pictures of nieces and nephews, a blue ribbon she'd won, tattered overseas postcards from dear friends of long ago. And there — in the place of honor, right in the center of the tangled collage — a photo of me on Thanksgiving, posed with the turkey.