When life hands you lemons, the old saying goes, make lemonade.
That’s what many Mainers are trying to do with a Thanksgiving holiday where family traditions are being turned on their head by COVID-19. From setting out on road trips to setting the table with Indian food instead of Indian pudding, people are getting creative with their plans, hoping to glean a little joy from the day, even in this most unusual year.
Here are stories from a few families that are taking back control of their Thanksgiving Day in very different ways, large and small:
Toast and jelly beans
Gail Carson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College in Waterville, grew up in the 1970s watching the Peanuts holiday specials on television. She can recite the plot of one of her favorites, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” by heart: Peppermint Patty invites herself, Marcie and Franklin to Charlie Brown’s house for Thanksgiving, even though Charlie and his sister, Sally, have plans to go to their grandmother’s for dinner. Chaos ensues. (“The whole thing is just hilarious,” she says.)
This year, because of the pandemic, it looks like Charlie Brown will have a seat at Carson’s Thanksgiving table.
Carson, her husband and two adult children (who have been quarantining with their parents since March) live on a dead-end street where neighbors have been socializing on their daily strolls and from outdoor furniture planted in their yards. Carson says everyone on the street has a story about how everything is different this year because of the coronavirus. One neighbor can’t see her grandkids. Another has been juggling playdates and online learning for her 5-year-old. An older couple who usually enjoy the company of their two grown daughters for Thanksgiving will be on their own this year.
“It’s obviously a time of sadness because I’m not going to go visit my parents” (who live in Wisconsin), Carson said, “but I’m hopeful that some of the ways we can be together will make it interesting.”
Carson is organizing a neighborhood outdoor Thanksgiving feast based on “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” In the show, when Charlie Brown’s friends invite themselves over at the last minute, Snoopy and Linus help him throw together an impromptu Friendsgiving dinner on a ping pong table, complete with mismatched chairs. They serve an unlikely Thanksgiving menu: toast, popcorn, pretzel sticks, jelly beans, and ice cream sundaes.
Carson said, weather permitting, she’ll have toasters with extension cords on her outdoor Peanuts Thanksgiving table, along with everything else on Charlie Brown’s menu – although she may substitute hot cocoa or cider for the ice cream sundaes. The whole neighborhood is invited.
That doesn’t mean they’ll forego the usual stuffing and mashed potatoes. Just as Charlie Brown and his friends eventually pile into his parents’ station wagon and head off to his grandmother’s (singing a terrible version of “Over the River and Through the Woods”), “I think we’ll all end up going inside and probably doing something traditional,” Carson said.
But Carson hopes her version of Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving will highlight how important it is to maintain those face-to-face human connections, “even if you’re eating jelly beans and toast.”
Turkey Tikka Masala?
Every other year, Portland restaurateur Jay Villani hosts Thanksgiving to give his mother-in-law a break. This year it’s his turn, but he won’t be cooking. Nor will his in-laws be joining Villani, his wife and two children for dinner.
In a normal year, Villani puts together a Thanksgiving spread, with a twist.
“A couple of years ago I just smoked some turkey breasts, and we did open-faced sandwiches,” he said. “The time before that, I did confit turkey legs. I don’t do the full-on whole bird. It’s too redundant for me at this point in my life. I make it a little interesting, at least.”
Instead of green bean casserole, he makes turnips in honor of his mother-in-law’s late mother, who used to make them especially for Villani. “Nobody likes them but me, so I usually have turnips for days and thoroughly enjoy them,” he said.
But this year, it will just be Villani’s family of four, sitting around the backyard fire pit and eating Indian food. Villani plans to order takeout from his family’s favorite Indian restaurant, Taj in South Portland.
“I love the Mutter Paneer and the Gobi Manchuria, which is like a spicy cauliflower that they do,” Villani said. “And copious amounts of garlic naan. My kids love it.”
Villani said he doesn’t believe his family will miss the more traditional fare. “The tradition is really just being with family and those you love, right?” he said. “I think the food is secondary to the company on Thanksgiving.”
An important part of the day is a reading, a family tradition started by Villani’s father-in-law. “It can be anything, just a reading that strikes you or makes you feel good and you want to share,” Villani said.
Years ago, Villani’s son, who was 6 at the time, did a reading of Dr. Seuss’ “Hop on Pop” – while sitting on his father’s lap. “It’s a memory I will never forget regarding Thanksgiving,” Villani said.
This year, the reading will again be given by one of his children – either his son, who is now in college, or his daughter, who is in high school.
“We really try to get them to express themselves and share with us,” he said. “I’m actually kind of looking forward to just being with my kids this year.”
