The Soul of Thanksgiving: A Simple Celebration

The Soul of Thanksgiving: A Simple Celebration

I’ll skip the turkey, thanks.

There is much that I loved about living in Europe (which I’ve done a couple of times and in three different countries), probably too many things to list. On the flip side, there were a few things that I missed about America, but the list was pretty short. On that surprisingly brief list, however, was Thanksgiving. Well, except for the food, but let me explain.

I recall our first year in England, when my family phoned towards the end of November to wish us happy Thanksgiving (they were gathering together later in the day and we would be absent). It wasn’t until the phone call that my partner and I realized that we had completely forgotten about the holiday, which is a non-event outside of North America (same too for Fourth of July). I can’t recall what we were eating—probably risotto or a Thai curry (both are weekly events at our house come autumn)—but whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t any sort of grand feast event. And it was surely free of turkey.

In my childhood, Thanksgiving was a much bigger celebration than Christmas; my mother’s extended family would always gather at the large dairy ranch of our cousins in central California. While the kids played and built forts in the hay loft of the giant barn, the women gathered in the kitchen to prepare the feast, and most of the men (and dogs) went out to the fields for pheasant hunting. Even though I was a city kid, I learned to pluck a bird at an early age; as I got older, I wanted to be cooking in the kitchen far more than I wanted to be shooting birds.

Thanksgiving has always seemed to me the very best sort of holiday: focused on family and gratitude rather than gifts to exchange. That said, I find it a bit absurd (and sad) that most of us only choose to celebrate one day of the year as a thanksgiving. Despite the seeming troubles of life, nearly everyone has countless blessings to be thankful for. Really, every day of life ought to be one of thanks. And let’s add compassion and kindness to that, too.

This will be our second Turkey Day back in Hawaii after several years abroad. Last year, we had no friends or family here to share the day with; I was working on a different island and transiting home to Maui, so it really seemed a non-event. Having not properly celebrated Thanksgiving for several years, however, it didn’t really bother us. I recall that after arriving home exhausted, I tossed together a simple pasta supper, we watched a movie, and then fell into bed. Although our community here is still quite small, this year we have two offers from friends to join a bountiful table, and I’m looking forward to a day of sharing stories, laughter, collective gratitude, and good food.

I hope it’s good food.

no_turkeyI have to admit that I’m not fond of turkey; goose, duck, and pheasant are all SO much tastier. Yes, yes, I know all about brining and, while it does make for much tastier and more tender meat, it still doesn’t win me over to turkey. A naturally reared, heritage breed is another step in the right direction but I’ll take a nicely roasted chicken any day, thank you. At the risk of sounding like a foodie Scrooge, I’m not keen on most of the standard Thanksgiving fare. The bulk of it seems to be lodged firmly in family traditions and nostalgia, but not necessarily good taste. Or at least, not my taste. Green bean casseroles do nothing for me. I’m not fond of mashed potatoes and gravy, and stuffing I’ll gladly skip, too. Brussels sprouts are probably the one vegetable that I truly cannot stand (not to mention that they make you fart). Jellied cranberry relish I’ll happily pass, the same with most of the overly sweet pies with their soft, anemic crusts.

I probably sound like a food snob.

Culinary or otherwise, traditions are comforting for some; boring, tedious, or stifling for others. As a chef, I always bring something non-traditional to share. A mushroom, leek, and goat cheese galette, for example. A Turkish bulghur salad with herbs, pomegranate and pine nuts. About the closest I come to tradition would be my pumpkin, molasses and ginger tart (blows the socks off standard pumpkin pie).

My favorite Thanksgiving was a very non-traditional one. I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and circumstances found both me and my dear friend, Erika, alone for the holiday. Though we each had other offers, we chose to spend the holiday together at her little casita at the north end of Taos Valley. Rather than create a heavy, overblown feast, we decided to celebrate tapas-style: little plates of different flavors, like a string of appetizers.

We had each gathered a wealth of beautiful, local, organic ingredients, and together we built our tantalizing bites, swapping ideas and inspiration. It’s always a delight for me to create a meal with another skilled cook, and Erika brings both a skilled hand and worldly palate to the kitchen. Tucked warmly inside the thick adobe walls of the casita on a cold, grey day, our holiday evolved into a savory parade of little dishes which we ate at the candlelit table, interspersed with telling stories, reading poetry aloud, and Erika’s latest musical compositions. An unexpected snow found us bundling up in coats, hats, gloves, and scarves to walk the dogs down to the river, drinking in the cold air sharply fragrant with juniper and piñon pine as our boots scrunched loudly in the newly fallen blanket of white. We built a fire in the kiva fireplace with its wide hearth, sharing music and more stories, and then returned to the kitchen for another round of co-creation.

A little bit here, a little bit more later on. Perfect.

I recall that there was an assortment of world-class cheeses, nuts, dried fruits, delicious crackers. Cups of fine tea. Erika’s inspired salade du jour from the Taos farmer’s market and a friend’s garden. A vegetarian version of posole (a traditional New Mexican holiday dish) with black beans and smoked, roasted corn (‘chicos’) from the nearby artist community of Dixon. A stunning Oregon Pinot Noir. A classic, caramelized apple Tarte Tatin with a shatteringly crisp crust for dessert.

Rather than sitting down to a heaping plateful of food and feeling stuffed, bloated and sleepy afterwards, the day evolved with just the perfect amount of this and that spread across lazily luxurious hours. The hours enfolded us like a silken shawl woven of food, stories, music, poems, prayers and gratitude. Our holiday felt duly celebratory and a true feast, just us and the dogs (and the wily coyotes who came by for a visit, yip yip yipping in the sagebrush). And though Erika and I were both navigating a financially lean passage in our lives, we were fully steeped in gratitude for a sheer abundance of uncountable blessings. Friendship, especially. It was a day of two conscious souls sharing in beauty and celebration. A Soul Artist Thanksgiving.

It’s so easy to be swept up in the details, drama and distractions of everyday life. It takes time, effort, discipline and dedication to live a conscious life; we have to make room for the sacred. Ultimately, of course, the daily and sacred are inseparable… but it requires a deliberate choice to acknowledge the latter. Mystery is the sister of Grace.

I believe that the soul of humanity rests in celebration: of beauty, wonder, and awe. It’s one of the primary things that gives meaning to our lives. When we celebrate collectively in a heart-centered way, we generate an energy field and vibration that heals our hearts and the ‘more-than-human’ world. We create harmony which, in turn, uplifts and nourishes the soul. Indeed, the soul IS harmony.

Whatever the dishes that line the table, whether traditional or innovative, I hope that on Thanksgiving we can all gather in the true spirit of this holiday: giving thanks for the unfathomable blessings of being alive and interconnected with Mother Earth. And may we also celebrate that each one of us is a beautiful unfolding of the deep imagination of the Cosmos with an essential gift to offer to the ‘more-than-human’ world.