This will be a strange Thanksgiving, with health officials encouraging people to feast only with their immediate households. No open-mouthed gabfests; no elbowing Uncle Edgar for extra gravy; no well-meaning inquiries from Great Aunt Millicent about why you haven’t married her best friend’s son.
It also means that the pressure’s off: It’s a chance to start new traditions, experiment with different recipes, and relax a little.
Consider Julia Kelahan in Arlington, who normally dines with 40-plus people. This year, she’ll celebrate with her nuclear family, including five children, by dressing as characters from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a feat she wouldn’t attempt with dozens of guests.
“My 16-year-old daughter is a little obsessed,” she says. At last check-in, the family was heading out to a consignment shop to hunt for outfits. They’ll play the soundtrack during dinner.
Hopefully we won’t do the time warp again next Thanksgiving, but for now, people are getting creative.
In Waltham, Jessica Gonzalez will celebrate virtually with her siblings and mom instead of traveling. One brother is in Italy; a sister and brother-in-law are in Oregon; her mom and another sister are in Texas. They’ve decided on a six-course menu; each family member nominated a dish, and the others agreed to make it during a weekly video call, sharing recipes via WhatsApp.
“My dish is Pillsbury crescent rolls. My hipster brother-in-law is horrified that he has to make bread from a can,” she says, giggling. Meanwhile, her brother has encouraged everyone to make a cheeseball recipe from his high school home economics class.
“Anytime we had a party, it was his dish,” she says. “But he hasn’t made them in a decade.”
In Acton, Kristin Graffeo has meticulously planned a virtual Thanksgiving for far-flung family, with a full weekend’s agenda of activities. Normally, she hosts more than 30 people. This year, she mailed packets to family members complete with tissue-paper centerpieces, kids’ activities, and instructions for a photo scavenger hunt. There are even mini-trophies for guests who compete in a virtual turkey trot.
“I could hear it coming from both sets of parents: ‘What are we going to do?’ I could hear that they needed to wrap their heads around something. We needed to reach out and have a plan,” she says, noting that she won’t send her scavenger hunt list until the day before Thanksgiving, so nobody gets a head start.
And in Arlington, Chris Hass has embarked on a “snail-mail potluck concept” proposed by a cousin.
“As much as we love getting together in all its variations, every once in a while you look at each other and say, ‘Wow, it would be nice to have a holiday to ourselves,’” he says. “And Zoom would be awkward — we’d be sitting around joking and making bad puns.”
And so he’s perfecting mail-friendly dishes despite his status as a self-confessed “below-amateur” baker. He and his wife began sharing ideas with family on recipe-sharing app Paprika3. For now, he’s decided to mail chocolate and apple cakelets, after several taste-tests.
“I’ve been approaching this like a true geek, researching what recipes will travel well and how to package food,” he says. “In theory, if the cakelets are wrapped in plastic, they should be fine to eat or freeze within four days.”
This process isn’t without snags. He recently received a mysterious packet of his own.
“I thought, ‘Someone sent us drugs?’ Oh, no, it was just a garden variety of spice from a cousin,’” he says.
For other families, this Thanksgiving is a chance to throw off the chains of culinary convention.
“We’re doing Thanksgiving with lobster and oysters. My husband doesn’t even like turkey,” confesses Dorchester’s Elizabeth Medeiros.
“This year, I get to make whatever I want,” says Sudbury’s Karen Rossi. “I’m putting extra salt and pepper in my potatoes.”
And in Lowell, Mukami Kiarie plans to have “a whole day of experimental cooking. I told my two girls who love to cook to create or come up with something they’d like to try making that day — no limits, and they have the whole day to do it. Then, my husband and I will sample each food and pretend to be chef judges,” she says. She even ordered the kids chefs’ aprons for the gig.
But some traditions remain. Ninety-two-year-old Mary Keane from Somerville isn’t going to let a pandemic keep her from a favorite Thanksgiving recipe. She makes stuffed celery hearts slathered with cream cheese — never whipped, always from a block — and ground olives with plenty of juice.
Normally, her family would enjoy them together. This year, plans are different. They’ll split off for smaller meals; one daughter in South Boston, another in Arlington. Keane’s recipe is the same, though, and she’ll prepare her dish for each family.
“She’s going to make two sets of them. She has those plastic trays from the Dollar Store, lines them up, and serves them,” says her daughter, South Boston’s Christine Wilson.
A batch will go to Wilson’s South Boston crew and another will go with Keane to Arlington, where she’ll celebrate. She gave another grandson a pre-meal tutorial so he could make them for his family, too, and they’ll enjoy the olive-spiked celery together on FaceTime.
“This year, we’re grateful most of all that we’ve kept my mom safe so that our family can hopefully enjoy next Thanksgiving,” Wilson says.