River Dad – A Thanksgiving Evolution

Thanksgiving is a time for family, friends, but mostly a lot of food. People cook food, decorate food, talk about food, eat food, regurgitate food, pontificate upon food, and, in general, celebrate the power of food as a unifier and reason to come together.

We’re also told this is the way to honor the time when the Native Americans, out of the goodness in their hearts, brought food to starving European pilgrims thinking, “You know, I’m sure if we’re nice to them they’ll be good neighbors in return who will never attempt to drive us from our homes.”
While some swear by Thanksgiving, I have historically been lukewarm on the festive day, and I had decided that this was on account of one simple fact.
I’m not a big food guy.
Growing up, meals were the things that interrupted whatever it was I was doing at the time, which was obviously a lot more interesting, satisfying, and pleasurable. Meals were to be endured rather than enjoyed. The call would come from the kitchen and I would slink down from my room or from in front of the TV, sit down, and see how fast I could shovel what was on my plate down my throat. Unless it was lima beans, in which case it was going to be a long night as I refused to put those vile things anywhere near my mouth.
Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly the fact that neither of my parents were fantastic cooks, so there was rarely something utterly amazing waiting for me on the table.  Plus, I was a picky eater. Actually, it was kind of a vicious circle.  My being a picky eater may have had something to do with my mother rarely cooking anything utterly amazing, because why should she waste the effort cooking something delicious if I wasn’t going to eat it?  It’s hard to say, though, because River Mom is a big cook and River Son is as picky as it gets. 
But I digress.
Thanksgiving meals at the house of my youth were pretty straightforward. We had turkey. We had mashed potatoes. We had green beans. We had rolls. Dad had gravy, but I was never a fan. There was a pumpkin pie for dessert. Sometimes there was something on a platter called stuffing, but it looked ornery and I generally tried not to eat things I thought could beat me up. One thing I did like about Thanksgiving growing up was that you generally had only one meal and it counted as both lunch and dinner, so I got to kill two meals with one stone and had more time to play.
But years of therapy have enabled me to identify that it wasn’t just the eating part that I didn’t like about Thanksgiving. The true source of my malaise toward the fourth Thursday in November was how that particular meal reminded me of what I was missing. And I’m not talking about prepping for Black Friday savings.
I’m talking about a big family.
My folks split up when I was 12. I have no brothers or sisters. Like many children of divorced parents, Thanksgiving felt like a middle finger stuck in my face. Where was I going to eat this year? Was I going to be in one place long enough to watch one of the football games? Was it alright with everyone if I’d rather spend the entire day with one parent rather than split it up and end up spending an hour or more of my holiday in a car?  Would one parent be hurt if I stayed a little longer at the other’s because nobody had broken out the pie, yet?
Not to be maudlin or anything, but just a reminder here that in addition to the ‘“kids” of “divorced parents” team, I got to play on the “only child” team, which meant that I got to push through all of this alone.
Which pretty much sucked.
So yeah, Thanksgiving was never at the top of my list of awesome days of the year.
Life continued, I got older, and I moved out on my own. I was my own man, able to eat what I wanted, when I wanted, and as often as I wanted. Looking back, this was not a golden age for my dietary needs. And Thanksgiving, of course, meant either a trip home to divide up my holiday again or an orphan’s meal with friends. I tended to hang with friends.
But then, for some unknown reason, River Mom, a bonafide foodie since the ‘80’s, saddled herself to me, a bonafide non-foodie since birth, through the bonds of matrimony. We made things work. At restaurants she would choose something new and exciting to eat from all the choices on the menu, while I’d look the menu over and mentally cross off everything I didn’t like or didn’t understand and order whatever was left.
My first Thanksgiving with River Mom, however, was a revelation. At first glance, it didn’t seem all that much different than what I was used to. There was turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, stuffing, and gravy. There was even ironic cranberry sauce from a can because River Mom likes to have the ridges in it so you know where to slice it.  When I sat down to eat, however, it was as if I’d traveled into a different reality. Yes this looked like turkey, but it was tasty and moist, which was weird. The green beans were mixed with something other than butter. The mashed potatoes weren’t lumpy. And the rolls weren’t the Pillsbury Crescent Rolls that come in the exploding cardboard tube. Even the stuffing looked edible, filled with sausage and nuts, though it still looked like it could beat me up if it wanted.
This, then, was the mysterious “good food” I’d heard so often about. Suddenly, I was more interested in the meal than in watching football.  Though it did help that the 49ers went into a funk that year and were terrible for over a decade, lessening my interest in the barbaric sport. But marrying River Mom expanded my culinary escapades in a way nothing else could, and while I was still moderately picky (and still hated lima beans), I was slightly less of a non-foodie.
But more than that was the experience which was Thanksgiving at the River In-Laws. River Mom has three brothers, and the impact of being a part of this large, loud gathering – even if only peripherally – flipped me on my head. People talked to each other. About things. Things that interested them. They shared stories, jokes, ideas. They ragged ncessantly on each other, the conversation riddled with inside family jokes that have survived for 40 years without losing their apparent hilarity. They behaved exactly like the fantasy family I’d always wishfully carried around in my head – except they rooted for Boston rather than San Francisco.
My evolving opinion of Thanksgiving only became complete, however, with the advent of our own children. Not at first, of course, since early River Family Thanksgivings featured a lot of chicken nuggets and bread. But time marched on and as the River Children ripened into full-fledged people, the last few Thanksgivings have been a joy of gastrointestinal carnage. The dishes are served, lids are lifted, and everyone oohs and aahs. River Mom takes a picture of her plate to send to her friend in South Africa who loves but doesn’t do American Thanksgiving, as a way to let her in on the celebration. And we talk and laugh and sometimes sing (River Daughter is still singing songs from Les Miserables while River Son is partial to various Monty Python ditties) and our family expands and reaches out to include friends and orphans and blood relatives, depending on the year.
And last year I personally rallied the River Family and we went down to Virginia to visit my 96-year-old grandmother for Thanksgiving, which turned out to be her last. We have a great memory of that last Thanksgiving with her and it continued my push toward being a Thanksgiving convert.
Still not a big food guy, though.


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About the Author: David Neilsen