My heirloom Thanksgiving will bring loved ones and family members to the table in spirit when we can't be together in person.

Penelope Wall
October 29, 2020
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Credit: Penelope Wall

Thanksgiving will be different for so many of us this year. While we usually travel by plane or car to visit family over the holidays, this year my husband and I (and our kids) are staying put at home. It will just be the four of us celebrating together. (I'm curious: what are your Thanksgiving plans this year? Take my poll below and let me know!).

But I've been thinking about this a lot: Is it really that much different from any other year, when we spend time remembering and honoring the people who can't be with us? If you live far away from family or have lost a loved one, you know what I mean.

My mother-in-law, Joan, loved the holidays. She would cover the whole house with decorations, wear festive sweaters and serve up nonstop appetizers for days: crab dip, deviled eggs, taco pie, crispy bacon & cheese roll-ups (made with Wonder Bread!).

A few years ago, Joan passed away between Thanksgiving and Christmas—her favorite time of year. I'll never forget that first holiday when we all gathered together, still in shock and sadness from loss, but determined to celebrate the way she would have. My husband and I traveled to Connecticut with the kids, so we could all be together with his dad, siblings and their families. We cooked up all of Joan's famous recipes and shared our favorite memories of her. Her spirit was with us that day, and I realized that something as simple as a recipe was a memory that could be saved and passed down, and keep us connected.

Celebrating the holidays without the people you love can be sad and painful, but the memories and traditions are also what makes this time of year so special. That's why I'm determined to be intentional about celebrating Thanksgiving this year with all the family heirlooms and passed down recipes to honor the people in our present and past that we love so dearly.

Here's what I'm planning to do for my heirloom Thanksgiving:

Set the Table with Family Heirlooms

I will be pulling out all of the family heirlooms that remind me of the ones who can't be with us, because we are hunkering down during the pandemic: my great grandmother's silver gravy boat, the beautiful linens from my aunt, the etched vintage stemware from my husband's parents, my grandmother's pewter candlestick holders, my mother's English stoneware bowl.

Start New Traditions to Pass Down

I also want to set the table with my own heirloom, one that my kids will use and cherish when they grow. But what even makes something a family heirloom? It doesn't have to be expensive, but it does need to be well-made so that it will last for generations. Collecting beautiful one-of-kind dishes to pass down isn't really a modern notion, especially when the pieces only come out a few times a year. I've been eying this Cast Iron Pumpkin Cocotte from Staub ($290, Williams Sonoma) for over a year, and convinced myself to be practical, and move on. But after reading Kat Kinsman's love letter to a cast-iron Dutch oven shaped like a pumpkin, I realized that I also needed this cocotte in my life. It's beautifully made in France and is practical too, going from oven or stove right to the trivet on the table: I can use it in the fall to cook my family's favorite sweet potato chili. And for Thanksgiving, I will bake up a delicious stuffing in the cocotte to serve alongside roast chicken. (Since it's just four of us, I won't be roasting a turkey this year.)

I hope my kids will remember Thanksgiving this year, not as the one where we couldn't be with family, but the year we had roast chicken and stuffing in a black pumpkin! And when I am ready, I will pass the cocotte down to them to use for their Thanksgiving dinners for years to come.

Prioritize Gratitude

It's been a terrible year, in all honestly. And while I'm normally a pretty positive person, it's been harder than usual to keep up my positive attitude. Which is why I want to try harder to practice gratitude, and share that with my kids. Since I can remember, every Thanksgiving, we go around the table and share something we're thankful for. It's such a simple tradition, but especially this year, when it's easy to see the worst in everything, feeling gratitude is a very powerful thing. I credit my parents for passing down that tradition.

Serve Family Recipes

After that first Christmas without Joan, I gathered all of her recipes from my sister-in-law and wrote them down on recipe cards to gift to my husband. While I'm usually the cook in the family, Joan's recipes are sacred and he is usually the one to make her crab dip each year. Little by little, I've been adding to the recipe box with more heirloom recipes: my grandmother's flan, my mother's shortbread, my own recipe for simple vinaigrette. This Thanksgiving, I will be pulling out that recipe box and serving up memories on our heirloom dishes. Joan's Famous Crab Dip will definitely be on the menu.

Joan's Crab Dip Recipe

Credit: Penelope Wall
Credit: Penelope Wall

Will you be pulling out your family heirlooms and recipes for Thanksgiving? If you share a photo on Instagram, make sure to tag me @penelope.wall. I'd love to see them!