The lights are dimmed and candles throw flashes of light across the table, carefully set with my in-laws’ vintage floral china. One room over the woodstove blazes to keep the old farmhouse warm against the Vermont cold. I’ve folded and set eight hand-drawn placecards, one in front of each plate, an individual note of gratitude inside. My husband’s mother passed away a few years ago and I want to get this right. I want the food to be good and I want to bring everyone together in a meaningful way.
We say our secular blessing, two toddlers goofing up the unison in a pleasing way: Bless the food before us, the dogs beneath us. And there are five beneath us, with two cats marauding around the dining room for good measure. One of them has no teeth and opens his mouth in the way you’ve seen tigers do, the Flehmen response, a sort of mouth-breathing that allows cats to taste the air. The beagle-mix passes gas and the corgi steals the 3-year-old’s napkin.
This is not Donna Reed’s dining room table. For one, it’s an Irish Laying Out Table passed down to us through my husband’s mother’s family. In other words: Where our stuffing sits, a dead body used to lie for viewing, a perfumed corpse surrounded by flowers, orifices plugged, arms straightened. But that’s not the only unusual thing about our Thanksgiving table. On Turkey Day, there is no turkey.
And I feel guilty about it. I sense my husband and father-in-law scanning the table, wondering which dish I’ve smuggled gray, lifeless faux meat into. Sure, they accept the onslaught of lentils and tempeh on weekdays, but Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving. There are expectations. Traditions to honor.
Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book “Eating Animals,” talks about our arbitrary distinctions between pet and food, but also the concept of narrative and family food, of food as tradition. He recalls his thrifty, Holocaust-surviving grandmother’s singular dish of chicken and carrots, the way he and his brothers thought she was the “Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived.” “Her food was delicious because we believed it was delicious,” he writes. “We believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God.” What did it mean to opt out of eating that dish?