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I Wish Again To Be In Michigan For Thanksgivin'(an)

Earlier this month we put a call out for your funny Thanksgiving memories/stories from Thanksgivings past and original insights into the holiday from a down-home Midwestern perspective. We’ve collected some of your best (and some of ours) for this round of short essays/musings on the upcoming holiday.

Oh Yoko

The Thankgiving at the Blouins is always a Good Exercise in Cultural insensitivity

by Lou Blouin

For most families maybe, Thanksgiving is strictly a family affair, but as has become the semi-frequent custom at my house, outsiders are always welcome. Bringing people from beyond the Blouin clan — known to be an irreverent, good-hearted, but generally foul-mouthed bunch — doesn’t come without certain risks, however. Like the time my sister Lee brought her Native American boyfriend Nathan home for Thanksgiving dinner, only to have the serenity of the pre-meal social hour spoiled by a young group of cousins playing a rousing game of “cowboys and Indians” in next room — their hands fluttering against their mouths, sending caricatured high-pitched Indian whoops throughout the house. Lee was able to crush the game before Nathan really even noticed, but there was definitely no missing my uncle’s comment during dinner that he’d like to “scalp” a nephew who had held onto his pre-teen rat-tail look a little too long.

It was a similar case with my German friend Birgit who I brought home from college one year later, though this time it was the post-dinner hour that would prove to be culturally traumatic. Usually as the evening winds down, Mom likes everybody to play Scrabble or watch movies, so when she couldn’t wrangle enough people in for board games — she popped in a DVD. “I’m not really sure what this one is about,” she said, “but I heard it got a lot of awards.” Imagine my horror, then, when the opening scenes of the 1997 Holocaust film Life is Beautiful lit up the television. Luckily the movie doesn’t get too serious until the second half, and I was able to divert Birgit and a few others toward the now much more attractive Scrabble option before things got ugly. With the movie rolling in the next room, it wasn’t exactly the relaxing game that mom had hoped for. But Birgit seemed to roll with it. I suppose Germans get used to dealing with these kinds of things. And after more than a few Thanksgiving screw-ups, my family is getting used to them too.

Nothing, however, can beat the now-infamous Blouin millennial Thanksgiving. The source of the problem here was not so much offending an outsider as it was our family’s ongoing rebellion against my mother’s Mennonite roots. Mom has broken from the flock, but many of her relatives still remain within the fold, including many who regularly come to our Thanksgiving dinner. This being the case, it’s always important for the Blouin kids to dial back our filthy sense of humor in front of our more holy brethren. Usually we’re pretty good at it (though I have been known to uncontrollably let the F-bomb fly during intense games of Scattergories), but this particular year, we apparently missed a spot when scrubbing our home of unholy thoughts. Just before dinner, my mother guided a Mennonite aunt upstairs, apparently to show her some renovation that had been done since last year’s visit, and as they entered the bedroom at the top of the stairs, they were welcomed by the flash of a computer screensaver that my older sister had put up almost a year ago in honor of the new millennium — and which nobody had bothered to remove since. “2000 Cunts!” the screensaver flashed, the words wobbling merrily across the screen. Suddenly seeing it with fresh eyes, Mom quickly moved to divert my aunt’s attention. But there was really no missing it, and we later only quelled our embarrassment by convincing ourselves that she probably didn’t even know what the word “cunt” meant anyway. Not a bad bet I suppose: Two years ago, during a session of Scattergories, I remember this same aunt struggling to come through on the clue “Yoko Ono.” After the timer ran out, and the answer was revealed, she admitted she didn’t even know who Yoko Ono was — proof that everyone from the culturally deprived to the culturally depraved are always welcome at our table.

My Life as a Turkey Farmer, or, How Turkey Poop Nearly Killed me

by Sarah Cook

My friends Matt and Eleanor own a 120 acre farm in Missouri and raise chickens, bees, vegetables and — pay close attention her — turkeys. When I moved onto Matt and Eleanor’s farm this past September there were close to 500 turkeys living lazily on the land. Big, fat, stark white turkeys with giant dinosaur feet being primed for Thanksgiving feasts everywhere. After a few weeks of learning the basics in a region dominated by bad-ass, old-school farmers and Mennonites, I was left to oversee Matt and Eleanor’s livelihood for the weekend. Matt’s farm basically runs itself so I should have been able to sit back and watch re-runs of Oprah on mid-Missouri’s finest television stations. The turkeys could sense my weakness.

On Friday, my confidence was still high. A few turkeys escaped and wandered into the road? No problem. A turkey jumped in a water bin and drowned? Not great babysitting on my part, but manageable. A few hundred turkeys escaped and headed off through the fields for freedom? My stout legs gave chase and I herded them through hills and valleys back to safety.

