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Rethinking Tradition

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Alison and her family on Thanksgiving in 2019 - COURTESY ALISON NOVAK
  • Courtesy Alison Novak
  • Alison and her family on Thanksgiving in 2019

For the 16 years my husband, Jeff, and I have lived in Vermont, we've been making the five-hour pilgrimage to Westchester County, N.Y., every November to celebrate Thanksgiving with our families. Our parents live just 20 minutes apart, so it's easy to see both sets of relatives on the holiday. Each year, we alternate where we eat the main meal.

My parents always host a sprawling gathering of at least 30 extended family members. The turkey is impossibly huge, the side dishes are plentiful, and the house gets really loud. My dad makes his famous stuffing with sausage, celery, pecans and Craisins. My mom whips up her mom's famous onion pudding, a silky, savory custard — made all the more delicious by multiple sticks of butter — which I've never eaten anywhere else. Before the meal, my mom sets up her camera on a tripod and we gather for a family photo op that inevitably includes someone saying something inappropriate to make everyone else laugh. We celebrate guests with fall birthdays by crowding around cakes and pies lined up on the Ping-Pong table and singing a rousing, off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday."

At Jeff's childhood home, my mother-in-law sets the tables with fancy napkin holders and elaborate autumnal centerpieces, leaving a little gift on everyone's seat. My father-in-law chimes his fork on his glass and gives a speech lauding the guests' accomplishments over the past year, taking a moment to remember family members who have passed away. After the meal, we retreat to the basement, where the group's musically gifted contingent jams out to the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi, and the less musically inclined sit on the couch, banging tambourines and cheering on the subterranean band that has exactly one gig per year.

This November, because of travel restrictions and recommendations against large gatherings aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19, we'll be abandoning our traditions, at least temporarily. For the first time ever, we'll be staying put in Vermont for Thanksgiving. It'll likely be just the four members of our nuclear family sitting at the table for the big meal. While the change feels a little unsettling, I'm also trying to make the best of it.

Cooking and baking have been a source of comfort, especially for my 13-year-old daughter and me, during this time. We've already started brainstorming a gourmet menu of ambitious, from-scratch dishes like wild-rice-stuffed peppers and cranberry curd pie. Since my husband and son are vegetarians, we might even skip the turkey, which feels somehow liberating. Whatever our final menu is, we'll be buying the bulk of our ingredients locally, as Meredith Bay-Tyack suggests in "Growing Up Green." We might even make a Gratitude Tree as a centerpiece and fancy place mats using the abstract art techniques Emily Jacobs describes in "Art Lessons."

During Thanksgiving week, we'll likely curl up on the couch for a movie night — or three. Matt KillKelley, a recent New York University film school grad who grew up in Vermont, has suggestions for under-the-radar films the whole family will enjoy. And no movie night is complete without something crunchy and delicious to snack on. Flip to "Mealtime" for Astrid Hedbor Lague's Middle Eastern spin on chips and dip — pita chips and Muhammara, made with roasted red peppers. For a little exercise, we might take a trip to Sucker Brook Hollow in Williston, which Heather Fitzgerald describes in "Good Nature."

In "Use Your Words," Elisa Järnefelt compares holidays to anchor points, places where we are able to rest, for a moment, on our journey through the pandemic. We'll get back to boisterous gatherings and basement jam sessions one day, but for now we'll take comfort in small celebrations.

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