We Midwesterners were born for Thanksgiving. It’s the only holiday, after all, where it’s considered acceptable that the number of casseroles equal or exceed the number of guests. Yet for so many of us who have built our adult lives away from home, a classic Michigan Thanksgiving is something we rarely get to indulge in. The holiday’s one-day-and-done nature and proximity to Christmas means that many ex-pats simply skip it, year after year, in lieu of a longer holiday break just a month later. But beware: For guest writer Lee Olsen—who will this year experience her mother’s Thanksgiving spread for the first time in 11 years—going too long without a homespun Thanksgiving feast bore monstrous consequences.
For me, Thanksgiving, with a feast at its center, surpasses all other holidays in significance. Just anticipating the consumption of vast quantities of delicious food ignites in me a spiritual and physical transformation: my soul alights, my tastebuds tremble, and my belly expands. Of course, this state of trembling, expanding upliftedness is not restricted to Thanksgiving, because I am passionately fond of many foods available in vast quantities.
But the promise of the savory surfeit of the Thanksgiving feast, particularly when it is prepared by my mother, Ramona, can reduce me to a salivating, gleeful mess weeks before Thanksgiving Day arrives. The perfection of turkey; homemade stuffing; potatoes, both sweet and mashed; corn either buttered or baked in a cheese-infused casserole; cranberry salad; pies, both pumpkin and apple; and a variety of appetizers and other delicacies prepared Ramona-style has no rival. So extraordinary are these dishes that I attribute my passion for unharnessed consumption not to some innate tendency to gluttony, but to Ramona’s Thanksgiving feast itself.
So in 2001, when I moved 2,000 miles away from Michigan to Tucson, Arizona, and consequently eliminated the possibility of traveling either leisurely or economically on a holiday weekend, unquenchable longing replaced giddy anticipation during the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Each year, my agony intensified on Thanksgiving Day, when I would call home and endure being passed around by phone between parents, siblings, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who in a few short hours would partake of the meal that haunted my dreams. Wounded by envy, I sought the salve of alternative Thanksgivings: an annual potluck in Tucson, where, I must confess, the ham that supplanted the turkey as the main course and the wine that flowed from both box and bottle did much to restore me; dinners in Nebraska with my in-laws, where green beans swim in cheese and my mother-in-law maintains a pie-to-guest ratio of 1:1; and following the Tucson years, feasts for just my husband Colin and me in our home in Salt Lake City, where portions were smaller, but the number of dishes remained unaltered.
These comforts, however, ultimately offered incomplete satisfaction. Ham, wine, and whole pies filled my belly but left a turkey-sized hole gaping in my soul. Moreover, the emptiness I suffered during Thanksgiving seasons away from Michigan quietly but steadily transformed me. My weak attempts at fulfilling my alimentary desire for eight long years only made that desire grow, until one day in 2009, that desire resurfaced, deformed and insatiable, to drive me to perform monstrous deeds. I refer to this period now as The Seven Months of Gobbling.
For those seven months, I yearned with Thanksgiving-sized desire and consumed with Thanksgiving-sized voraciousness. I did not have to bake pies and roast turkeys to satisfy my hunger, however, because my longings targeted everything. At each meal, I consumed an extraordinary amount of food with the greatest of ease—so much so, that some episodes of this period are deeply embarrassing to recount. For example, around 9 a.m. one summer morning, struck by unbearable hunger for a large chicken sandwich, I called Subway to verify that they were open. Learning that they were, I raced to my Chevy Cavalier and drove seven blocks to the Subway restaurant nearest my house. I am ashamed now to think I did not walk such a short distance, but at the time, my hunger was so intense that I feared I might eat the first passerby I met on the street.
This meal, though it occurred at 9 a.m., was only one of my lunches that day—I had already eaten breakfast, and would be hungry again by noon. It signaled the origin of another abominable gastronomic practice: devouring two lunches, usually between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., and a massive snack, usually by 2 p.m. The latter, moreover, contained so many calories that some might classify it as a very early dinner. Dinner it was not, however, because unlike the balanced, nutritious lunches that preceded it, the snack consisted entirely of chips.
