How Families Across the United States Celebrate Thanksgiving

Last Thanksgiving, we traveled to six homes across the country to learn how families gathered.  Their stories—along with their recipes like gyoza, braised greens and an oysters-and-Champagne brunch—prove that there are so many wonderful ways to celebrate this holiday.
As told to Betsy Andrews
October 29, 2020

What a year this is for Thanksgiving! As we figure out how to do it virtually or in smaller groups or socially distanced, we are struck with deep appreciation for what we normally take for granted: the beauty of gathering loved ones to cook and eat together, to laugh and argue and celebrate. Though we might not be elbow-to-elbow with them, the people we have in our lives are more important than ever.

Here at EatingWell—if we may pull back the curtain a bit—we think about Thanksgiving all year-round. Given the realities of magazine-making, we report on the get-togethers we feature a year in advance, so the stories, photos and inspiring recipes are ready for you in time for your next holiday.

In fally 2019, prepandemic, we were thinking a lot about how Thanksgiving is more than the food on the plate. It’s communion with the other humans we rely on. The turkey, the stuffing, the pies—we gobble them down. The feast is delicious yet fleeting. The family and friendships? Those last and last. Here are six Thanksgivings—all beautifully different, shot during the festivities last year and told in the celebrants’ own words—that prove the point. 

San Francisco, California

A Melting Pot - Terrence Gee

Terrence Gee (center, background) is a financial advisor in San Francisco.
| Credit: Marc Olivier LeBlanc

On Thanksgiving, we go all out. It’s a chance to show off what you have up your sleeve. With all our spouses and kids, we’re a blend of Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and white American. And our meal is a cultural mashup. My sister, Sabrina, for example, is into making gyoza. We all started the meal by helping her prep them. The filling, from our grandmother’s recipe, was a Chinese mixture of ground pork, water chestnuts, chives and such. But the dumplings were wrapped—not pinched like my grandmother’s—into the rosette shapes that Sabrina learned from a Japanese pal. And because her son is allergic to turkey, Sabrina braised osso buco and served it alongside a gremolata full of lemon zest, garlic, parsley.

I served winter melon soup, ladled out of the winter melon rind itself. A traditional Chinese banquet dish, it’s said to enhance your beauty and help with cooling and kidney function. But I also think it’s delicious—spongy cubes of melon braised in chicken stock and enriched with dried shiitakes and Virginia ham. Sabrina thought it needed more salt, but I was proud of it. And because I had gone crabbing that week, I steamed three hefty Dungeness crabs.

Gyoza (Chinese Dumplings)
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My brother Forrest cooked a ham and a berry-flavored, four-layer Jell-O. My other brother, Wayne, is the wild card. You never know what he’ll bring. He drove up from Los Angeles with, among other things, canned cranberry sauce and a couple of roast ducks he scored at a restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown. One bird went right into my soup. The other we nibbled while filling gyoza.

There were my mom’s deviled eggs, my stepmother’s yams, Wayne’s special bok choy and mushrooms. We teased each other throughout the meal: ‘Hey! Grandma never added olives to that ...’ ‘Wayne, you brought potato latkes to Thanksgiving?!’

This year will be pretty much the same, only we’ll spread out across my big, midcentury house. We won’t sit together, and we’ll take care around Mom. The constant, though, will be the enormity of the meal. There are always so many huge dishes, we’ll be eating leftovers for a week.”

Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

Oysters, Anyone? - Erin Shea

Erin Shea (not pictured) and her husband, Lee Chizmar (far left), have three Lehigh Valley-area restaurants.
| Credit: Lynn Johnson

My husband, Lee Chizmar, and I used to host Thanksgiving at our restaurant, Bolete, for his family and for staff who needed a place to go. Back then, we lived right upstairs. When we bought our house, we couldn’t fit everyone for a sit-down meal. So we dreamed up a pre-party instead. Champagne and oysters, 10 a.m. to noon? It sounded great. But who would have time to come?

Well, you’d be surprised how many people want to stuff themselves with bubbles and bivalves before they cook their turkey. Four years later, we pack our little ranch house to the rafters with staff, neighbors, friends, friends of friends. There’s no formal invitation. I just send one mass text, and the rule is: Once you’re invited, you’re always invited. And if you have someone you want to invite, they are welcome too. Elbow to elbow in front of the food, relationships get forged at this party. Kids are running everywhere. It’s blissful chaos.

