Back when I was a college student, Thanksgiving meant getting myself home to Northern New Jersey from metropolitan Boston.

Before my parents entrusted me with the fire engine red '77 Chevy Impala station wagon my junior year, this involved inviting another student who hailed from the West Coast and who had a car on campus to spend the holiday with my family. Once I was in possession of the station wagon, it was an occasion for me to provide a ride home to another denizen of Northern New Jersey who was car-less at school. But once I was home, it was the typical holiday meal with parents and siblings, the Friday spent at a high school football game (not to actually watch our team lose, but to say hi to other classmates home from college), the hope that the pull of It's a Wonderful Life or King Kong or whatever other classic movie the local stations were showing on TV would be stronger than the siren song of the malls. Then laundry, packing up, and driving back to school to finish the semester.

When I moved out to California for grad school nearly two decades ago, going back to New Jersey for the Thanksgiving holiday was pretty much off the table. Luckily, a bunch of my friends from college migrated to the Bay Area at about the same time I did, so we began a Thanksgiving potluck that has become our traditional holiday feast.

The location has varied (often depending on whose place -- and table -- was big enough to accommodate the number of people expected that year). Traditionally, the host (whose oven it is) takes on the turkey-cooking duties; one year, the bird was smoked outside in a Weber grill. Everyone else brings a dish (or several) that he or she feels like making -- perhaps including a new recipe or two, but also including a dish or two without which, for the bearer, it just would not feel like Thanksgiving.

Since the core group for the T-day potluck has been doing this for so long, we are to the point of telling each other, "You're going to bring [that dish you always bring], right? Don't drop that one out of the rotation!" In other words, the dishes our friends have been bringing since the '90s are now as much a part of what feels like Thanksgiving to us as are the dishes our families served us.

Which makes sense, because we have become almost an extended-family-of-choice, rather than one of blood. As our lives have unfolded, sometimes in ways we expected to and sometimes in ways we did not anticipate, we keep coming back to a shared table at least once a year to touch base, take stock of the last 12 months, and to take comfort in the continuity our friends provide in our lives.

OK, that got more serious than I thought it would. I was only trying to give you some context for the thing I wanted to discuss: the food.

Back when our T-day potluck got started, my life was very different than it is now. I was a childless graduate student, so while I didn't have loads of disposable income (to put it mildly), I was constantly on the lookout for things to do besides being in the lab.

Cooking was an excellent way to procrastinate. (This was before the internet became such a handy time-sink.) So I would make way too many dishes to bring to the festivities.

As time went on, my life got busier, and I got more easily fatigued. But it's hard, somehow, for me to scale back the number of dishes I bring too much. What I have done is gravitated towards dishes that pack a lot of oomph for the effort involved in making them, and then figured out how to optimize the five days leading up to Thanksgiving in order to deal with the labor in manageable chunks. If I don't fall off my schedule, there won't actually be much that needs doing Thursday morning. (Since the crowd has always been somewhat dispersed across the Bay Area, we've also gravitated towards dishes the travel well, especially dishes that can be made ahead and reheated.)

Here's what we're bringing this year:

  • Grilled tofu (already in the marinate; to be grilled Wednesday)
  • Delicata squash with rosemary and cider (done)
  • Grilled sweet potato with Korean BBQ sauce (to be grilled Wednesday)
  • Gingered beets
  • Pearl onions in mustard cream sauce
  • Citrus slaw (will probably pick the cabbage and carrots for this from the garden tomorrow)
  • Bread stuffing (dried bread cubes made already)
  • Cranberry relish
  • Pickled pears (although I want to open a jar to make sure they taste the way I expect them to -- I put them up months ago, and my memory might not be reliable)
  • Persimmon semifreddo (done; in the freezer)
  • Torta della Zucca
  • Pumpkin pie

The one unanticipated wrinkle: they're predicting rain starting tomorrow. That could make grilling the tofu and the sweet potato an adventure.

In any case, this year I plan on not catching the traditional post-Thanksgiving head-cold.

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This whole process sounds quite familiar. Our tradition includes three core families and assorted "orphans" who either have no local family or are estranged from their biological families.

I alternate years on bringing creamed or braised onions. I almost always bring some form of Brussels sprouts, and some form of "stuffing" that doesn't go in the bird. Plus a couple appetizer items, which this year will include my homemade (entirely from my own organic garden) multi-vegetable, chunky picante salsa, which includes cauliflower and summer squashes as well as the traditional ingredients.

I'd be delighted to see your recipes for the onions in mustard cream sauce, the gingered beets, and the pickled pears. (I have my own pear tree, and am always in search of good ways to put up pears. I'll trade my great-grandmother's recipe for pear butter -- the best thing that ever met a piece of toast -- if you're interested.)

Afterthought on outdoor grilling in inclement weather. Maybe a bit late for this year, but...

I do a lot of outdoor cooking (gas grill, barrel smoker, and extra-large sized propane cookers for huge pots, canning, etc.) and have come up with a useful work around for rainy weather. I do it on the front of my garage, but any location in your yard with enough level space should work.

Get a decent sized (at least 8' x 12') heavy duty tarp, some big screw hooks, and appropriate poles, ropes, and tent pegs. (You probably want to allow room for the grill, a work table, and a couple of chairs under the tarp.) Lay out the tarp along one side of the house/garage that will become your sheltered cooking area. Install the screw hooks permanently in the building in line with the grommets in the tarp and at sufficient height that having the grill or other heat source under the outer edge of the tarp is unlikely to lead to combustion. Use poles and ropes to secure the outside edge of the tarp. Once this is set up the first time, it can be set up and taken down rather quickly, but is always available when needed.

I've been adopted by a Canadian family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and after a few years I've turned into the person who brings pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, and Dutch spicy cookies at Christmas. I'm a terrible cook, but I can bake!

Do you mind posting the recipes (if it isn't too much trouble)? They look delicious.

Can you post (or email) the delicata squash w/ rosemary and cider recipe...that sounds awesome!

I am a new convert to the wonders of squash...still experimenting to find the best recipes.


PS - Great post.

You don't HAVE to make all that (except, of course, the tofu!). Any chance the torta della zucca is from the latest alumnae magazine? That looks intriguing with the apple and cocoa. Another motivation of the potluck format is that you are ensured of having something that you WANT to eat.

We have 6 or 7 fleischfolk and 4 or 5 vegetarians this year. I always hope to drop the turkey from the menu, but we keep adding people who are horrified at such a break with tradition. At least that gives me something to stuff. I'm sure we will continue to have nearly as many stuffings as we have familial groups. That seems to be the item that most defines Thanksgiving for many. I'm sorry to report ME is not planning to bring his corn pudding, but planning some other savory corn bread pudding dish which I'm happy to count toward the stuffing total.

It's been a year of loss balanced by gain. Time to give thanks for the additions to our lives and to think of the ones departed. Bring on the starch and lipid induced coma!