So went The Seven Months of Gobbling. And as the period stretched forth like a Thanksgiving feast in slow motion, I stretched with it. Here’s where I should disclose, perhaps, that there was an obvious alternative theory for my gluttony: I was, at the time, three months pregnant. But mine were not the bizarre desires of pregnant women: no sundaes topped with nacho cheese or pickles and ice cream tempted me. In contrast, my desire was profoundly familiar—unmistakable, even: it belonged to the fantasies that featured my mother’s turkey, corn casserole and pumpkin pie. No, pregnancy could not explain my longings because when I had experienced these fantasies in the past, it was my mind—not my womb—that teemed with Thanksgiving desire. And there was only one explanation: I had been deprived of my only annual natural outlet for gluttony for far too long, and it was demanding to be fed.
At some point I even became convinced that my desire had taken on a life of its own. I imagined it as a monster gestating in my belly, conceived of my Thanksgiving longings. I had become, I feared, the mother of Appetite itself. In a way, it was fortuitous that I was pregnant during those seven months: my natural pregnancy disguised the monster hiding in my belly. But nature also dictated that I could not hide Appetite forever. As my due date approached, and the gobbling crescendoed, I feared the monster would emerge—a twisted twin—alongside my natural offspring. I shuddered to think of delivering what I suspected would be a 150-pound turkey. Or worse: What if no turkey emerged? What if Appetite instead continued to dwell within me even after I delivered my daughter, and made me eat the entire obstetrical staff in my hospital room?
Plagued by these fears, I never imagined that the monster would abandon me quietly, without horrific incident. Yet the instant I delivered my daughter, only two days before Thanksgiving 2009, it did. It was a time of year when I should have been thinking about nothing but feasting, regardless of my reproductive state. But there in the delivery room, I could no longer conjure images of eating a turkey, let alone birthing one.
Instead, the only child I delivered that day was the loveliest creature I had ever seen. In an instant, I loved her. And in that same instant, I saw something remarkable in her round, pink face: the true, complicated nature of my Thanksgiving Appetite, which hungered not only for food, but for family. She made me feel family connections in a way I had never felt them, and in doing so, showed me that my Appetite was more than just gluttony: It also encompassed the desire to feel deeply connected to my family, on Thanksgiving and all the other, less extraordinary days of the year.
I was reminded that this connection already existed when my husband and I brought our daughter home on Thanksgiving Day. Our house was devoid of the smells and sounds of feasting, but with myriad new parental anxieties to entertain, we didn’t even miss them. Personally, I wondered whether my daughter and I would ever succeed at nursing, and if I would ever walk again without feeling like my ass was going to fall off. Together, Colin and I wondered how we were going to take care of a baby alone, without the assistance of numerous nurses.
We felt anything but alone, however, when our neighbors appeared on our front porch, bearing plates from their own Thanksgiving Feast. Their offering made me realize that Colin and I could care for our miraculous, irresistible, and uncommonly adorable daughter, because others would help sustain us while we sustained her. That day, our wonderful, generous neighbors filled this role. On other Thanksgivings, our families would.
This year, after finally moving back to Michigan, I have the luxury of rekindling my former Thanksgiving longings for my mother Ramona’s feast. For the first time in 11 years, I will be seated at the table with parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, digging into corn casserole, mashed potatoes, and that glorious turkey. But so far, I have given the dinner little thought. Of course, on November 22, I will eat first, second, and third helpings with unabated relish. But my anticipation centers on introducing my child to her extended family. And as I watch her eat, listen to her chat, and laugh discreetly at her when she cowers from certain relatives (probably the ones with beards), I will gratefully remember that nearly three years ago, she emerged—unaccompanied by a giant turkey—as the most superior reason Thanksgiving is unsurpassable in significance.