Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year. I love the chill in the air, the smell of pumpkin (pie, latte, cookies) and enjoy spending extra time with people I care about. I love knowing my family table will include people I am related to, as well as those who have become family by choice. Occasionally, we have a guest who is new to most of us but quickly becomes a part of the crowd. The central component to this time of year is being together, enjoying good food and laughing.
It wasn’t until I lived far from home and hosted a family Thanksgiving that I realized the power of a meal together. I grew up in a home where dinnertime meant you were at the table and eating with family. I always had a table to turn to for holiday meals, so at first it was hard to imagine the reality that others might not have the same experience. Yet, when I mentioned my family was traveling from Utah to New Jersey for Thanksgiving, many of my friends expressed how lucky I was to have family be together rather than struggling alone. It quickly became apparent that my small condominium would need to fit a lot more people so we could all have the Thanksgiving we needed.
To that end, I informed my mother we would need to plan and cook for more than five. In fact, I told her we would most likely need to cook for 12 to 15. I reminded her that many other people were alone and would not have the luxury of going home to family. They were unsure of what to do for the four-day-holiday weekend. Being the amazing woman she is, my mom bought a bigger turkey and told me to invite everyone who did not have a place. I did, and they came.
Because I was a graduate student living with my sister, we had limited space, which meant the table became the place to set all the food. We ate sitting in chairs, on the floor and leaning against walls. We talked to and with each other, sharing stories and enjoying that sense of belonging we had all been missing. We forgot everyday pressures. We set aside our worries about homework, research projects and tests. Instead, we talked about our hopes and dreams, favorite memories and, of course, food while letting our guard down.
Some of us wanted to talk politics and did — it is a tradition in my family. Yet, we were able to agree to disagree on some points because we could see that while we usually wanted a similar outcome, there might be more than one way to get there.
We argued about the best movies or television shows, shared memories of Thanksgivings past and of plans for the future. In the process, we started to experience what the literature says about a shared meal. We felt a sense of belonging; we were allowed to express who we were, what we were thinking and feeling and what we hoped to become. We shared food, ideas, emotions; we sampled food we otherwise might not have been willing to eat. As starving students, we also enjoyed vegetables — real, fresh, well-cooked vegetables.
That dinner was a success on many levels. We all had full bellies. We were fed both body and soul. Adults reminded us that we mattered and would change the world. We better connected to each other and found out that food is a great place to find common ground.
More than 20 years later, I find myself wanting this experience more often. I crave the connection of a shared meal with the people I care about. I want to do so on a grand scale more frequently than three or four times a year. I find that when we eat together, we have conversations we would otherwise miss. We are able to share ourselves more fully with those around us. It is a gift.
I know that a community meal was recently hosted in Ogden to help provide support and connection to the larger community. My friend Kim Harbath helped kick off the annual meal. She recently passed away. Yet, her indelible fingerprints remain all over the people who help plan, execute and eat that community meal. As we inch toward another Thanksgiving, consider making a place at your table for someone else who will benefit as much as you from a shared meal. Maybe we can do it more often.