The tradition started years ago, when we were out of college and making our way in the world. On that special Thursday in late November, with so many of us 3,000 miles away from family and home, it was the one holiday that proved a bit tough. Yet we had established a network of friends – our new family of friends — and one among us was a chef.
We spent many a Sunday afternoon at the chef turned engineer’s home, first in Silicon Valley and later in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. Always on the menu was a spirited game of Trivial Pursuit which we played in teams, and some California wine, cheeses, crackers and bread, and fruit. Wine was a new foray for many of us and it was sitting around the board game table or stretching in front of the fire with the cat on cool, rainy winter afternoons listening to music that we began to appreciate the nuances of the varietals and blends. White zinfandel was a favored choice at first; the sweet, crisp taste was perfect for wine tasting neophytes, but in time, we uncorked bottles that were less sweet and more complex. Buttery chardonnays were in vogue and that became a favorite.
Sometimes we took a little hike, not always successfully avoiding the poison oak on the hillside, or visited one or two of the many wineries tucked in the steep hills of the local coastal redwoods. Or we could complete the drive in the Santa Cruz mountains “over the hill” and check out the sea lions in the pilings of the wharf in Santa Cruz. The sea lions barked that loud, deep, raspy call of theirs, and we playfully called back to them. Mostly, though, we enjoyed the company of good friends, and spent Sunday afternoons just relaxing together.
There was never any question as to where everybody would go for Thanksgiving. We all showed up at the chef turned engineer’s house on Wednesday evening after work and the process would begin. As more friends arrived, we would spread out from the kitchen into the dining room and even head to the coffee table in the living room, setting up shop, mincing onions and celery and parsley, slicing and cubing bread for stuffing, dicing carrots and preparing turnips and butternut squashes, and peeling potatoes, stroking downwards, so that the peels would drop directly into the brown paper bag placed under our hands. We would sip wines we brought to share, and work and talk and listen to albums while our host and hostess prepared a pasta feast for the crew. When word from the kitchen came, we’d clear the dining room table and enjoy a wonderful spaghetti dinner with homemade rolls and salad. After dinner, we’d wash up and put the final touches on our peeling, slicing and dicing, and lastly prepare the pumpkin pies. It might be close to midnight when we pulled the pies from the oven, but dinner prep was in great shape.
Early afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, as we walked through the front door, the aromas from the kitchen welcomed us. The scent of turkey and stuffing and vegetables and rolls brought each of us back home for a moment. There were smiles and waves and hugs as we made our way in and tossed our jackets in the bedroom and uncorked our wines, donned aprons and rolled up our sleeves to get to work. Many of us had already telephoned home and spoken to our families who were dining or preparing to dine at home three hours ahead of us. We all shared a similar story; family members were always happy to hear that their Silicon Valley “transplants” each had someplace to go for Thanksgiving. We understood. While it would have been nice to share the holiday with our families, there was something very special about embracing our own tradition.
Back then, we called ourselves “homeless.” That phrase hadn’t been coined yet to mean what it means today. Sometime during dinner our host would play “Homeward Bound,” by Simon and Garfunkel. While a bit melancholy, it was a fitting acknowledgment of our families back East. That mood didn’t last, however, as we enjoyed seconds of this amazing meal, and another glass of wine and great conversation with dear friends. Dinner was never hurried, and we laughed a lot. After a long while, we would gather up the plates and carry everything back to the kitchen. Somebody would make coffee and our hostess poured heavy cream into a stainless steel bowl. We’d unveil the desserts we had brought and the pumpkin pies we had baked just hours earlier, and again sat down at the long table. As we stirred cream and sugar into our cups, our hostess clasped a whisk and expertly turned the cream in the bowl. After a spurt of high-powered whisking, she turned, smiling broadly to the guest sitting next to her and hung her apron around his neck announcing it was his turn. As the bowl and whisk and apron made its way around the table, we cheered as each person worked a little whisking magic, and we each posed for the camera with that frilly apron wrapped around our necks. When the stainless bowl returned to our hostess, it was filled with perfectly whipped cream. Then, people sitting nearest to the pies and cakes began to cut slices, and we passed dessert plates around, filling each one with the tastes of the season, apple and sweet potato and pumpkin pies, and always something chocolate, with our hostess adding a heaping dollop of fresh cream onto each plate. It was fabulous.
One day, however, our dear friend, our host, told us that his job was taking him to Europe. This was a great career move and of course, we were very happy for him, and offered our heartiest congratulations. Still, how could we not be saddened? We were a tight group and our friendship was strong, so we knew that staying in touch would not be a problem, but this nearly weekly tradition was coming to an end. And then there was that big unanswered question hanging in the air … What about Thanksgiving?
End of Part One