Op-Ed: A pandemic pause on my 17-year Thanksgiving tradition

Noelle Carter
·5 min read
People gather at Noelle Carter's Southern California home for her annual 'Long Table' Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 23, 2017.
People gather at Noelle Carter's Southern California home for her annual "Long Table" Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 23, 2017. The 17-year-old tradition won't happen this year due to the dangers of COVID-19. (Marta Evry)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year.

As a professionally trained chef and longtime culinary writer, food, for me, is the most authentic form of communication. It’s honest and pure, delicious and satiating. Food can bridge the starkest of divides — political, religious and more — like little else. Thanksgiving celebrates this, with no shortage of calories or love.

What I appreciate most about the holiday is gathering with loved ones over a shared meal, which my partner, Valerie, and I usually do.

But with a surge of COVID-19 cases nationwide and hospitals reaching capacity — and family gatherings considered a significant reason for the crisis — Val and I have canceled our “Long Table” Thanksgiving tradition this year.

In some ways the tradition is simple: For the last 17 years we have hosted Thanksgiving dinner — we provide the birds, and the rest of the guests bring the sides, appetizers and desserts. And, as I wrote for the Times in 2010, we all gather at a very long table.

When it began, the group was smaller, 20 or so family and friends, crowded indoors. But over the years, the Long Table evolved to handle the growth of the gathering, as well as the weather. It moved outside a few years after it began — and at its largest, we’ve had over 85 people in attendance. Since we’re in Southern California, an outdoor Thanksgiving is pretty easy. There have been a few holidays when we had to set up a space heater or two, and last year was the first time we had to contend with rain. We put up tents to keep everyone dry and warm; it wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

But the heart of the Long Table tradition is that everyone is welcome, and no one is turned away. These Thanksgivings may have started out as get-togethers of close family and friends, but new guests who arrive soon realize that the table needs them and their dishes.

And the contributions run the gamut — from humble dishes that hark back to home and family traditions (Velveeta is a key ingredient in many courses, and there is never a shortage of marshmallow-topped yams at our table) to ornate creations that would fit in on the finest restaurant menu. Just last year, a Kurdish friend brought a rich lamb-based stew he learned from his mother and shared tales of his childhood and homeland on that cold, rainy evening. Uncommon as some of these dishes may be at some tables, they only add to the tradition at ours, and everyone is family by the end of the evening.

This year is the first Thanksgiving year my partner and I will spend the holiday alone, just the two of us. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t hurt. But there have been over 250,000 American lives lost to COVID-19 — each one an empty seat at someone’s Thanksgiving table.

Val and I feel a pause in our tradition is the only way to keep everyone safe so the Long Table can continue in the years to come.

And we are committed to making this year special, if on a smaller scale. Normally, we have an assortment of turkeys — including smoked, deep-fried and a turducken. This year, I will smoke one turkey, and Val will make some of the dishes her mother made for the holiday, including the green bean casserole flavored with cream of mushroom soup and French-fried onions that we still savor. I will probably bake a pie or two.

We’re also planning to do some sort of Zoom or videoconference call with friends and family — creating a virtual Long Table of sorts. It’s not the same as sitting in person in the same space, but it’s the best thing we can do at this time. Because we still need to make connections somehow.

Just as Val and I are making different plans from the ones we wish we could arrange, I ask you — no, I beg you — to please do the same, so that you, those you care about, and the strangers you could meet across a long table at a future Thanksgiving, are safe to celebrate another year.

And while our Long Table tradition may have to wait until the pandemic is over, there is no reason we all can’t share the blessings we have with others, even at a distance.

You can contact your local shelter, church or community center. There are so many folks in need right now, and food banks are especially desperate for donations. Val and I are packing up a few dinners for some neighbors and friends, who are either alone or can’t gather with others because of potential health risks. Simple as it may seem, a warm plate of food provides so much more than mere sustenance.

And remember, we can get through this together, even if we’re physically apart for a short while longer. Happy Thanksgiving, with love and gratitude from my family to yours.

Noelle Carter is a food writer and culinary consultant for major corporations and restaurants. She was previously the test kitchen director for the Los Angeles Times.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.