The first Thanksgiving I spent without my family, I was a junior in college and determined to put my own imprint on the holiday. The menu was decidedly anti-Mama. My mother always makes cornbread dressing and scalloped oysters; I rebelled against both and made oyster dressing with French bread crumbs, a serious deviation from tradition. All my life I’d been waiting to ditch the sugary sweet potatoes in orange cups with marshmallows that was a three-generation family staple; when I got my chance I made a savory sweet potato gratin I’d found in Gourmet, my then Bible. The list goes on: we had chess pie rather than pecan, biscuits instead of yeast rolls, the green bean casserole that in our house was deemed far too tacky.

It was a triumph.  The turkey was moist (I’d followed Joy of Cooking’s recipe to the letter and covered it with cheesecloth dipped in oil and butter), the dressing my new favorite (classic crumbled cornmeal be damned). My guests were five other refugees who gathered around my mother’s old kitchen table in my three-room, second-floor walk-up off of Dupont Circle in Washington. Someone brought a very chic watercress and pear salad; someone else brought port. We told stories and drank lots of cheap red wine well into the afternoon. Then we got into the port and pulled out piles of my LPs. In an ancient scrapbook somewhere, there are pictures of us dancing.

What I loved about it most was that all of us with no place to go were so genuinely happy to be together. The Norman Rockwell version of Thanksgiving is particularly hard on the straggler class. I figured out early on that it’s much better to band together than to be the extra chair at someone else’s family event.  Do it enough and you create your own extended family—one without the incumbent baggage and ingrained seasonal drama.  Since that first go round, I’ve hosted way bigger groups in way bigger and better apartments and, most recently, an actual house, but many of the core guests thankfully remain the same and now include my parents, who, as my brothers and I have scattered, have become stragglers themselves.

By far the most meaningful stragglers’ Thanksgiving was the first one after Katrina hit and New Orleans flooded. We were all stragglers then: families were split up and flung far apart, homes were destroyed or still in disarray, everybody was still more than a tad shell shocked. It seemed  more important than ever to band together and be grateful that we were still alive and well (and, let’s face it, well off) enough to do it. My house had been a work in progress pre-Katrina, and it certainly hadn’t progressed much in the aftermath, but it didn’t matter. My father had given us a dining room table that expanded to seat 24 and I was determined to fill it—no one would notice the bare bulb hanging above it or the rickety chairs we would sit in.

In the end, we had 32 and made do by opening up the proverbial children’s table in a corner. I’d asked everyone I ran into and they all came: the chef and the proprietor of Upperline, one of the first restaurants post-storm to open; the handful of neighbors who had returned to our neighborhood; my childhood friends McGee and Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s children, with whom I’d shared every holiday since I’d been in New Orleans.  My parents came, and my father’s business partner and his wife who brought me a case of my favorite cheap Scotch as a house present. Their daughter M.T. brought her famous Brussels sprouts with pine nuts and her grandmother’s cornbread dressing, a staple of many a stragglers’ Thanksgiving, including a memorable snowy one we spent in a borrowed house in Connecticut. My mother made her own cornbread dressing too—it’s still lacking from my repertoire, but not because I am remotely anti-Mama (those days are long over), but because I could never make it remotely as perfect as hers is.

Elizabeth brought sweet potatoes in orange cups with marshmallows—her children would have mutinied without them—and I insisted on making that same gratin from Gourmet.  I begged the newly re-opened Felix’s to give me enough oysters for Mama’s scalloped oysters, and in a nod to New Orleans cuisine, we had shrimp dressing and cranberry relish with satsumas from my tree. More important, we had lots of much-needed laughter and each other and a sense that we were not alone in the world or our still embattled city.

I’ve had off years—I’ve fled to London twice and lunched in restaurants, and one year I dined alone on a filet of sole I shared with the cat. But that first post-Katrina Thanksgiving, in all its slightly off-kilter Rockwellian glory, reminded me again of the abiding—and necessary—pleasures of the stragglers’ table.

 

About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

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