Many readers are located outside of the United States. They may or may not understand the great American tradition of Thanksgiving. Almost everyone knows that Americans are famous for having a large family feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetable, stuffing, cranberry and pumpkin pie. But there are some nuances that may not be readily apparent to the outsider, the foreigner, who see us only as gluttons on this day of thanks.
Thanksgiving Day is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, since 1863. It was originally a religious observation to give thanks to God. The American version is celebrated to give thanks to God for helping the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony survive a cold and brutal winter in New England. The very first Thanksgiving lasted three days and fed ninety Native Americans, and 53 pilgrims. Their food was astonishingly similar to ours, and included: turkey, pumpkin, berries, fruit, fish, clams, fowl, venison, and lobster. My guess is that someone baked some bread.
The modern day Thanksgiving menu is similar, containing roast or baked turkey as the centerpiece. Increasingly, baked ham, prime rib, and roast pork are included or substituted. Hence, the use of the name, “Turkey Day” to describe this holiday. The side dishes most commonly used are: mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, other fall vegetables, and topped with pumpkin pie. One of our traditions is to add some steamed white rice to the menu, as it tastes great with turkey gravy smothered over it. Likewise, it has become an American custom to provide this dinner at soup kitchens and shelters for those less fortunate. In fact, we participate in a program on Christmas Day that provides a bountiful spread as described above.
But the Thanksgiving weekend, a four day long weekend, also involves travel, time away from work, family reunions, and vacation. In fact, it is the busiest holiday travel weekend of the year. Most government offices are closed, mail is not delivered, and schools are out as well. In New York City, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is an institution, and signals the beginning of the Christmas season. Airlines are packed full of people going home, to loved ones, to the very meal I described above.
Another big American tradition that goes with turkey is football. Since 1934, the Detroit Lions professional football team, has hosted a Thanksgiving Day game. Many college games are also played on this day or during the four day weekend. A few big ones are the Army-Navy football game, and the USC Notre Dame football game. In fact, that was the very first collegiate game I attended. Notre Dame had All American and Heisman winner, Paul Hornung, and USC had Jaguar Jon Arnett. In recent years, professional basketball has also gotten into the act, with a star studded game, with the likes of Kobe, Michael, Magic, Larry, or Lebron playing. The golfers get their share of air time with the famous Skins Game from Hawaii or Palm Springs.
I always enjoyed Thanksgiving because my relatives from Los Angeles would drive up to Fresno for the holiday. Truth be known, they also used this trip to deliver our Christmas presents. We also got our Uncles to play football and basketball with us. In some years, we also went striped bass fishing with my Grandfather up on the Delta for the day. The Aunts went shopping, long before Friday became Black Friday. And we observed the age old tradition of eating leftovers for the next day or so.
In my teenage years, we actually had two neighboring Hispanic families bring home made tamales over to our home. Most of the time, we preferred eating the tamales to having our traditional turkey dinner. Then, the highlight of the day would come. The dinner table would be cleared, and my brother and I would be asked to play poker, with real money, with the adults. We thought it was the greatest thing! I still remember playing once when the pot got really big. My Aunt and Uncles were “warning” me not to get carried away with my betting. But, I had four queens, and I knew I could not lose. I began to get nervous, but hung in there. I won the biggest pot of money, in my life, up to then. What a thrill!
As we got older, went away to college, we still looked forward to this special weekend. Perhaps more than Christmas, it was a time of family togetherness. All the relatives would ask us about school, or work, or play. And we would enjoy their attention. Of course, about this time, they pulled our Christmas gifts out of their car trunks and into the house. We then replaced the empty space in their trunk with oranges that we had picked earlier in the day. Pretty fair trade back in those days.
When people first started visiting from Japan, back in the Fifties and Sixties, many had never seen a turkey. They thought it was a big chicken! What a hoot, or cackle. Most impressive was the turkey leg. They would fight over the leg, thinking that it would bring them good health and vitality. They could never figure out why they needed a nap after eating dinner. And of course, pumpkin pie was a totally foreign notion to Japanese visitors.
One Thanksgiving in my adulthood, I was assigned to cook Thanksgiving dinner, having been accused of never helping to make dinner. I was charged with not only making a turkey, but also a prime rib, and a ham. The ham was no problem. The prime rib was done in the barbecue. But the turkey was a real issue, since I had never done it before. Most challenging was the fact that nobody brought ingredients for the stuffing. But I found some old bread in the freezer, and found an onion and celery in the produce bin. But how would I flavor the stuffing? And I had to use needle and thread to sew up the carcass.
As you might guess, my stuffing did turn out fantastically. Everyone loved it and could not figure out what I did. I found an old dried up stick of salami in the refrigerator. I cut it up into small cubes and added it to the stuffing. Hey Martha and Rachel! The secret is out.
Other Thanksgiving memories tend to fade. These are the ones I best remember. In recent years, we have been traveling. We have ventured out for Thanksgiving dinner in places like Scottsdale, Coronado, Seattle, Pebble Beach, Santa Fe, and San Francisco. In earlier years, I volunteered to work since it was a double time and a half payday. But, I still enjoy turkey dinner, football, poker, and a nap.
My poker heroine
The opportunities to volunteer on Thanksgiving are numerous. I was headed into the City to help with the annual Turkey Trot 5K race, formerly the Run to the Far Side. I also have a sister who volunteers at St. Anthony’s Dining Room. My personal favorite is Glide Memorial Church. One of the former ministers, Lloyd Wake, is from a town near my hometown. He, along with Reverend Cecil Williams, were instrumental in making Glide what it is today. Glide opened in 1929, and is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. In the 1960s, it became a magnet of counter culture, and has become perhaps the most liberal church in the United States, if not the world. Among its many contributors have been: Bill Clinton, Warren Buffet, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and me.
Glide serves three meals a day, and about 750,000 meals a year. The church also does HIV testing, mental and primary health care, women’s programs, crisis intervention, after school programs, literacy programs, computer training, job skills training, drug and alcohol recovery programs, legal services, and housing with case management. Visitors come from all over the world.
Glide is located at 330 Ellis Street in San Francisco, in the heart of the Tenderloin District. It has become a beacon of hope for the poor, homeless, prostitutes, runaways, alcohol and drug dependents, and any other disenfranchised individuals. Of course, over the years, Emeritus Reverend Cecil Williams has hob-knobbed with the Kennedys, Wilie Brown, Jerry Brown, Bill Clinton, and the Grateful Dead. This has helped keep donations pouring in, despite a dismal economy, and the ever increasing need of the community it serves. If you have never been, I strongly suggest a visit, on a Sunday for a sermon, or any other day, to observe, volunteer, and perhaps donate a few dollars.
Take the Turkey Quiz to test your knowledge: http://home.aristotle.net/Thanksgiving/trivia.asp