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In Conversation: Thankfulness and Thanksgiving Dinner “Must-Haves”

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Roundup: Our 2020 interviewees talk turkey.

plate of cranberry sauce with roast turkey and salad conversation thankfulness thanksgiving dish

“What are you grateful for this year?” “What absolutely has to be on the Thanksgiving dinner menu?” I posed these two questions to the wonderful women Unpeeled has profiled so far this year as part of a conversation about thankfulness and their must-have Thanksgiving dish.

I loved hearing their answers, and you will, too. Thankfulness is not always easy to find — especially in a year like 2020. But these women offered touching and meaningful answers. As for Thanksgiving dinner? Their must-haves range from a creamy, vegan (!) potato dish to classic mac n’ cheese. I hope you enjoy hearing from our women in food as much as I did.

Be sure to check out: Unpeeled’s Profiles and Recipe: A Better Pumpkin Pie

slices of pumpkin pie on table with coffee and forks

Alexandra Shytsman, Food Photographer and Plant-Based Food Blogger

head shot alex shytsman food photographer
Photo by Svitlana Pimenov

New York-based food photographer and food blogger Alex Shytsman of The New Baguette says:

“I’m grateful for my health, for my family and friends and their health, and for never having to worry about where my next meal will come from. I’m also thankful for the challenges I’ve had to face due to the pandemic, and the personal and professional growth I’ve had as a result.”

As for Thanksgiving dinner (or dessert), the meal must absolutely, 100% include: “my vegan potato gratin with cashew béchamel. It’s rich, it’s creamy, it’s potatoes. Need I say more?”

vegan potato gratin cashew bechamel
Vegan Potato Gratin from The New Baguette [Photo: Alexandra Shystman/The New Baguette]

Elena Tompkins, Founder, Feed the Fight

feed the fight's elena tompkins with car and food
Photo courtesy Evy Images/Washingtonian

Elena Tompkins is a D.C. wonder woman. In the midst of a global pandemic and a topsy-turvy year in politics, Elena works full time as principal of her own D.C. health care lobbying firm while also working to feed tens of thousands of frontline workers through Feed the Fight, which in turn supports local restaurants.

Here is what Elena is thankful for this year:

“I am thankful for the found time with my immediate family.  Prior to the pandemic, we were all running in a million different directions — kids sports practices and games, work events, outings with friends, et cetera — and this forced us all to stop and spend real time together. And guess what? We really do enjoy each other’s company!  While we are all looking forward to having this pandemic and it’s restrictions behind us someday, I will absolutely miss spending time together, but will always be grateful.

“The other thing I am beyond thankful for is our amazing community.  When we launched Feed the Fight to help support our local restaurants by buying meals to send to our frontline workers, the outpouring of generosity — both financial and time — was truly overwhelming and amazing.  I feel incredibly blessed to live in such a thoughtful and kind community.”

As for the dish Thanksgiving must absolutely, 100% include, Elena says:

“Turkey and pie. Any kind of pie. May I also suggest possibly ordering a pie this year instead of making a homemade one? Anything we can do to continue to support our local restaurants will go a long way!”

Anela Malik of Feed the Malik

head shot of anela malik feed the malik food blog
Photo by The Photographer RC

Food blogger, writer, and advocate Anela Malik uses her website, Feed the Malik, to highlight diverse food stories, offer recipes, and advocate for Black-owned food businesses in the D.C. area.

What a year it has been. Despite its hardships, what are you thankful for this year?

“I’m thankful more than anything for good food. Shared over zoom, with my husband, or even eaten alone with my cats sniffing nearby, a warm meal is a luxury and a privilege. Especially in these times as the pandemic has pushed more folks towards food insecurity, I try to remind myself of that.”

Other than turkey, Thanksgiving dinner (or dessert) must absolutely, 100% include what dish? Why?

“Mac and cheese! What is turkey and gravy without cheesy, melty goodness to hold it all together? It reminds me of my childhood and some of my best Thanksgivings. And for big Thanksgiving gatherings, the question of who will be making the mac and cheese is an important one.”

Monica OConnell of Curtis & Cake

head shot Monica OConnell with cake
Monica OConnell. [Photo by Temerity Photo.]
Top cake designer, business owner, and Ph.D. Monica OConnell’s passion for baking and hospitality is reflected in each of her thoughtful and beautiful cakes. She also has some big updates since her profile!

Monica writes the following (quoted):

I moved to Wisconsin at the end of 2015 and never felt quite at home there. Four years of Trump and heightened racial discord didn’t help. I’ve just moved back to Georgia. My husband and I were supposed to close on our new house on election day. The closing got pushed back to Friday which ended up being perfect! There were celebrations all around. I’m grateful for a renewed sense of home and feeling of at-home-ness. It’s hard to cultivate possibility and hope without that!

I usually go pretty traditional for Thanksgiving dinner. I think it must absolutely include cornbread dressing with lots of sage and celery. It’s pure comfort and I don’t make it any other time of year. It is what Thanksgiving tastes like to me.

Chef and Podcast Host Zahra Tangorra

zahra tangorra head shot

Zahra Tangorra is a Brooklyn chef, writer, feminist, podcast host, and all-around renaissance lady who has been through career loss, relationship loss, parental loss, a near-death experience, and somehow come out of it all resilient, dynamic, and focused in a whole new way. Zahra hosts the Processing podcast, where she discusses the intersection of food and grief.

