Connections: Peace and Plenty

Our rituals were based on the foods at table

In my mind’s eye, Thanksgiving Day looks — as it probably does for many Americans of a certain age — like a famous Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom From Want,” that appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post during World War II. My father was a Post subscriber and a fan of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose inaugural speech in 1941 invoked four necessary freedoms: freedom from want, along with freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear. Rockwell painted all four, which he turned into consecutive Post covers in 1943.

 The point of the “four freedoms” covers was to evoke all that was good about America, those virtues in midcentury including a general prosperity and a lessening, post-Great Depression, in the numbers of citizens who went to bed hungry.

Were any Americans at the time concerned that the image of a white nuclear family presented by Rockwell as a standard of American life was a bit homogeneous, when those fighting abroad came from what we used to call a melting pot? I wonder.

Thanksgiving was not particularly celebrated when I was a child, but as an adult in East Hampton I grew to treasure it. From a small dinner party with my mother-in-law as the only guest (and a scar on my right thumb because I handled goose fat carelessly), it grew to a multitudinous affair with up to 20 or even 30 people, embracing extended family, old friends, and the occasional passer-by. The Thanksgiving we celebrated in the 1980s and 1990s turned out to be a white, black, Christian, Jewish, and atheist affair. I loved it. Sometimes things got a bit noisy, with pots and pans making music in the living room. (Yes, those were the days when everyone drank a lot more than they do today.) I’ll never forget the year Tom Paxton sat with a guitar in his arms, a child on his lap, and a new song for us to hear. 

For the most part, however, our rituals were based on the foods at table. One of the regulars wouldn’t let anyone else mash the potatoes or turn out her airy pumpkin mousse. One family member could always be counted on for an inventive vegetable presentation. I made Oysters Rattray, which differs from Oysters Rockefeller because sorrel is imperative for the green topping. And every year, another family member who had been practicing the art since about the age of 12 did up Florence Huntting Edwards’s Chocolate Sunday Pie. We were prosperous, yes, and privileged, too. Homogeneous we were not.

Lately, those of us still standing have been looking around us with increasing consternation when it comes time to plan our Thanksgiving gathering. Where has everyone gone? Some of the old crew have moved south, many are no longer living, and the rest of us have aged. Inevitably, our Thanksgiving traditions will have to change. 

This year, with only five or six participants ready to join around the table, we threw in the turkey baster along with the towel and have decided to indulge in the unthinkable: Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant! Who would have thought it possible? I’m fairly certain this sacrilege won’t become the new normal, and that we will return next year to the oysters and the custard pie. But maybe the time has come to invite in the next generation of old friends.