Thanksgiving as a Team Sport
Many find the holidays a chore. Between casually racist uncles and sensitive manic cousins, one can never be too certain what might go down at the Turkey Day feast. This year’s, with the most polarizing election of my lifetime in the backdrop, promised to supercharge any holiday ideological conflicts.
People tend to shy away from the tension, but I’d argue that the mesh of seemingly disparate personalities is what makes a given thanksgiving truly great. Like a great sports team, some of the most productive and honest conversations can come out of beings at one another’s throats. The evening is a team sport requiring many people of different talents to come together to achieve greatness. So, what is the recipe for such team success? I’ve simplified into three distinct teams that when working cohesively together make turkey bliss a reality. They are The Food, The Booze, and The Conversation, and drawing from my own Thanksgiving that succeeded without a hitch, I’ll paint a winning game plan.
Food is the bedrock to which all the other aspects of Thanksgiving rely on. Think of it as the offensive line to a football squad. Pooch the turkey, and no amount of whiskey and witty banter will save you. The people behind the food are the unsung heroes who are far too often taken for granted by the drunken patrons of the evening.
Our o-line starts with the Executive Chef. Think of this person as the left tackle, the most critical position of the offensive line. The lesser fans (ie. the noisy 5-year-old) do not comprehend why such a person is essential, yet management is ready to drop big dollars and resources on this incognito hero. Typically the matriarch of the family, the Executive Chef frequently doubles as the host for the evening. For years this was my grandmother, who pre-thanksgiving acquired supplies, planned out the menu, and doled out assignments to the rest of The Food team to assure a bountiful feast. Like a head coach, those lower on the totem pole may bitch about the execution, but there is law.
Coaching is another essential element of a great executive chef, as the magnitude of work is too vast to tackle alone. My mother, formally the deputy chef, inherited the role of the executive but was forced to seed much of the typical control of the role being she was not also the host and traveled from several states away the day of. As a result, her deputy chef and host, my aunt, had to step up big time. She prepped the kitchen, acquired the supplies, and got the feast cooking day-of until my mother’s arrival. She consulted my mom as I would for a hot date I was trying to impress with my culinary prowess. My uncle even joined in as a tertiary chef, unsuspectingly tapped to prep the desserts and the stuffing.
Teamwork and leadership set the evening up to a T with all dishes making it to the table for a 4 o clock time of feast. Without this effort, the people would have been thrown into a hunger drove negativity. When people get hungry they get stupid, and suddenly drunk uncle jerry is alienating everybody with an awkward tirade missing the “good ole day when you could smack a little brat” when the situation dictated.
Drunk family members need to be managed, which brings us to the 2nd team of the evening.
The Booze (and other performance enhancing substances):
On the surface, The Booze teams duties seem simple — have plenty of it. Au contraire my friend. It’s a delicate act to which if done wrong, can derail the evening in the blink of an eye with Bobby Screaming why he was always 2nd fiddle to Jerry. Done right, however, and everyone is all the merrier. Enter the Procurer of Spirits.
Almost always another member of the host family (obvi), the Procurer’s key task is to run through the guest list and anticipate the drink of choice for all. A scotch aged 18 years for our whiskey man and multiple bottles of a fine Argentinian malbec for wine snobs. Perhaps a tasty yet sweet themed cocktail for the less voracious drinkers? A gifted procurer has something for everyone and makes certain each drinker is informed as to what alcohol is available for his or her specific needs.
Often, the procurer evolves to become the barmen for the evening, though sometimes this is farmed out to someone with some mixology experience. This individual creates the festive cocktails, fetches the auxiliary bottles when needed, and facilitates all peoples drinking needs as the night goes on. A good barman pours those shots of tequila right when everyone’s ready to get rowdy. They’ve got to read the room, as it’s they’ve got to know when it is time to inject more alcohol OR cut someone off as they encroach excess. They know who to monitor, and can diplomatically bring things to a halt in time to avoid a spiraling disaster of shouts and tears.
Exemplary barmen can get creative. Maybe there is a faction of college kids? Let them go to town on a bottle of fireball and get the parents involved to add to the merry mood. There is an art to this position drawing upon many skills of a good party planner. They’re prepared for anytime, can read the crowd, and act swiftly and effectively before the people even realize what’s going on.
*If you happen to live one of our lovely states where recreational use of that magic herb is permitted, nothing builds the appetite for a gluttonous feast better than a surreptitious joint in the backyard behind the shed. See anyone in your family who likes Phish.
Thanksgiving is made or broken with the conversation. When it’s lively and engaging, people leave the evening truly thankful for family. Conversely, the day can devolve into a shit storm of hate and personal attacks once again leaving emotional (or if we’re lucky physical!) scars and tears.
The Food and Booze can result in a good evening, but the conversation it what turns it great
The conversation works best when generational gaps are bridged respectfully of all ages. We need a Gabber — someone of a medium age and thrives being a facilitator. The Gabber is the conversation point guard, guiding conversational threads in ways that the youngest patrons of the adult’s table can likewise chime in with the oldest. Want to talk Kanye’s mental breakdown come up in conversation? The Gabber can wrangle in the older crowd by drawing parallels to 70’s manic rock stars, pivoting the conversation to Jim Morrison. (Seriously Kanye, get better. The world isn’t right without bumping Yeezy tracks.)
One must be weary, however, as sometimes we have someone actively looking to undermine peace and prosperity for the evening. This individual I kindly refer to as the Shit Stirrer, and they have to power to bring about the aforementioned “Shit Storm”. Think the person who out of the blue goes “What you think about Trump [insert really, anything]?” out of sheer boredom. This person is the renegade of the family, and self-describes as unable to stand for “the bullshit”. If there is an elephant in the room, you can bet your ass they’ll bring it up. They make the evening lively, and can’t stand for a dull conversation, and pride themselves on breaking convention. They crave the uncomfortable subjects that most were hoping to forego during the holidays. The Shit Stirrer, however, plays an essential role in the proceedings.
People, especially in the modern age of filtered information via social media, can insulate themselves with only thoughts they agree with. We can “Defriend” someone on Facebook and only read news articles from establishments that share our biases. Cities are even getting in on the action, with NYC and San Francisco existing as de facto liberal havens. Even to some degree, the jobs we work is a choice of people we desire to surround ourselves with. I dare you to find a gun lover that works for Planned Parenthood.
The family is different. There is no choice involved when it comes to blood relatives, a fact that lets the Shit Stirrer shines. We are joined at the table by a group of people to whom we, by definition, cannot filter. We’re forced to confront ideas and ideologies we do not agree with. The beauty here is it is not by choice. We cannot avoid having the conversations we work so hard to insulate from. Ever think, “I can’t believe someone would ever vote for X?” Odds are someone at that table did. Thanksgiving forces us to listen, and if we listen, we may just learn something.