Every year at my house, we host what we call the "Long Table Thanksgiving."
It's a simple tradition, and it does a lot to minimize holiday stress. We provide the birds, and everyone else brings a side dish.
Oh, and we eat at a very long table.
These Thanksgivings started out small enough, a modest gathering of family and friends. That first year, we had just under 20 guests. We were able to fit everyone into the tiny dining area of our little Craftsman bungalow — it might have been a bit of a squeeze, but we prefer to remember it as "intimate." The following year, our number grew by a few guests. We moved some furniture around so the dinner could spill into the living room, to give everyone a little breathing room.
Every Thanksgiving since, our gathering has grown a little more. This past year, we had more than 60 guests.
A few years ago, we finally had the sense to move the festivities out to the backyard. We rented a few tables and chairs and set them up down the driveway, and the Long Table was born.
Recipes: Avis Hatheway's wild rice dressing, Andrea's broccoli casserole, Thelma Collins' corn pudding, Johnny's spinach balls, Sharon's ambrosia, Thelma Moore's sweet potato souffle and Queen and Diva's mac 'n' cheese.
And it's worked. Count it as one of the blessings of living in Southern California: The weather is almost always cooperative, and a fall evening can be particularly nice. We'll sit down to eat just as dusk begins to set in, the tables banked on one side with crape myrtles and on the other side with cape honeysuckle, its fiery orange blossoms seeming even brighter in the warm glow of the setting sun.
The Long Table continues to grow, and that growth is the heart of our tradition: Everyone is welcome at the Long Table, and no one is turned away.
My partner, Valerie, and I have been together more than 10 years, and while we've been lucky enough to spend our holidays with our combined families, some of our friends have not. Melting pot and magnet that L.A. is, some of our friends may not have local family and can't afford to return home for the holiday, others don't yet have roots and places to go. And still others, for whatever reason, are unable to go home with the ones they love to spend the holiday.
Over the years, our Long Table has been graced with a wonderfully diverse group of people. Glancing down the table, you might at first think Norman Rockwell meets Fellini: You'll see ministers, professors and actors; families with kids or grandparents; couples; old friends and new; gay and straight; guests of every color, race and creed.
And as you start to take in the chatter, you'll hear small talk and serious conversations, dialogue driven by every political and religious persuasion, sometimes serious, sometimes light, warmed with smiles and peppered with laughter. I'll never forget the one year my grandmother bonded with one of our close friends, a professional drag queen, over makeup tips.
Val and I may host the Long Table, but we can't claim ownership of it. It belongs to the group, and it evolves from year to year as our gathering grows.
But we do provide the space and the tables. And the turkeys.
We cooked five turkeys last year. Every year I roast a turducken, which — colossal meat-fest that it is (picture a chicken stuffed inside of a duck stuffed inside of a turkey) — was just enough to feed our group for the first couple of years. Eventually, I added a barbecued turkey, smoked outside on the Weber . (I learned quickly that you have to be creative when you're hosting these large gatherings. We have a small kitchen and only one oven. As the gathering moved outside, so did a lot of my cooking.)
Before too long, we added deep-fried turkeys to the mix. A friend and I will set up a couple of deep-fryers on the back lawn shortly before everyone starts to arrive. Val, a lawyer whose specialty includes homeowner insurance, always cringes a little and looks the other way as we fire up the burners and get the oil going. The turkeys cook quickly, in under an hour, and can be entertaining to watch, particularly for the newer guests.
Everyone else takes care of the sides and dessert. Guests may bring a cherished recipe from their childhood or a dish they've continued to perfect for every gathering. The dishes are often classic comfort food, sometimes heavy on the cream of mushroom soup, crackers or French-fried onions. There is no shortage of Velveeta at our table. These are dishes from home, and they speak to the cooks' memories, not their gourmet aspirations.
Marc always makes a dish or two from his mother's worn recipe booklet, her corn pudding lightly sweet, a bygone classic. Ron will prepare the wild rice dressing he grew up with in Minnesota, reminiscing how, as a young boy, his father would take him out in a canoe and teach him how to harvest wild rice on the river, knocking it down into the boat. Others, like Andrea, Sharon, Johnny and Sean, each have a staple dish we count on every year: broccoli casserole, ambrosia, spinach balls and mac 'n' cheese.
We've come to count on these dishes — expect them, even — as staples at our gatherings, and the Long Table would not be complete without them. Or the hands that prepared them.