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The Enormous Joy of the Tiny Thanksgiving

It is not a celebration of abundance. It is a celebration of just enough.

Photo-Illustration: CSA Images/Getty Images, GrubStreet
Photo-Illustration: CSA Images/Getty Images, GrubStreet
Photo-Illustration: CSA Images/Getty Images, GrubStreet

We have by now established that this Thanksgiving will not look like other Thanksgivings. You cannot gather. You cannot travel. Honestly, you should probably limit your trips to the grocery store; the quantity of hazelnuts you have right now is fine. All celebrations must be small. For some people, this is a bummer. For others, it is an opportunity. For me, a longtime veteran of the teeny-tiny Thanksgiving, it is exactly as it should be.

You don’t have to do anything, of course. Pandemic Thanksgiving is a personal decision: There is beauty in a solo Thanksgiving, spent eating deep-fried nacho dumplings in the bath, or in rejecting this enterprise altogether. If nothing is normal, then allow yourself the joy of doing nothing. Allow yourself any joy that still exists — I agree! The only societal pressure worth giving in to now is the pressure to stay at home. And yet, this year of all years, should we not seize the chance to celebrate something? It is orienting, I think, to mark the passage of time. This year has been a shapeless slog, but if everyone is eating apple pie, then at least we know it’s November!

As a longtime enthusiast of the pocket-size Thanksgiving, I worry, in the current Thanksgiving discourse, that we may be overlooking the joy of preparing a full Thanksgiving spread for an exclusive gathering of your immediate household and absolutely no guests. It is yet more cooking, in a year of so much cooking, but it is a different kind of cooking. Regular cooking values efficiency but requires constant decisions, like what to make and when and how and whether your aging spinach is still edible.

Thanksgiving is the opposite: It is slow but ritualistic. The components have been prescribed. You can get fancy, obviously, but you can also not. Most Thanksgiving dishes, at their core, are different kinds of mush. Gravy is a runny mush. Mashed potatoes are a thick mush. Cranberry sauce is red mush. Stuffing is bread mush.

There is a script, in other words, and in the absence of inspiration, you follow it. And the brilliance of that script is that it scales. The beauty of mush is that it’s incredibly easy to make miniature mush. There is a science to scaling down, but here is my secret: What I do is simply mush less. You still congeal your cranberry sauce and mash your potatoes and sauté your mushrooms, only instead of making an unspeakable amount, you make only a lot. Turkey, I understand, is complicated — you can’t “scale down” a 15-pound bird — so perhaps you make a turkey porchetta instead, as Taste recommends, or you do a chicken or a duck or a Tofurky or you stuff some acorn squash. One great thing about a full-size pie is that it doubles as a fortifying breakfast.

What I like about Miniature Thanksgiving is the soothing sense of my own kitchen competence: I am making tiny Thanksgiving, for my tiny household, like a small adult. This is self-reliance, just me and my potato peeler and the gentle strains of NPR. Ahh, I like to think. So this is what it was like to be a pioneer.

It used to feel like a placeholder. I was just biding my time until something else happened. Instead, tiny Thanksgiving itself has become tradition. It is cozy and autumnal, not a celebration of abundance but a celebration of exactly enough.

If you understand it as a single dinner, it is still a lot of effort for two people and one dog. But it is not one dinner. It is a week of Thanksgiving-themed meals, configured and reconfigured in a wide variety of permutations that are all basically the same, except that some are sandwiches and some are hashes and some are just the remaining components on a plate. In this way, cooking for six, when you need to feed only two, is not excessive; it is stealthily practical, like a “hack” or “meal prepping.”

This is the real genius of a holiday feast, and nobody ever talks about it: You have to do it only once and then you get to stop. It is the opposite, in this way, of regular cooking, which is endless and forever. Even as an avid home cook, I was stunned to discover, when I stopped leaving the house in March, how many meals there are. And you are supposed to eat all of them, every single day! Thanksgiving is the opposite: It is kind of a production but then, for the next three blissful days, you can live on cold, gravy-covered Brussels sprouts and be free.

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The Enormous Joy of the Tiny Thanksgiving