A dirtbag’s guide to self-selected families

Thanksgiving was never a really big deal in my family, which is perhaps part of the reason that—despite gluttony being my favorite deadly sin—I’ve never felt strongly about it one way or another.

Thanksgiving Glamour Shot 2011. You can't tell, but I'm exhausted from all the helping I haven't been doing. Photo by my very talented uncle John, who will not be voting for Donald Trump.
Thanksgiving Glamour Shot 2011. You can’t tell, but I’m exhausted from all the helping I haven’t been doing. Photo by my very talented uncle John, who will not be voting for Donald Trump.

Historically, I’ve only been peripherally involved in my family’s Thanksgiving celebrations. Save for the feast itself, where I’m guaranteed to prompt an uncle to say something along the lines of “You’ve always been a good eater,” most Thanksgiving traditions hold little interest for me. I’d sooner impale my hand on a meat thermometer than watch a football game. Except for the occasional vat of buttered noodles when no one else is home, I don’t cook the other 364 days of the year, and I’m not about to ruin everyone’s day of gratitude with some runny mashed potatoes or a screwed up cream-of-mushroom-to-green-bean ratio. I’ll happily empty the can of cranberry jelly, which I insist on having every year, onto a plate—complete with the can-lines perfectly intact. (I am a genius at this. The key is to open the can at both ends.)

Also, I usually set the table.

Since I lived thirty minutes from where I grew up and spent most weekends at my parents’ house until well into my alleged adulthood, I was a little worried about missing The Walker Family Thanksgiving when I moved to Alaska. The first year, my parents came to visit and my boyfriend made this killer gravy, which my dad raved about for weeks afterward whenever I called. I always have a boyfriend who cooks, which is perhaps why I’m incapable of much more than reheating a frozen pizza. This is also maybe why most of my exes don’t want much to do with me. I’m not much for housework.

My mom took this on that first Thanksgiving visit. Look mom, here I am at my graduate school that I swear is a real thing! (Kellogg House in background.)
My mom took this on that first Thanksgiving visit. Look mom, here I am at my graduate school that I swear is a real thing! (Kellogg House in background.)

Despite the good gravy, it was a pretty tame Thanksgiving. Totally fine—pleasant even—but nothing that made me go “Oh man, I have to eat this exact stuffing recipe at every Thanksgiving until I die (probably due to high cholesterol)!” Did you know people are really loyal to the stuffing they grew up with? (Stove Top brand, always and forever!)

My second Thanksgiving in Alaska, Bix and I joined the ragtag band of grad student characters at the beloved Kellogg House, the farmhouse where our graduate program was headquartered because yes I have a master’s degree in tomfoolery. He was feeling a little maudlin about being so far from his friends and family in Milwaukee, and experiencing the bittersweet holiday memories familiar to anyone who’s lost a parent.

I was determined that he’d have The Best Thanksgiving Ever because it was our first one together and, in addition to enjoying having another boyfriend who was a wonderful cook, I really liked this guy. I wanted to delay his wising up and fleeing the 49th state/my refusal to clean the bathroom for as long as possible.

Thanksgiving 2013: a tradition I can get behind.
Thanksgiving 2013: a tradition I can get behind.

We’d spent the morning Nordic skiing at Hatcher Pass and arrived at the farmhouse absolutely ravenous, just in time to help our friends rummage through the cabinets in search of enough dinnerware to serve the dozen or so misfits who’d gathered for Friendsgiving. And then, with a fire roaring in the next room, we sat down to the best Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever experienced.

Without much prior planning—this was a collection of overworked, underpaid grad students, after all—we’d covered all the bases. Everyone brought something they’d grown up eating, and it made for an eclectic assemblage of traditions (including Snicker salad, a Midwestern staple I’ll never go another Thanksgiving without—thanks, Alex!). Over lively conversation and, in my case, an abundance of good bourbon (see, don’t say I didn’t contribute anything!), we sat around the rickety picnic-table-cum-dining-set for hours, swapping stories and, in our friend Evan’s case, cackling as the bad puns of the annual Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathon wafted in from the living room.

The following year, Friendsgiving had been pared down—some friends had headed south to spend the holiday with their families, others had graduated and made other Alaskan friends—to just six of us, including Alex and Evan’s almost-toddler, who I’m thrilled will someday get to tell her friends she spent her first Thanksgiving in a cozy farmhouse in rural Alaska with her parents and their weirdo friends.

The next day, Bix and I left with our friend Patrick to backpack Resurrection Pass, where we hiked through a blizzard on top of the seven-mile alpine pass and wished we’d brought what remained of Alex’s Snicker salad when our snacks froze solid on the hike out three days later. It’s the little things you remember, I guess.

Post-Thanksgiving 2014 on the Resurrection Pass trail. So cold. But what did we expect backpacking in Alaska in November?
Post-Thanksgiving 2014 on the Resurrection Pass trail. So cold. But what did we expect backpacking in Alaska in November?

Some of us are blessed with wonderful, loving families (me!), and some of us have cousins who are going to vote for Donald Trump (also me!). Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. This is why I’m so glad we have the ability to choose who we consider family: those friends who tell us our pecan pie is delicious even when we’ve burnt it to shit, who let us feed Snicker salad to their eighteen-month-old, who laugh with us when we’re happy and cry with us when we’re sure there’s no way we’ll finish grad school and, most importantly, love us just the same regardless of whether we’re laughing or crying.

For the first time, I feel nostalgic about Thanksgiving. I’m excited to set the table and drink too many glasses of wine with my family in Colorado this year, but if I’m being honest, I’m terribly homesick for those last few Friendsgivings at the Farm. Just when I was ready to hop a plane to the Last Frontier, I got an email from Alex. I’d been reminiscing about last year, and she told me it would just be their little family this year.

Thanksgiving 2014: I'd eat turkey with these turkeys any day. Please note my excellent sweater. And also how perfectly intact that cran-jam-from-a-can is.
Thanksgiving 2014: I’d eat turkey with these turkeys any day. Please note my excellent sweater. And also how perfectly intact that cran-jam-from-a-can is.

“Evan will chortle along to MST3000 all day while Ava and I shake our heads in embarrassment,” she predicted. “The dog will likely steal a bunch of food and end up with the shits in the middle of the night. Ava will only want to eat chocolate milk, cheese sticks, and pie, and I’ll cry over the turkey I slaved over for her while I waddle around mixing said chocolate milk. Evan will eat a whole box of Stove Top stuffing. It will be perfect.”

When you move around a lot, it’s important to know you’ll be surrounded with your self-selected family wherever you are—biological and otherwise, whether it’s via email, or Skype, or right there at the other end of the table. This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to have exactly that.

Plus, of course, canned cranberry jelly.

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