by Ethan Watters, author of Urban Tribes
(posted here with permission)
Years ago, when we were young and new to the city, we called them “orphan Thanksgiving dinners.” We were beginning our careers, scraping by as artists or working as waiters and we often couldn’t afford the expense or time to make it back to family for the holiday. At the beginning of November those who knew they would be stranded in town spread the word and one by one friends of friends would make themselves known. When Thanksgiving Day rolled around the card tables placed end to end could not hold us all and many would be forced to couches and the edges of beds to balance paper plates on our knees.
The dinner was always potluck and there was always too much food. One year a table actually collapsed under the weight of the offerings. Many of us tried to recreate the tastes of our childhoods in our efficiency kitchens. We called home for family recipes, the more ironic the better. Someone would bring an elaborate Jell-O dish with Cool Whip and canned pineapple or a sweet potato casserole with mini-marshmallows. These dishes were partly spoofs on our middle class suburban upbringings but they were often eaten first because they reminded us of home.
After dinner a few friends would bring out their guitars or we’d read a play someone had been working on with each of us taking a part. We took rambling walks through the strangely calm city. There were more calls home to mothers for advice on how to remove wine or gravy stains from the couch. The celebration would stretch into the night. No one wanted to go back to his or her apartment alone.
It was years ago that we called those gatherings “orphan Thanksgiving dinners.” Something about them changed as my friends and I reached our late twenties and early thirties. The celebrations became more formal. The paper plates and coffee mugs were replaced with real, breakable dishes and matching wine glasses. Rituals formed over the years. Friends now wrote songs and rehearsed plays specifically to be performed at Thanksgiving. The after dinner walk had a specific route through the park.
Our tastes became sophisticated, as did our cooking skills and the once haphazard potlucks turned into multi-course feasts. There would be portabella mushrooms stuffed with Brie cheese and artichoke hearts and butternut squash risotto with shavings of black truffle. A few up-and-coming gourmands became serious about their sauces. The yearly pie contest became brutally competitive. (Although there were half a dozen blue ribbons from “Best Crust” to “Most Creative Use of Fruit.”) There was still too much to eat but one of us had bought a house with a dining room and a sturdy oak table that could seat us all and handle the weight of the food.
But those weren’t the changes that mattered. What mattered was this: We could now afford the time and travel expense to make it home to our kin but we chose not to. More precisely, the very idea of where home was had changed in our minds. What had begun as an affiliation of friends of friends – a stopgap measure to support us during our time living outside of family — had become the central social structure in our big city lives.
Looking back at my twenties, I can now picture us as explorers in a new social landscape where it was suddenly the norm for both men and women to spend ten or more years living single, far away from our families and hometowns. No one told us that we were going to delay marriage longer than any generation in American History and no one gave us a map for how to navigate that time. Faced with the social wilderness of the city we slowly forged communities among our friends. Years ago we gathered haphazardly because we could not make it home to family. This Thanksgiving, my friends and I will come together reverently with a desire to honor our group with this particular holiday. We give thanks for this self-made community and for the certainty that we are orphans no longer.
danah note: this essay made me smile. I will be spending my Thanksgiving with my SF crew cause i can’t afford to go back east. I wrote to my mom asking for her stuffing recipe, because we’re doing a potluck feast. This is my first Thanksgiving (and was my first birthday) not spent with the family. And i’m looking forward to the shared festivities and the blended rituals.