For the last several weeks, freedible has run a campaign to pull together recipes in our Community Cookbook to help make sure that all custom eaters can be included at the family feast. That mission is pretty personal for me - a way of paying it forward for some extraordinary siblings and the efforts they've made to include my own little clan at the table.
This journey began for us three years ago, when we adopted a newborn baby boy about a month before Thanksgiving. Within days, our little bean got very, very sick and several very challenging weeks later he was diagnosed with multiple food allergies and/or sensitivities. Because I was nursing him (yes, it's possible in adoption to do so), his food sensitivities became my new diet restrictions, and overnight I lost dairy, gluten, egg, soy, nuts, fish, chocolate, corn and shellfish.
In other words, I lost a good percentage of the ingredients that goes into your average Thanksgiving meal, just weeks before the main event.
We'd already decided to spend Thanksgiving at home that year, snuggling into the idea of being our new family and watching our five year old becoming a big brother. We didn't plan to make any big fancy feast - with my brand-new diet it was hard enough to cook a simple dinner, let alone construct a whole Thanksgiving meal. It would be easy. Restful.
There was just one problem: Me.
As it turned out, Thanksgiving just isn't a holiday that I'm prepared to take lightly. Growing up between two households that were 15 hours apart, holidays for my brother and me were always played in double-vision. One celebration at Mom's and then a do-over at Dad's, at least one of them inevitably out of sync with the calendar. Holidays, I learned, weren't about where you were, or even who you were with - they were about the traditions you kept along the way.
As for Thanksgiving, the tradition in question was a set of predictable, pick-and-pack-able menu building blocks: turkey, mashed potatoes, a warm-and-squishy orange vegetable (squash at Mom's, yams at Dad's), bread stuffing, slightly-burnt Parker House rolls from the toaster oven and cranberry sauce. And, of course, pie - apple and pumpkin at Dad's, pumpkin and pecan at Mom's.
These menu blocks created more than an over-stuffed turkey coma - together they added up to a check for another year in the mental box marked "Thanksgiving". Vary from the predictable course and it was as if the harvest had never happened - let alone been celebrated.
Traditions are comforting - but as all custom eaters know, they can be a burden, too. I still vividly recall the first Thanksgiving we shared with my soon-to-be-step-mom and her two children, then quite adorably five and eight years younger than myself. All seemed to be going well enough - until she came to the table with their own family tradition: mashed potatoes piled high like a volcano, complete with paprika lava spilling down the sides.
"That's not how it's supposed to be!", every fiber in my being exclaimed. "Thanksgiving is traditional recipes on china plates, not mashed potato volcanos!"
It seems so silly now but my brother and I felt a rift over those mashed potatoes for quite a while. It stood for something - for many somethings. The current of stability reaching back to before my parents split up had been interrupted, and clearly my brother and I were no longer the only children whose smiles, expectations and tears would control all-important decisions like whether to volcano-ize the mashed potatoes. Our tradition - our food tradition - had been forced to change.
Fast-forward to three years ago. As we circled around our newest addition, I realized our food traditions were being forced to change again. Mashed potatoes without dairy, stuffing without gluten, pie without anything I knew how to cook with at all - yet basking in the glow of this new family seemingly so improbably created, it was hard to miss that the true meaning behind those traditions was well intact.
But something else happened that Thanksgiving: I went to the grocery store and caved to my childhood need to check the Thanksgiving box - and in so doing, I stood up to the tyranny of all those food restrictions and began the shift from a custom eater to a custom cook. This is not to say that all came out according to plan - but there was turkey, and some sort of mashed potatoes, and one very mushy-in-the-middle pumpkin pie.
It's hard to believe that that first Thanksgiving was a full three years ago. For each holiday since then, my husband, I and the army of creative cooks I am blessed to call family have gotten that little bit closer to new ways for doing old traditions. By the time last Thanksgiving rolled around, we'd hit our stride at last. And my two families and I have come to an understanding: I work out the meal plan and send exacting shopping lists, they shop, I travel - and then together with my siblings, we cook.
Which isn't to say that it's easy. Every year, as we barrel down the calendar toward the holiday season, I begin to feel the same jittery nervousness. Perhaps I shouldn't say anything. Perhaps I should just bring my own food. Perhaps I should stay home rather than go through that awkward conversation about how my or my kids' needs are going to require changes in others' holiday traditions.
Last Christmas, the fates conspired to bring all these questions to a head. We were out in Colorado celebrating the holiday with my Mom's side of the family when my little one got an acute double ear infection, grounding us all and eliminating the key 48 hour period we'd allowed ourselves to repack, wrap presents and bake treats to contribute to the festivities with my father's side of the family. Suddenly we were looking at a mere 10 hours between landing at the airport and departing for the four hour drive north. The email negotiations began.
"I just don't see why we don't get it all catered?"
"That won't work - Cheryl and her family can't eat take out."
"How about we make what we all want to eat and Cheryl just brings her own?"
"But she's 4 and a half hours away and arrives at midnight the night before. How's she gonna do that?"
It was officially too complicated. Getting acrimonious. Perhaps, my husband and I thought, we should sit this one out. Accept realities and stay home.
And then the email stream was silenced by a proclamation from two who once were just adorable little kids looking forward to a mashed potato volcano: "We got this. Send recipes. We'll feed you when you get here."
And sure enough, when we finally arrived through a driving blizzard - wrapping presents as we drove - we found an abundant feast of safe-for-us foods, well-seasoned with love. Turkey roast, veggies, mashed potatoes, green beans - each with a twist all their own yet each safely 'free' from all the things that make our little band sick.
Now maybe this story appalls you. Maybe you hear a story of my [technically step-] brother and sister turning themselves inside out just to accommodate me and my kids. But what I saw - and what I think they would tell you if you asked - was our most important tradition being upheld. All of us sharing a meal, working through the differences in how we normally eat so that we could all eat together.
Because you see I was wrong growing up - holidays aren't about the cooking traditions you keep, it's about the values behind them.
That's why I decided to put together the campaign we did this Thanksgiving on freedible. For an increasing number of us, holding on to the tradition of togetherness means letting go of traditions like warm wheat rolls or buttery pie crust. But if we all work together to pool what we know - the recipes, the substitution tricks and the details that make it all hold together - we can find new ways to fill that gap and still check our 'Thanksgiving' box.
And so, although they don't yet know it, this whole campaign we've just done goes out as a tribute to my four siblings, who have each rolled up their sleeves to give me and my kids the gift of still being part of the family meal for these last several holiday celebrations.
I think this year I'll bring mashed potatoes to the feast- piled high like a volcano, paprika lava and all.