The evolution of my Thanksgiving plate

I can trace the arc of my life so far by what I ate on Thanksgiving

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published November 24, 2022 5:30PM (EST)

Evolution of Canned Cranberry Sauce (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Evolution of Canned Cranberry Sauce (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

How did I go from not caring about Thanksgiving at all to highly anticipating the holiday? This is the dark, twisted origin story of my plate.

A reckless juvenile on 440 N. Robinson Street

My earliest memories of Thanksgiving date back to the late 1980s and early '90s: Adolescent me, chalk-ashy with a box fade, in my cramped bedroom at 440 or in a cramped bedroom at my Aunt Trudy's across the street, or at my Grandma Famma's house surrounded by too many cousins playing Double Dribble and Arch Rivals and Jordan versus Bird before NBA Live 95 dropped. We'd compare our Jordans and Ewings and AF1's that matched our Starter Jackets or Triple Fat Gooses that eventually landed on the floor because fighting over the joystick was much — much — more important. 

Nobody on our block ever heard of a ventilation system because the smells packed the house and buried themselves inside the fabric of our jeans and shirts. We'd smell like grease all the way up until we washed our clothes. 

The spread was turkey, baked and fried; sweet potatoes dripping in King Syrup, which I hate; cheap biscuits that pop out of the can; stuffing with sausage I couldn't eat because my mom kept me away from pork; a big shiny ham I couldn't eat because, again, pork; five-cheese macaroni and cheese, which had to be slightly burned on the top; collard greens; canned cranberry sauce that falls onto your plate in the perfect, scientifically-modified cylinder, which everybody loves more than homemade cranberry sauce; seafood salad and about 12 sweet potato pies, because no respectable Black person has ever heard of pumpkin pie

While playing Nintendo, before TurboGrafx-16 dropped — I was the only brat with a Neo Geo, and then later, a Sony PlayStation — I'd be summoned for a plate. My aunts had to make sure I got my fair share because it wasn't strange for my older cousins to eat everything, leaving 60-cent rice from the Korean store as my only option for dinner. 

"Lil Dwight, put that game down!" they would yell. "Come eat!" 

This is where one of my glorious aunts would grab my hand and guide me past the spread, pointing at each dish. I would have the luxury of selecting everything, excluding the pork, or at least everything my inexperienced palate deemed edible. Maybe the food was delicious and maybe it wasn't. Honestly, I didn't care about flavors, plate presentation or the quality of what I ate. I was a growing street kid. I would have inhaled whatever you put in front of me as long as it didn't have mayonnaise in it. 

My older cousins always talked about who cooked what: How my dad made the best seafood salad, and how Aunt Trudy made the best macaroni and cheese, the best pies, the best cakes, basically the best everything. My mom mastered sweet potatoes — that was her dish. Famma made everything, even though her kids brought dishes. She loved to present her options. My uncles were worthless; they only brought things to dinner we didn't need, like chips and ice. Don't get me wrong, everyone loves a cold drink, but once you're in your mid-20s and on your way to your early 30s, you have to do better than paper plates, chips and ice. No one has ever said on Thanksgiving, "Where is Uncle Vincent? We need him here! He brings the best ice!" 

The plate: In this phase of uninterested culinary discovery, I'd normally end up with some thinly shaved slices of fried turkey breast, a chunk of macaroni with the burned top picked off, collard greens and a slice of sweet potato pie. Under no circumstances should any of my food overlap or touch. All servings must be at least a quarter of an inch apart on my doubled-up paper plate. 

* * *

To be 20-something and radical

"Why would I ever celebrate a holiday that brought death and destruction to our native brothers and sisters? Get the f**k up out my face!" That was how I approached Thanksgiving throughout most of my 20s and early 30s. 

I read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." That powerful text, along with a mix of conscious rap, had me ready to whip a Pilgrim's ass each and every November. Which seems wildly selective as I reflect now — I mean, if I was such an advocate for my Native brothers and sisters, why didn't I want to kick Pilgrim ass all year long? Why did I save all of my anger for the month of November — and not even the entire month, just Thanksgiving Day, forgetting about my anger as soon as those Black Friday sales kicked off?

"I'll save my burning anger for you Pilgrims for next year," my brain would tell itself as it switched over to Black Friday. "Eighty-five-inch flat-screen televisions are 95% off. And even though I could be trampled by other irresponsible shoppers in the process, and even though I don't need another 85-inch flat-screen television, I just have to buy it, because it is Black Friday and it's 95% off!" Wait — shouldn't we all hate capitalism?

My grandma died in 1997, and that was the last year my family held a big dinner with my mom, all of her sisters and brothers, and the endless collection of cousins. We tried to bring the big dinner back a few years after she passed; however, we failed terribly. My grandma was too strong; she was the one who kept us together, leaving no one to carry the torch.

In these years I rarely attended formal Thanksgiving dinners, if I even hooked up with people who knew how to cook at all. My Thanksgivings were spent hanging out on the block, passing around tightly sealed blunts in one direction and a bottle of liquor in the other. Or else I was keeping cozy indoors in the middle of dice games that housed 30 to 40 shooters, all thirsty to grind up some of that Black Friday money. Or I'd try my best to link up with whichever woman I was dating at the time after she left her big family dinner, because I had no interest in being the "holiday date." The "holiday date" normally ends up being the most questioned, judged and talked-about person in the room. 

Once I was a holiday date for a woman I wasn't even dating. We attended the same middle school, lost touch during our high school years, and then reunited when she moved two doors down from me with her cousin, my homeboy. 

