Strange Bird

A Seattle Guide to 2020’s Weird Thanksgiving

How to cook for a small group, argue with your relatives, and give back.

By Seattle Met Staff Illustrations by Jordan Kay October 30, 2020

If we do it right, this will be the most atypical Thanksgiving in recent memory. The pandemic is now in its third wave, driven, in some parts of the country, by family gatherings. A holiday predicated on precisely those surely can’t help. A post-holiday spike has already arrived in Canada. An emergency medical professor, comparing the U.S.’s current state to a bunch of scattered small fires, told The Washington Post, "Thanksgiving will be the wind that will whip this fire into an absolute human disaster for this country." Comforting, no?

Well, this year it’s still important to commune however we can. So here’s a guide to not committing viral arson.

How to Cook for a Few

The standard Thanksgiving meal is a failure of conception. There are too many redundant components, many are difficult to make well, and the whole meal, save the cranberries, sits in you like a stone. Luckily, this year you won’t be feeding a crowd—right?—so take the opportunity to deviate.

First of all: Jettison the turkey. Our turkeys have become nearly as big as the dinosaurs they descended from, and they’re terribly hard to cook evenly. Even if you nail it, the best turkey can taste is…decent. (“It’s not dry!”) Instead, splurge on a good duck (bug your local butcher). One bird should feed four people, and ducks take kindly to roasting whole—all that fat in the skin sort of self-bastes the thing. If you want to stuff it, apples, dried fruits, and thyme work nicely, and taste PNW as hell.

Then: Winnow out the best sides. Carb loading mashed potatoes, yams, corn, bread-stuffing, and rolls into the same meal is somewhere between monotonous and self-destructive. Instead, just make exceptional mashed potatoes. Or a turnip or parsnip puree. If you’re generous with the butter, you can skip the gravy. Roast some brussels sprouts or braise some kale. Make a cranberry sauce. Buy rolls. Done.

Juniper Roast Duck

  • 1 whole duck (Like five pounds? But do your thing.)
  • 2 TBSP kosher salt
  • 2 TBSP brown sugar
  • 1 TBSP crushed juniper berries (Check the grocery store spice section.)
  • Some black pepper
  • A few fresh thyme sprigs
  • A handful of prunes or dried cherries or cranberries (optional)
  • 1 tart apple, cored and cut (optional)
  • 1 medium shallot, roughly chopped (optional)
  1. Clean the duck the day before you plan to cook it, taking any giblets from the cavity. Pat dry with paper towels. Prick the skin all over with a metal skewer, or score it on the breasts (don’t cut into the meat). Mix the juniper, black pepper, salt, and brown sugar. Scatter some inside the cavity. Rub the rest all over the skin. Place the duck in a pan or tray (ideally on a rack) for 24 hours in the fridge, uncovered.
  2. After the duck is cured, preheat the oven to 325F. Stuff the thyme sprigs, dried fruit, apple, and shallot in the cavity. With a paring knife, pierce holes in the skin flaps between the legs and the rest of the body. Stick the opposite leg through the hole. Repeat on other side. Place in a pan, atop a roasting rack, or roast on a bed of root vegetables—turnips, potatoes, carrots.
  3.  Roast for 2–3 hours. You want to hit about 160F in the thick spots—breast, thigh—before taking it out; the residual heat should bring it to at least 165F. Remove the stuffing and discard the thyme. Toss the stuffing with the drippings (you may want to spoon off some of the fat first). Rest the bird before you carve it. Remember to rewarm before you serve.

Pulling off Thanksgiving dinner can be difficult, even in the best of times. And these...ain’t that. Meanwhile, the city’s restaurants would love your takeout business. Plenty of local establishments—Sea Creatures, Addo, the London Plane—have special holiday to-go menus available for order. We have an updating list here.

How to Pick a Wine

Want a comforting red with dinner? Here are five excellent values. If you’re sticking to the traditional “white wine, white meat” path, Seattle Met’s wine writer Sean P. Sullivan has a surprisingly ubiquitous pick:

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2019 Riesling Columbia Valley $9 

On the Nose: white peach, lime, jasmine, and flower. 
On the Palate: off-dry, well-balanced stone fruit flavors. 
Why It's Special: A versatile wine that fits in well at the Thanksgiving table and is a screaming value.

You don’t need an MD in epidemiology to know that cross-country flights aren’t great during a pandemic. The CDC is going full Bartleby the Scrivener with official travel policy that boils down to ‘We prefer you not to.’

But traveling from Washington is not technically verboten. Mostly it depends on where you land. Each region and country’s rules—pre-flight tests, post-flight quarantines—change constantly. Bottom line: You’re allowed to book travel for the holidays, but with an election and weeks of coronavirus chaos still to go before Thanksgiving, this wouldn’t be a bad year to spool up Planes, Trains, and Automobiles instead of actually taking off.

