Thanksgivings were spent in Key Biscane or Westchester, a few at an apartment on Central Park West overlooking the Macy’s parade. But no matter where they were held, Thanksgivings were almost always spent with family, until the year I was away at college in Bennington, Vermont. That year, the 16-hour round trip drive combined with looming midterms conspired against returning to family for Thanksgiving. Coincidentally, a group of other students — some close friends, some just friends of those friends — ended up in the same predicament. Before we knew it, we began plotting a feast none of us had ever cooked.
A friend kindly lent us his off-campus apartment before leaving himself for a family Thanksgiving. He would go on to Hollywood fame and fortune but before this, when he was still an art major, he had a fit of bad creative judgment and sponge-painted the kitchen hideous shades of blue. The apartment itself was in a charming but dilapidated pink-painted Victorian situated on the tiny village square where author Shirley Jackson (who had lived four houses up the street) set her famous Gothic story “The Lottery.”
We all gathered at the house that Thursday morning, each arriving with ingredients for a dish we had probably only ever seen our mothers or grandmothers prepare. There were green beans, several types of mashed potatoes, vegetarian and non-vegetarian stuffing, various dark greens made both hot and salad-like, and cranberry relishes and fruit pies. We worked in shifts, with one group elbow-to-elbow in the kitchen, the other in the living room shouting out advice, lending hands and cracking jokes. We listened to James Brown, and the “Crooklyn” soundtrack. The enormous frozen Butterball lay in the bathtub thawing in salt water and looking like a beluga whale. There were some calls to home for “Happy Thanksgivings” and culinary advice from various relatives. There was a lot of fretting over whether anything would actually be edible, or cooked-through in time for dinner.
Many hours later, we sat around the table looking at the twinkling candles and the feast before us. It felt like magic. Not just because we had managed something that for most of us was usually accomplished by “the grown-ups,” but because we managed it together, the way families do. I remember looking around that table and thinking there was no place I would rather be. In an uncharacteristically sentimental gesture, we held hands and someone said a prayer. The guy on my right squeezed my hand tightly, for just a second, in a confusing and potentially romantic gesture.
Suffice to say, our Thanksgiving feast was delicious. We were so proud of ourselves, I think, but also full of the joy of knowing we had solidified a group friendship that we all knew meant something greater than just this one holiday.
This past April, I took my husband and children to my old college because I was giving a presentation there. I hadn’t been back in many years. The first night, we went to a restaurant that hadn’t existed when I was in school — a restaurant now in the pink-painted Victorian where we shared our Thanksgiving meal 20 years earlier. The pink paint was changed to a staid grey, but the building was basically the same. People were eating dinner in the bedroom. The old paneled doors were still hung slightly cockeyed, the wide pine floors still slanted and creaky. I took my kids into the bar where the kitchen had once been. I said, “This used to be sponge-painted a hideous blue.” Then I stood in the main room and remembered the table we had lain, with all the food we had cooked together, and the guy who squeezed my hand who had become my husband. The friends at that Thanksgiving table were our bridesmaids and grooms and now were our children’s aunts and uncles.
Next week, at least two of them will be arriving for Thanksgiving at our home in Sag Harbor. It will, as usual, be the most delicious feast, held in the best company.