Pie for breakfast
Maine mystery writer Barbara Ross, whose books always feature food and recipes, and her husband, Bill Carito, spend every other Thanksgiving on Cape Cod at her sister-in-law’s house, where as many as 35 people gather.
“Pretty typically it’s (my) husband, his five siblings and their spouses, their exes – since we never let anyone out once they’re in – all the nieces and nephews, and an increasing number of grand nieces and nephews,” Ross said.
This year is an “off” year, one the couple would have spent alone anyway. They have, in past off years, eaten at a Portland restaurant on Thanksgiving Day, but they don’t feel comfortable with indoor dining right now. So Ross has decided to take the opportunity to “have my favorite part of Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving,” she said. What does that mean? Why, pie for breakfast, of course, and turkey sandwiches for the main event, complete with stuffing and cranberry sauce (normally Friday’s meal, made with the leftovers).
Carito intends to cook the turkey and his signature oyster stuffing (which will be featured in Ross’s next book) the night before Thanksgiving so he doesn’t have to cook on the holiday itself. He’s outsourcing the gravy. Ross plans to make an apple pie.
Ross said while she’s looking forward to a quiet day, she hopes things are back to normal next year with the family gathering on Cape Cod. Since last year’s gathering, a new baby was born and an engagement announced, “so I think it would be really nice to be together next year at Thanksgiving.”
Beth Duggan and her husband, Mike Feeney, who live in Scarborough, have celebrated “Friendsgiving” with three other couples since the 1990s.
The couples take turns hosting, with the host preparing the turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes, while the other couples contribute sides and desserts.
This year, the virus has changed those plans. Duggan has experienced health issues that make her wary of even small gatherings. She actually made the decision not to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with others last spring. “Any sadness I felt about it, I felt back in March,” she said.
Now, she said, it’s just “a matter of how do I do it, and enjoy it?”
Duggan said she will probably buy a turkey breast and a couple of turkey legs instead of a whole turkey. She’ll make bacon-wrapped scallops as an appetizer-for-two.
She’s already made appointments for Zoom calls on Thanksgiving Day, one with her sister and nephew in Rhode Island. The couples, she said, will either do a Zoom call before dinner, with cocktails, or after dinner with pie and coffee.
“Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays,” she said. “I think it’s good to take a beat every now and then and think about how good we have it. So it’s kind of a bummer to not really be marking it.”
Dinner in the desert
The Corry family plans to spend Thanksgiving Day in Arizona, exploring petrified wood on the desert floor that, over millions of years, has turned to stone. Maybe they’ll find time to have Thanksgiving dinner – but it probably won’t include turkey.
The Corrys, who own Petite Jacqueline in Portland, left their restaurant in good hands on Nov. 2 and set out on a big adventure. Steve and Michelle are traveling across the country with their boys, 13-year-old Seamus and 11-year-old Finn, in a rented RV that has a stovetop and a microwave, but no oven. When we spoke with them about a week and a half ago, they were in Moab, Utah.
“I think we’ll cook,” Michelle Corry said of their Thanksgiving plans. “I don’t know what yet, but I think it will be fun to cook something that is some semblance of Thanksgiving. But we’ll make it special. I’m a big holiday person.”
Every other year, the Corrys take an extended trip to France or Ireland to visit relatives. This year, that hasn’t been possible. It’s always been in the back of their minds to take their sons out West, where both Steve and Michelle used to work, so they did that instead. “We wanted them to see it and get outside their little Maine bubble,” Corry said.
They switched the kids’ schooling to an all-remote schedule, and set off in their own car. First stop: Niagara Falls, followed by Cleveland, Chicago (where the boys tried deep dish pizza and pierogies for the first time) and Denver, where they visited old friends and rented an RV. It’s essentially a traveling quarantine-mobile, hotel room and school house, all rolled into one.
There have been a few challenges, such as the time change and sketchy internet and phone service in more remote areas. Michelle Corry has to get up “super early” on mountain time to connect the boys with their classes.
“But the RV’s great because they can work while we’re traveling,” she said. “The time difference is nice because they are done at 12:30, so then we have all day to do stuff. So today, we’re going to finish and we’re going to go ATVing in Moab.”
The trip is meant to be educational as well as fun. The boys look up the names of rocks, learn the capitals of the states they’re driving through and identify constellations in the big western night sky. “We’re going to some of the darkest places on Earth so we can see the stars,” Corry said. Finn writes a daily blog about their adventures.
The next stops are Zion National Park and Death Valley (for that stargazing), followed by two nights in Las Vegas, where they’ll splurge on a hotel room. Then they’ll head south to Arizona and probably Texas before heading back to Denver to return their RV.