This time we served 800 oysters—Rhode Island’s East Beach Blondes—and Lee made hot sauces and a shiitake mignonette. There was a table for homemade bagels and smoked salmon with all the accouterments. Another was piled with meats and cheeses and cold noodle salads from Mr. Lee’s, our Japanese-inspired eatery. The sparkling rosé flowed and drinks flew out of the Bloody Mary bar.

Oysters with Roasted Shiitake Mignonette
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Our Great Dane, Moose, roamed around. Our kids brought out their pet snakes for guests to hold, and our two young daughters put on a dance show with costume changes. We taught everyone how to shuck their own oysters. It was wonderful in that ‘we will never have all these people in the same place again’ way. Except we do, year after year. This holiday, though we need to have enough space for everyone’s safety— maybe moving the party to the big park down the road—we’re still hoping to make it happen.

And after it’s over, we always have a quiet dinner at my in-laws’ house across the street. Ask me the morning of the party, and I might not say the same thing, but at the end of the day when I rest my head, the party has always been perfect.”

Atlanta, Georgia

Healthy Traditions - Karen Washington

Karen Washington (not pictured) is co-owner of Rise & Root Farm in Chester, New York.
| Credit: Nick Burchell

Thanksgiving brings memories of my mom in the kitchen, putting the turkey in the oven, cleaning collard greens, sitting at the table popping string beans. When she passed, I wanted to continue that with my daughter. So, this Thanksgiving, Kendra and I were in her Atlanta kitchen rattling those pots and pans and haggling over how much vinegar to put in the greens or whether they should be crisp or long-cooked and silky. Her kids were at the table with the string beans. It’s an African American ritual, popping string beans together, laughing about old times, just catching up—that’s what’s good about the holiday. 

We took all that food to my cousin’s house, where 15 or so of us gathered. Turkey, macaroni and cheese, red rice, stuffing, sweet potato soufflé, my cousin Kevin the Baker’s seven desserts—everybody brings something to the table. If my mom had been there, she would have said all the recipes were hers, although nowadays we’re more health-conscious. Diabetes and heart disease are killing African Americans, and as an organic farmer and food-justice activist, it’s my work to help my community eat more nutritiously. So instead of ham hock or fatback or bacon grease, we flavored foods with smoked turkey. The drink of choice was water. And, as always, we thought about portion control.

Braised Greens with Smoked Turkey
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But though we eat a little differently than the elders did, we don’t forget them. We sat at my cousin’s table and talked about loved ones we miss. We talked about how, back in the day, so many people would fit in my great grandmother's two-room house. We shared the history so that the younger ones can understand how important family is.

This year, we have been practicing staying together with our weekly Zoom sessions. So it might have to be virtual, but we are determined we will have family Thanksgiving! And, even if it’s over the internet, we will say grace. Before the meal—before each and every meal, in fact—we thank the ancestors and give them respect. It epitomizes how thankful we are to support each other.”

New York City, New York

Turkey and Tunes - Nefertiti Jones

Nefertiti Jones (center, singing) is a musician and founder of Haven Kids Rock, a music program serving at-risk children in New York City.
| Credit: Michael Berman

I am a musician, as is my husband, Jimi K Bones. We live this very creative life in Manhattan’s East Village. Our Thanksgiving celebrates that. I’m a native New Yorker. In the mid-1990s when I moved away for a bit, I was too broke to come home for Thanksgiving, so my roommate and I would cook for whoever was hanging out. I loved that tradition so much that I brought it back with me.

Everyone knows our holiday is an open-door potluck, but you never know who will show up, or at what time. We ended up with 19 people jammed into our two-bedroom apartment, a mishmash of artists from all walks. We partied till midnight. Mikey P was there. He looks like a pirate, and as a merchant marine, he’s had run-ins with real pirates. ‘Tales of the Sea with Mikey P’—that’s what we call his stories. Sara came. She’s covered in tattoos. For years, she didn’t know what she wanted to do, then she started painting and now she sells her art for thousands of dollars. Alanna cooked amazing enchiladas and showed off this elaborate safety-pin jewelry she makes. Big John brought a turducken that was so big, we had to cook it at the neighbor’s apartment. We stuffed ourselves silly. 