Day Two started off a little rockier and I blame Google. It was in the mid 50’s and drizzling and I became increasingly concerned the turkeys were going to get damp and cold and promptly all keel over. I imagined Matt coming back to a field of turkey paperweights, so logically, I googled “How much drizzle can turkeys take?” Surprisingly, most farmers don’t use the word “drizzle” so I had to problem solve without assistance from the Internet. I decided to alternately move the turkeys from barn to field, creating hours of unnecessary work. By mid-afternoon I was exhausted and chanced a quick nap. Mistake. When I woke up roughly 490 turkeys were jogging through the hills, legs bouncing high. My patience and stout body were exhausted but a few short hours later, with all 500 turkeys back in the barn, I was dreaming about how good turkey tastes. At first I mistook the strange feelings in my belly for hunger pangs, but it didn’t take long for me to realize I was actually experiencing the onset of a stomach virus. I feel I must reveal my illness hypothesis at this point: I am 86 percent sure that I consumed feces. This may sound like crazy white girl talk, but during my afternoon of turkey herding, I had gotten gallons of poop on my person as it mixed with rain, making the transfer to my mouth, shockingly, conceivable.

As of Saturday night I firmly believed that yes, turkey poop had gotten in my mouth, and that I was experiencing the end of days. I laid in bed with the windows open, listening to the coyotes coming closer to the farm for a turkey buffet while my stomach heaved and I replayed in my head how to load a shotgun.

Amazingly, Sunday morning came, dreary as the last, and at this point I was experiencing full-blown madness. I just stood in the fields for hours, in the rain, in a sweatshirt, moving turkeys from barn to field, clutching my stomach. The siren song of the turkey farmer was growing weak. When they returned, Matt and Eleanor were understandably perplexed by my descent into turkey delirium. My quest to keep the turkeys safe was over, dignity firmly lost.

So this Thanksgiving as you sit down for dinner, remember me and my story. Or try to forget it. But at least give thanks for the real farmers who brave the surprisingly terrifying world of turkeys.

My Boyfriend’s Mother’s  Amazing Midwestern Thanksgiving

On Tradition, Abundance, and Midwestern Corn Casserole

by Emily Bingham

This Thanksgiving, just like every Thanksgiving since I first met my boyfriend Lou four years ago, I will pause to give thanks for one of the best things about him: his mother.

See, I didn’t really know what Thanksgiving could be until I met Ramona Blouin. Before then, I had always thought of Thanksgiving as Christmas’ boring little brother. When I was a kid, I understood Thanksgiving to be the day we got to watch Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day parade in our pajamas, followed by a few cousins, my aunt, and my grandma showing up to eat turkey at an hour that felt closer to lunchtime than dinner.

Food-wise, the meal was always just a stepped-up version of what my mostly healthy and generally small-of-frame family eats almost every night: a serving of protein, with a vegetable and a starch on the side. For non-holiday dinners, this usually means a grilled chicken breast, a small side salad or serving of canned green beans, and a baked potato or slice of bread with butter. (Since meeting Lou and finding out there are other ways to do supper, my family’s signature meal has been given the nickname “the Bingham dinner.”) For Thanksgiving, though, my sweet mother always kicked it up a notch: canned green beans were traded in for fresh, the bread was transformed into hand-whipped mashed potatoes, and the grilled chicken breast was replaced with the requisite turkey — with a side of wobbly canned cranberry jelly, of course.

But then I met Lou, and on one of our first getting-to-know-you dates, I asked him what his favorite holiday was. “Thanksgiving!” he replied, in a way that felt like the word “Duh!” should have followed. As if there could be any other answer.

I was flabbergasted. Thanksgiving? But Christmas has snow and tinsel and twinkling lights! And presents!

To which, of course, Lou had only one reply: “Yeah, but you haven’t had Thanksgiving at my mom’s.”

That year, in an unfortunate turn for them (but a golden opportunity for me), both of my parents came down with influenza mere days before Thanksgiving. Rather than have me come home and likely become ill as well, they urged me to enjoy the holiday with my new beau and his family. On the drive between Traverse City to Lou’s hometown of Clare, Lou grew increasingly excited, his eyes widening as he named, dish by dish, all the food that would be awaiting us. By the time we pulled into the driveway, he was practically clawing at the car window to get inside and start the feasting.

Let me tell you this: Everything was exactly as Lou described—no more, no less, and nothing short of incredible to this previously Thanksgiving-starved girl. Ramona, born and raised Mennonite, has been making the same true-blue Midwestern Thanksgiving spread for years. It’s not the amount of food that’s special; it’s the fact that everything must be the same from year to year. Every single specific dish is a tradition in itself, from the appetizers to the fact that there must always be two kinds of pie. Everything is so specific, so precise, and so simply necessary to the whole Blouin Thanksgiving experience, that once you have been to more than one Thanksgiving at Ramona’s, you can anticipate and visualize every dish that will emerge from that little blue kitchen.