On Nov. 26, they’ll be at the Petrified Forest, “so we’ll be really in the middle of nowhere on Thanksgiving.” Corry says even if they were in Maine that day, they still wouldn’t be able to celebrate with family because their parents are older, so at higher risk from COVID-19.
“It will be nice to take a breath and say let’s be thankful for what we’re doing and what we have,” Corry said. “It will be nice to not just go through the motions of Thanksgiving and (instead) say ‘Isn’t this cool, where we are and what we’re doing’ versus just doing it because you’re supposed to do it.”
Giblet? What’s a giblet?
Dustin Ward and his wife, Lauren, will – for the first time in their marriage – spend Thanksgiving alone in their New Gloucester home. It will be just the two of them, their 2-year-old son Bentley, and baby No. 2 on the way.
If Dustin Ward sounds a little panicked, it’s because he is. “It’s not just that we don’t like cooking,” he said. “We don’t have a clue.”
Ward, a former pastor who is now working as a racial equity and reconciliation advocate, is an African-American who grew up in Aroostook County, where his family kept Thanksgiving simple – just close relatives, sometimes eating off of paper plates. In more recent years, he’s spent the holiday with his wife’s family, who go all out.
“You get dressed up, they pull out fine china, the crystal’s coming out,” he said.
This year, they’ve decided to stay at home because of the news that even small gatherings can lead to an outbreak of the coronavirus. “We want to be sure we’re protecting ourselves, especially with my wife being pregnant,” Ward said.
There’s one problem: Neither likes to cook. The only reason they don’t eat out all the time, Ward said, is they would soon be broke. They’ve never cooked a turkey. They’re worried about undercooking or overcooking it, but they are going to give it the old college try. And it won’t be just turkey parts going into their oven, either.
“We might try a whole bird because the other thing that’s really important is leftovers,” Ward said. “That’s one of the things that’s so much fun for us – eat the big meal, and then know that you’ve got meals for the next three or four days. So I don’t think we would skimp on a turkey.”
They’ll probably go with microwave mashed potatoes, but will ask relatives for recipes for side dishes such as the green bean casserole and stuffing. “My wife is a little bit against boxed stuffing,” Ward said. “I grew up on Stove Top.”
Pie, he says, is easily purchased.
Does he consider this a fun new adventure?
“I think it will be fun in the sense that things are fun when you get past it,” Ward said. “The thing we’ve been talking about all year is the stories we’re going to tell our children about the year 2020. Our son probably won’t remember a lot of this right now, but as time moves on, we’re going to say, ‘Let us tell you about that year we had to do Thanksgiving completely different.’”
Toward the end of our conversation, Ward learned that a lot of restaurants are offering Thanksgiving takeout this year. You could hear the excitement in his voice when he realized he might not have to break out the oven mitts and turkey baster after all.
BILL CARITO’S OYSTER STUFFING
Mystery writer Barbara Ross’ husband, Bill Carito, writes the recipes for her books. This oyster stuffing is popular at their family’s Thanksgiving gatherings and will be featured in Ross’ ninth Maine Clambake Mystery, “Shucked Apart,” scheduled to be published on Feb. 23 by Kensington Books.
8 cups cubed cornbread, in ½-inch cubes
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 ounces pancetta
8 ounces andouille sausage meat, removed from casings
3 tablespoons butter
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
1 cup chopped celery
1½ teaspoons dried sage
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup chicken stock
1 pint shucked oysters, drained and chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2-quart casserole with butter.
Put the cornbread cubes in a large bowl.
Heat the oil in a 10-inch frying pan and add the pancetta. Cook until the pancetta browns, then remove from pan. Add the sausage meat to the pan and brown, stirring to break up any large pieces. Remove to same container as the pancetta.
Melt the butter in the pan and add the onions, celery, sage, salt and pepper. Sauté for 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and return the pancetta and sausage to the pan. Cook together for 5 minutes. Pour the mixture over the cornbread, stirring to break up the cubes. Fold in the oysters.
Transfer the mixture to the casserole dish. Bake the casserole for 45-50 minutes, or until the top begins to brown.
GAIL CARSON’S SCALLOPED CORN
The recipe for this Thanksgiving dish was handed down from Gail Carson’s grandmother. Every year, Carson reads the recipe “off a well-worn, food-stained recipe card in my mother’s handwriting.”
2½ cups whole kernel or cream-style corn (14.75-ounce can)
¾ cup milk (reduce to ½ cup if using cream-style corn)
1 cup crushed soda crackers
Half an onion, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped green pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons butter
Combine the corn and milk in a large bowl. Add the cracker crumbs, onion, green pepper, salt and pepper and mix well. Pour the mixture into a greased casserole dish, dot with butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.