How to Adhere to CDC Guidance

The CDC has issued Thanksgiving guidance on what we should and shouldn’t do:

Best Practices Basically, stay at your own goddamn home. Have dinner with your household, or over video chat (see below). Shop online. Watch movies and sports. Yes, this is what you’ve been doing for nearly eight months. Proceed.

Okay Practices Basically, stay outside and away from big, unmasked crowds. For instance, have a small outdoor dinner with a few friends or family.

Just, No Honestly, you already know you shouldn’t do this stuff. No in-person Black Friday shopping mayhem. (While we’re at it, can we just end Black Friday?) No big indoor meals with lots of households comingling. And avoid mask-less races or parades where you’re puffing your lung germs into a crowd.

How to Not Go Home for the Holidays

Will you be coming home? Many in Seattle, a city filled with transplants, have heard this thinly veiled plea from distant loved ones. But lifelong locals may be on the receiving end now, too. The mere act of gathering imperils just about every celebration, guaranteeing that many will spend the holidays on video calls instead of around dining room tables.

Thanksgiving feels, in some ways, the most ill-suited for a virtual approximation. The kitchen aromas, the sweets, the hugs. A total sensory experience, reduced to pixels and speakers.

Focusing on these deprivations is the wrong approach, says Jackie Wood Baker of SparkWood Events, a Seattle-based event planning firm. Instead, consider your Zoom Thanksgiving an opportunity to chew on the traditions that are most important to your family, whether it’s sharing what you’re grateful for, assessing everyone’s sausage stuffing, or having an apple pie cook-off. Preserve those on your call, taking turns going around The Brady Bunch grid. Lose everything else. “Know that you’re not going to get to everything, and that’s OK,” says Baker.

To that end, you’ll want to appoint someone your virtual host—someone “bossy,” Baker says—to keep things moving. If your emcee has a high degree of tech competence, all the better; many video conferencing platforms, including Zoom and Microsoft Teams, allow users to split up larger gatherings into small breakout rooms. Those separate conversations will keep more people engaged if you have a long-winded cousin.

Revel in the oddity of it. At the very least, it will give you something to talk about the next time you’re all around an actual table. Something nice and light—which isn’t always the case. —Benjamin Cassidy

If you didn’t manage to weasel your way out of family time, your holiday anxiety likely extends beyond getting grandpa to understand Zoom. The very existence of the pandemic is is a political argument, as is our rapidly changing climate. Summer’s historic protests for Black lives still continue. And even if election numbers are clear by dinner time, the incumbent’s acceptance of them may not be.

In short, there’s a lot to fight about this year. And though publications have provided guides for navigating familial polarization since the dawn of time (circa 2012), at this point their advice—“just avoid talking about politics!”—makes about as much sense as looking for Tinder tips in an etiquette book.

So, here are those tried-and-true recommendations for handling Thanksgiving arguments, updated for 2020.

Pick your battles carefully, based on which will create the most calamitous family drama. The brother-in-law who, two porters deep, starts playing devil’s advocate is small potatoes compared to MAGA great aunt on her third glass of chardonnay.

Try not to gang up on anyone. Instead, direct your pent-up ire toward everyone all at once by refusing to mute your microphone.

Steer the conversation away from potentially contentious topics and directly into those you know will cause a problem. Sweepingly disparaging anyone who refuses to wear a mask usually does the trick.

Engage in one-on-one conversations to assess which family members you can form alliances with (or join for an inconspicuous garage joint at the next in-person gathering). 

Don’t drink too much—relative sobriety will give you an argumentative advantage over whichever uncle already drained the rum.

How to Give More Than Thanks

1. You have likely heard: Thanksgiving is fraught. Please, read up on and discuss the fraughtness. Maybe don’t celebrate at all (it’s not required!). Better yet, on this holiday that celebrates the grossly rosy and fictional history of how many of us came to occupy this land, pay rent to the Duwamish people via Real Rent Duwamish.

2. Remember earlier this year, when you stress donated to a bunch of causes? Maybe it started with pre-pandemic political campaigns—then restaurants, food banks, arts funds, blood banks, bail funds, and the ACLU for, you know, everything. Well, pretty much nothing is really fixed. Not a bad time to set up a reoccurring donation.

3. Thanksgiving is a food holiday. Maybe contradict the advice at the top of this article and cook for a crowd who will never enter your home, portion that up, and care for some people who can’t cook for themselves. Or drop off the supplies at a food bank. Or volunteer at one. Food banks need help. 

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