The meal starts with a relish tray: black olives, baby pickles, and celery filled with cream cheese. Next come the pickled hard-boiled eggs and beets, which marinate in a jar in the fridge so that the eggs are dyed pink from the beet juice. These “appetizers” give way, then, to the main meal, which includes no less than the following: Homemade cranberry salad. Mashed potatoes whipped to impossible fluffiness with Ramona’s hand mixer. Rolls. Roasted turkey. Homemade gravy. Fresh green beans. Sweet potatoes with pecan and brown sugar topping. Ambrosia — that Mennonite marshmallow concoction with mandarin oranges and coconut. Two apple pies, two pumpkin pies, and homemade whipped cream and ice cream for after dinner. Christmas-colored M&Ms for after-after dinner. Wine if there are no practicing Mennonites present. And finally, the dish that has become my personal favorite: Corn pone, a magical Midwestern corn casserole (complete with an awesome name) whose recipe is simply Jiffy corn muffin mix, a can each of corn and creamed corn, cheddar cheese, three eggs, and sour cream, if you’re feeling fancy.

As you can imagine, for someone who’s always experienced Thanksgiving as a fairly simple affair, my first Ramona Blouin Thanksgiving felt like a bonanza. I ate until I could not eat another bite, played a rousing after-dinner game of Scattergories, and then, once enough time had passed for me to gain a little room in my belly, I returned to the fridge for leftovers.

I’ve had the great fortune of spending several Thanksgivings with Lou and his family over the years, and even brought my parents and brother along one year so they, too, could experience the magic. This year, due to my brother being home for the first time in a year, the Bingham clan is keeping it simple with just the four of us. I’ll miss Ramona’s cooking (and okay, okay — Lou, I’ll miss you, too), but I’m excited to introduce a few Blouin dishes to the Bingham table. There won’t be two kinds of pie, but I’m seeing to it that there will be a relish tray, and you can bet that I’ve already emailed my mom the list of ingredients necessary for corn pone. Because by now, that pone is a firmly established Thanksgiving tradition for me, and that’s what the holidays are all about.

Magic : Alpena, Mich., 1992

Thanksgiving is Extra Awesome When You’re One of the Kids

By Elissa Englund

The living room looks like a battlefield. A moaning cousin lays on every surface available: couches, recliners, carpeting, even the cool tiles of our hearth. We all breathe heavily in unison, as if expelling air will also ease the the pressure caused by one helping too many. I recline on the floor, watching the thick snowflakes dance outside the living room window. They taunt us to pull on our snow pants and join them, but even our love of snowball fights won’t make us move. If we did, we might die.

Thanksgiving is a magical holiday full of food and family and no responsibilities. I wake up to a fully cooked turkey in the oven, tables that sprouted in the basement overnight and the excitement of the New York parade on TV. I greet guests who suddenly appear at our door, bearing pots of mashed potatoes, plates of salads, trays of turkey and tins of pies. The house is always spotless on Thanksgiving — I’m pretty sure that’s also the holiday magic — even though I never saw anyone cleaning it. My mom smiles and laughs and drinks a lot of coffee.

I roll on my stomach and watch aunt after aunt carry trays of dirty dishes from our basement to the kitchen. My grandma mans her usual post at the sink despite her six daughters’ frequent clucks and demands that she sit down. She won’t rest until the work is finished, even if it means she’ll be sore for days. Occasionally, an aunt stops to survey the pile of lethargic kids, all rendered useless after that last bite of pumpkin pie (smothered with ice cream, whipped cream and candy corn, of course). She scans the room for signs of life, shakes her head and returns to the whirring kitchen.

Downstairs, my uncles grunt and thud as they fold and stack dozens of borrowed tables and chairs onto a dolly. The tables, usually used for business lunches and meetings, spend one day a year holding 65 heaping plates of food, 10 paper turkeys and 25 dishes of candy corn.

My mom emerges from the staircase and hands me my Amy Grant CD, which my cousin Erin and I had used for a pre-dinner dance performance that will haunt us for years. “Put this in your room,” Mom instructs, giving me the you should be helping look. I ignore her and roll over, groaning at the effort.

After an hour, my tryptophan haze gives way to a clean house, an empty dishwasher and a table-free basement, all without our having to lift a finger. My cousins and I — now clear-eyed and excited — hatch a plan to see Aladdin in the theater, and we roll our eyes when our parents say they need a nap first.

Adults are always tired.

Elissa Englund grew up in Northern Michigan and lives in New York City, where she works as a copy editor for Time magazine. She is a founder of the online literary magazine A Tale of Four Cities and has a blog called Too Many Commas. She’s co-hosting her first Thanksgiving today — without any magic.

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