By dessert, everyone was squeezed onto couches or sitting on the floor in our second bedroom, aka ‘the music room,’ with plates of pie balanced on their knees. Then out came the instruments. We have 23 guitars, 10 amps, 4 keyboards, even some violins—there’s something for anyone who’s musical. Byron Bangs belted songs in his wild tenor voice. Joan, from an all-girl Led Zeppelin cover band, jammed on the keys. Jimi played all the strings: guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo. ‘Wonderwall,’ ‘Ziggy Stardust’—people joined in, singing on-key, off-key, drumming on the coffee table.

In 2020, with the virus, who knows what’ll happen. Mikey P is stuck out at sea. Our work has been tough, with gigs and tours canceled. It makes me value last year’s party all the more, when I sang my newest song, ‘Broken Smile,’ to everyone. It includes the line, ‘The music is just right.’ And, on Thanksgiving, it was.”

Providence, Rhode Island

Game On - P.J. Jones

P.J. Jones (center) is the owner of Brooklyn-baseed Jay Gardens.
| Credit: John Stanmeyer

Dave and I are super family-oriented. We got married in 2017, but we’ve been together for 18 years. With a lesbian couple who are friends of ours, we created an intentional, extended family and raised two boys, sharing the parenting. Henry is 15 and Jude is 17. The year before, we had them for the holiday, so they joined us in Providence at my brother’s house, where their starstruck younger cousins, who are 6 and 8, followed them around like puppy dogs, shoving books at them to read aloud or toy cars to play with. The meal was traditional New England: succotash and sweet potatoes for sides. But when my sister-in-law learned that Dave’s vegan sister was joining us, she went vegan crazy. She used vegan ‘butter’; she picked up dishes at an Indian restaurant. I was jealous of her hostess skills.

I’m a landscape architect, so I created the tablescapes: flowers on the credenza; a runner of tiny cabbages on stalks, dried grasses and cattails in bud vases; pears, dates and candles.

Then I got to exercise my competitive streak because our family loves post-dinner games. We played a cutthroat game of Sequence, or ‘Sequins,’ as I call it. Think Rummy 500 meets Connect Four, but with lots of lip and sass. The kids creamed the adults at the memory game Spot It. And we cracked each other up playing What Do You Meme? Everyone captions an image—a cat on a cellphone, a cat grabbing its head—and a judge picks the best one. The grandparents weren’t there, so our filters were off and we could have more fun with our language and Lady Gaga references.

Though we’re not sure how Thanksgiving will play out this year, for sure there will be games. Win or lose, the goal is shared fun. We’re full, we’re satisfied, we’re lingering at the table. We put our phones away, pull the boards out and bond.”

Crothersville, Indiana

A Moveable Feast - Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee (center) and her husband, Nate (right), own Nightfall Farm in southern Indiana.
| Credit: Zach Dobson

My husband, Nate, and I are young farmers. We raise turkeys on the pasture of our Indiana farm, where they plump up on bugs and grasses. We open up pre-sales for birds in the fall, and by November we’re all sold out. Then the animals are brought to the butcher, and just before Thanksgiving we hold a big ‘Turkey Distro Day,’ where we meet up with customers to hand them a tote containing a Thanksgiving turkey at the approximate weight of their choice.

It sounds transactional, but it’s a joyful experience. We load up the farm truck at 4 a.m., turkeys stowed on ice in the pickup. Columbus Farmer’s Market, Seymour’s natural-foods store, the Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison—101 people retrieved their birds at drop-off points in the country towns that surround us. Some were our regular CSA members; others don’t buy from us any other time of year. It was chilly out, and people were shivering in line, but everyone was chatting with each other. Some brought coolers filled with seasoned water to dunk their turkeys straight in; others were asking those folks for brining tips. I heard them swapping methods for roasting the bird, and an experienced cook encouraged novices to make stock with the carcass. As always, the conversations turned more political, as people in line realize they’re surrounded by kindred spirits who care about local food systems.

Those conversations will be more important than ever this year in the context of COVID-19. Before we head home to host our own BYO, socially distanced Thanksgiving in our massive, 200-year-old barn, we’ll figure out how to safely deliver customers’ birds, and we’ll provide tips for freezing and using the leftovers from what are bound to be smaller gatherings. People might be wearing masks, but they will commune with each other at the pickup points.

Our clientele runs the socioeconomic gamut. Some are doctors and lawyers, and others are factory workers, soldiers or teachers. They span the political spectrum. But everyone cares about good food; they want their local farms to thrive. Because if we do, our rural communities can too. There’s plenty that divides us nowadays, but for Thanksgiving, our farm’s food brings us together.”