Wherever she went between high school and then left her with a serious weed habit that mirrored mine. The two of us puffed constantly, like chimneys on a cold day. She used to always try to chip in, or buy little pieces of bud off me, but I didn't sell weed; it takes too long to get rid of, and the people who buy it talk too damn much, usually about nothing. So I would gift her a little piece of bud here and there, and tell her she could break me off a piece when she purchased her own, which was never. This woman was really into bartering, though, like, if you give me weed, I'll braid your hair, and I was not. The only thing I ever wanted trade goods or services for was cash. 

"You gotta let me pay you back, bro," she said during an early-morning Thanksgiving smoke session. "Come with us to Thanksgiving. My grandma makes the best everything!" 

I wasn't into the devilish holiday, but I was also free and hungry, so I rolled right into the Thanksgiving date trap. As her family passed tin containers of sweet potatoes and macaroni around, her mom and grandma and uncles and aunts pressed me like, "he's such a nice young man" (I wasn't) and, "How long y'all two cuties been going out?" (we weren't) and, "lock him down, he's a child of God." (If they only knew.)

I made it up out of that family dinner with some sausage-less stuffing, turkey, a hot-ass homemade biscuit and two healthy cups of Hennessey. The three of us laughed uncontrollably at how they all thought I was her boyfriend, and we went back to my place to smoke again. 

The plate: These were by far the worst Thanksgiving dining years for me. One year I fasted as a middle finger to the Pilgrims, though I doubt they received my message. Chinese food fed me well for a few of those years. Maybe a turkey sandwich after someone's family dinner, or a woman I actually was dating would bring me a plate, which often scared me because of my well-documented trust issues. I ate Lunchables, cold pizza, four wings and fries, and Golden Grahams. Sometimes I'd eat these meals without a plate, pouring the cereal into a red plastic cup, or eating off a ripped piece of the greasy pizza box big enough to balance my extra slice. 

* * *

Growing into the person you thought you'd never be

Everything leveled up in my 30s. I wore an overcoat. I drank dairy-free lattes with extra foam. I read books about politics, studied at an elite university, purchased glasses, attended spoken word poetry events even though I hate spoken word poetry events. I smoked less weed and then no weed. I discovered craft cocktails that pair beautifully with farm-to-table food. I started identifying as a writer and began my journey into being an amateur snob, saying things like, "I don't eat McDonald's — I guffaw at the idea of a person indulging in McDonald's!" OK, I never used the word guffaw or indulging in a sentence. I did act just like a guy who would use the words guffaw and indulging in sentences. And I wore sweaters.

And with this new attitude and new diet came new ideas. One of the biggest ideas was that I had to redefine Thanksgiving, separating it from the holiday commemorating the colonizers who practiced genocide on our Native American brothers and sisters and reclaiming it as a time for family, friends and love. With that in mind, I started hitting up dinners with my new taste and understanding of aesthetics. If the food you served me was delicious and plated well, I would tell you. And if it wasn't, I would also tell you, but not in front of everyone — after all, I was sophisticated, so I would pull you to the side and say, "thanks for the invite, but you have some things you need to work on." These conversations, not surprisingly, never went well.

I began sharing Thanksgiving dinners with all kinds of people: successful artists, executives, and other creators with way more experience than I had. During this time I met a lovely interracial couple, Keisha and Sam, who invited me over for Thanksgiving after I had already had dinner. I loved talking to them about art, music, our government, and sports, all of which we talked about over dessert. Keisha (who I should mention is Black) served me a healthy slice of warm orange pie, placing it perfectly next to a scope of almond ice cream. To the naked eye, it looked like sweet potato pie. I put a little ice cream and a little pie on my fork as I ran my mouth about the things we all loved to run our mouths about, then took a bite. Delicious. It was like sweet potato pie, but not as sweet — a perfect companion for the ice cream. 

"What do you think?" Sam (who I should mention is white) asked, watching me enjoy the pie. "What's the verdict?"

"I love sweet potato pie! What are you talking about?" I laughed. "This may be new to you."

Sam's eyes lit up. "That's pumpkin pie, bro!" 

My eyes stretched across my face as my hosts burst out in laughter. I wish I had a story that revolved around me spitting out the bite, finding the nearest stack of sweet potato pies and cleansing myself of pumpkin madness because of my commitment to Blackness, or taking the young couple hostage, taping them up, and then throwing sweet potatoes at them full speed until and they swore on their lives that this moment never happened. But I do not. 

As embarrassing as enjoying pumpkin pie was, I was also going through a whole lot of other changes. Don't get me wrong, I know I should never get on a public platform, especially in front of a bunch of Black people, and talk about how great pumpkin pie is, mainly because part of my commitment to my race is showing my people — actually, all people — that sweet potato is better. But between us, I could go for some pumpkin pie right now. 

The plate: In some ways, the plate now feels far from the one from Famma's table. Yes, I still eat some of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes; however, it's not strange for me to also serve lobster, prawns and crab cakes; two or three different kinds of fried turkey; mac and cheese made with Manchego; fresh collards and other vegetables from somebody's organic garden; and aged Cabernet and champagne. But there's also Stove Top stuffing and that fake cranberry sauce, because I'm still from the block. And F those Pilgrims, because I'm still that radical in his early 20s learning about solidarity with indigenous people. And yes, there may even be pumpkin pie now — intentional pumpkin pie, even. Please don't tell my cousins.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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