Zahra writes (quoted):

This year, as I see it, has been a reality check. There are a lot of folks talking about how these past 10 months have felt like 10 years, and I agree, of course, that 2020 has been exceptionally unpredictable, volatile and at times cruel. I also recognize that for many folks in this country and around the world, every year can feel unpredictable, volatile and cruel.

As we look particularly hard at gratitude this time of year, I think that what I am most thankful for is a renewed sense of perspective and empathy. We never wish for crisis to come into our lives, but when it does, it changes you. I think that anyone that has experienced grief and been able to begin to process it can attest to that. We can fight the change, we can watch it like a movie, we can embrace it as a tool to grow, and oftentimes we do all three. There is no right answer in grieving and trauma, and 2020 has been rich with both.

But for me, as the year winds down and I have had time to process, I am left with a sense of thankfulness for my capacity to appreciate the beauty and joy that I do have in my life more than ever before. The warm food, the city I adore, my loved ones. Little wins. I am very aware of the fact that this year has forced me to deal with hypocrisies in my ideology and worldview. I am thankful that as a country we are pushing harder than we have in decades towards civil rights, and although there is still so much more to do, it is encouraging to see brave and determined leaders in BIPOC and LGBTQ communities leading the way to a more just future. I am thankful to be a part of that.

On a more personal note, I am deeply thankful to have found real peace and comfort in being alone. As a single woman in my mid 30s, I have often felt anxiety about perceived loneliness.  I have attempted to avoid it at all costs. While I still have unshakeable bonds with my close friends and family that I treasure, I have realized that solitude, while sometimes melancholy, is also magnificent. I am an only child, and I have always been quite good at being alone, but 2020 made me realize that I don’t have to fear it. I think that when the control of the life we pictured gets away from us, we can chase after it, or try and take a new picture, and I’m thankful to be in a position and state of mind to do the latter.

Over the past few years we have tried to get creative with Thanksgiving at my mom’s house, at times much to her chagrin. My mother Bobbie is a very good sport, though, and always lets me experiment and I love her for that because I know that she loves chestnut stuffing, and looks forward to it all year. This year, because of COVID, we won’t get to be together, but I think I realized about a month ago that after this year, no matter what the theme is or how creative I want to be, we need to always have her chestnut stuffing. It’s delicious: nutty and buttery and packed with leeks and sage and beautiful chicken stock. It’s warm and comforting, just like her. But don’t tell her I compared her to stuffing, I don’t think she will love the comparison!

Truthfully, the thing that I always want at my Thanksgiving table is my mom, and I feel sad that it won’t happen this year, but I will definitely be FaceTiming her and hopefully get back in that kitchen together next year. Oh, and key lime pie, always key lime pie.

key lime pie with whipped cream and zest on white wood

Mary Johns of Open Kitchen

mary johns at open kitchen event
Hawwi Restaurant owner Hanane Salim with Mary Johns as she hosts an event [Photo courtesy Mary Johns]

Mary Johns is the entrepreneur, event planning whiz, and culinary maven behind Open Kitchen, a culinary events company where immigrant chefs share the stories and foodways of their homeland and do cooking demonstrations. Guests learn about a foreign culture through its people and cuisine, and enjoy an amazing meal. Here’s what Mary had to say:

What a year it has been. Despite its hardships, what are you thankful for this year?

I’m thankful for healthy, happy kids who have proven just how resilient they are during a very trying year. During the pandemic they have played outdoors, cooked with me, enjoyed card games, and grown in their appreciation of each other. I’m also very thankful that the immigrant-owned restaurants in my network have been able to survive the past nine months.

Thanksgiving dinner (or dessert) must absolutely, 100% include what dish? Why?

Thai Turkey. I don’t typically cook turkey because we spend Thanksgiving with my family in Richmond. Last year, however, I was in charge of cooking a very rotund halal turkey for a special Thanksgiving meal hosted at my church. This event was designed to invite refugees to experience a traditional Thanksgiving meal while sharing dishes from their homeland.

I was a little intimidated to cook such a big bird and was delighted when my Thai friend Tina, who was once a personal chef, offered to teach me how to make her delicious Thai-inspired turkey. Tina’s turkey was a major hit at the church gathering and I can’t wait to make it again.

Tina’s method transforms the typically dry, bland bird into an exotic and flavorful dish that is guaranteed to be a conversation starter. This turkey stays moist because it’s marinated in rich coconut milk and is exploding with flavor thanks to an enormous amount of garlic. The drippings can be used to make a delicious Thai gravy.

Amelia Nierenberg of The New York Times

amelia nierenberg head shot
Amelia Nierenberg / Photo by Earl Wilson

Amelia Nierenberg writes the (seriously important) Coronavirus Schools Briefing for The New York Times, but I profiled her earlier this year after she wrote a beautiful and intelligent article exploring food, grief, and widowhood.

This is what Amelia shared (quoted):

This year, despite everything, I’m grateful to be celebrating with my parents. My father has recovered from the coronavirus after a pretty nasty bout in March, and we’re just happy we’re all together.

This year, though, we’re skipping turkey. Duck from a family-owned poultry farm on Long Island instead, with my mother’s homemade green tomato relish. (Why does anyone eat turkey, anyway?)

Ed. note: Thanks to everyone who contributed! As for me, I am thankful for my health, the support I’ve received in this inaugural Unpeeled year, and for all of you. And it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without pie — especially apple.

sliced apple pie in pie dish

What do you feel thankfulness for this year? What’s your must-have Thanksgiving dish? Share below!

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