This Thanksgiving in the new country digs we're hosting a small gang of friends who are family and family who are friends. As usual when it comes to the holidays, I'm consumed by the internal debate over which I prefer more -- the approach and giddy anticipation of an event or the actual event itself. Both have their merits, so 'all of the above' is a completely reasonable call, but if I'm being honest, this debate is really just a distraction from the anxiety and fear that comes with an event's recession into memory. I've developed an acute, if dysfunctional, barometer for the moment an experience peaks and becomes the past. Every summer at the beach I lay flat on my back in the sand to let the surf wash over me, indulging in its zen warmth; then, just as quickly as it arrived, it recedes, leaving my skin prickly, my soul shivering. That's the most poignant living metaphor for this real time separation anxiety I experience. It's something of a curse, for it probably holds me back from absolutely embracing the present. I like to think that as I get older this will dissipate, but it hasn't yet. In the meantime, I spend much of life in reflection mode -- revisiting experiences, reveling in memories -- which really isn't so bad. These days I put a lot of stock into what Paul Auster once said: Memory is the space in which a thing happens for a second time. So I live with it.
Looking ahead to the next, I've been sorting through my own Thanksgiving memories and asking friends about theirs. Processing these conversations, I discovered a common thread: the absence of many, if any, specific monumental memories. Most of the stories seem to be generic amalgams and generalizations that amount to little more than accounts of Thanksgiving's Greatest Hits -- food and football. Yawn. I think two things might be at play here: we're going through the motions too much instead of stamping the day and/or we're just getting too plastered to remember much about it.
This year I feel the need to have a game plan so I developed a few Thanksgiving mechanisms and strategies. Most of the following friendly suggestions stem from regrets and some lessons learned the hard way.
Punch the Clock
In 6 weeks when we're fat and slow, cursing that our skinny jeans no longer fit, perusing the health club's fitness class schedules, we'll quickly point fingers at the buffet tables that flanked the room of every holiday gathering we attended when we all know the siren that sang us to self-loathing shipwreck was not the food -- it was the booze. Not only does alcohol obviously crank up the calorie count, it blurs and slurs the whole experience. The older I get, the more that whole adolescent warning about alcohol killing brain cells matters. It may be too late for me in the grand scheme, but I've developed a novel ambition to hold onto what I have left in the tank.
None of this is to say I won't be hammered Thursday -- I just want to pace myself down that road, which is why I hit up my friend and cocktail mad scientist Jeff Faile back in DC for a punch recipe to kick off the day. It's goes without saying that an open bar straight away will leave you and some guests too drunk when the bird lands on the table.
We're calling this punch the Doppler Effect, because it seems to encapsulate the whole motion of approach, pass and recede that haunts me these days.
6 ounces Aperol
5 ounces Jim Beam bourbon whiskey
8 ounces prosecco
8 ounces soda water
2 1/2 ounces honey
2 1/2 ounces hot water
4 grapefruit wedges
3 sprigs rosemary
Directions: Pour Aperol into a glass, add one rosemary sprig, cover and set aside for 24 to 48 hours at room temperature. Fill a medium sized container or pan with water and freeze to make a large ice block. In a shaker, mix honey and hot water and shake well. Chill rosemary-infused Aperol, whiskey, prosecco, soda water and honey syrup for one hour then add to a punch bowl with the ice block. Squeeze grapefruit wedges into punch bowl and throw in the rinds. Add rosemary sprigs to garnish.
Pass on the Grass
Chances are, your hosts have been project planning and grinding for several days on the preparation, cooking and staging of this big day. By the time you and other guests arrive, they are running on not much more than fumes of adrenaline. They are all smiles but underneath it whimpering with exhaustion, pining for a second wind. If for nothing else than respect for them, lay off the weed at least until after dinner. You'll be doing yourself (and your date) a favor by not being the loser at the table scarfing everything down without savoring a single bite because munchies supplanted your true appetite and turned you into a slob. Your hosts didn't cripple themselves for this dinner party so some cat could go Cheech & Chong on the fruits of their labor. If you want to contract the munchies and gorge yourself, save it for any other day and Taco Bell.
That being said, fire and brimstone probably won't rain down if you sneak out for a one-hit in the window between the table clearing and the spread of pies being set. It's possible you'll need those munchies to excavate space in your gut for more food anyway. Just remember that if it's cold outside, the reefer stench will especially stick to your clothes, so beware who you chat up when you re-enter because they will smell it all over you.
Show and Tell
By now you should know not to show up empty handed to any party, not just Thanksgiving. If you don't, you can saddle up to the kid table. It's fine in some cases to grab a random bottle on your way to a dinner party, but for special occasions it's better to put some thought and heart into it. If it's wine you brought, at the table you might share some context about the bottle you chose. Say it's one of your favorites -- tell us when you discovered it and what you love about it. Or if it was recommended by the wine expert at your liquor store, share what you gathered from him/her. I know very little about wine -- that's my wife's department -- but I love learning from friends about wines they love. Those wines stand out to me when I'm roaming a liquor store and take me back to the dinner when I first tasted them.
The same goes for whatever dish you contribute to the feast. Presumably there is some history or family tradition behind the side you offered to bring. Sharing that with us can only elevate the dish because of your thoughtful and loving disclosure.
If you brought weed, the safe bet is to keep that to yourself. Not everyone is cool with the mule.
Up your 'Thankful For' Game
It's unbearably cute when it's my son's turn to share what he's thankful for and he says that he is most thankful for his family. When a grownup says the same and passes the gavel it's a little unbearable. You've been around how long now and that's the best you can come up with? Ok, it's fine if your family is on the list of what you're thankful for, but it can't be the only thing. Give this one some serious thought and feel free to break the mold with any sort of heartfelt tangent. Odds are you've been engaged in little more than idle chitchat at the party up to this point. Greater odds are you hardly speak to your grandmother during the year in any way that leaves an impression of who you really are. This is your chance to move people, to give them a look behind the curtain. There are only a few times a year when you will be at the table with family and friends who matter to you the way these do, and you're running out of years. Tattoo the occasion with something that will make your grandmother well with tears, your mother blush, your kids giggle and your wife love you even more. Go out on a limb with this moment. You have it in you.
Throw a curveball this year. If you're the guy who perennially disappears to the television right after dinner and with age have developed a shred of self awareness, volunteer for the dish corps. You'll raise a few eyebrows and score some credibility. Maybe you typically ignore the kids bouncing off the walls at these gatherings. Chat one up this time around. It will endear you to the parents and you'll catch a spark of that buzz that kids can radiate.
On the topic of dishes, my wife chimes in from the peanut gallery to say that the new black is guest helpers who can package and store leftovers. Apparently dish help was so 2014, and this year it's all about the mad Tetris skills in the kitchen.
I'm setting the over/under for my own achievement of these suggestions at 2. My ambitions only go so far these days. In the meantime, I wish everyone a safe and warm Thanksgiving.