The U.S. Midwest – including my home state of Michigan, last inhabited state of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin – is generally known for salt-of-the-earth, genuine, friendly people. Think apple-picking, football game-watching, pumpkin pie-baking, leaf-raking Americans that set the gold standard in English. Our north-central region is the nation’s heartland geographically and arguably, sentimentally.
The Midwest is also known for Great Plains, Great Lakes, pro sports teams (think St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Bulls, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Red Wings), car racing (notably the Indy 500 and NASCAR), universities (such as my alma mater University of Michigan and home rival Michigan State University), financial centers (hello, Chicago Board of Trade), German immigrants, musicians (mainly from Chicago and Detroit), manufacturing and agriculture.
The latter brings me to Thanksgiving, which celebrates the autumn harvest as a throwback to 1621 when Pilgrim immigrants from England shared a feast with Native Americans. That’s because they helped the Pilgrims survive the previous winter by giving them food and teaching them how to grow crops.
As its name suggests, Thanksgiving is about giving thanks the third Thursday of each November. It brings families together for a large cook-off and hours-long feast. With the exception of recent years in Brussels, I’ve always celebrated this major U.S. holiday in the Midwest – whether in my hometown of East Lansing, Michigan or my sister and bro-in-law’s place in Fort Wayne, Indiana – with the Dansby clan and adopted family.
On this occasion, a stuffed, gobbling turkey – not for eating, rather playing – is our household mascot that makes an annual outing to a Turkey Trot 5K. That’s if the youngest of us motivate to get up in time for it on an invariably cold Thanksgiving morning. I’m always the turkey “quarterback,” launching the bird into action at the start line. Then I pass him to my sister Mel, who tosses him to her stepdaughter Kelly (before she leaves us in the dust), who passes him back to me. I try to throw the turkey to my bro-in-law Sean but he gives me a “don’t even think about it” look so turkey tossing becomes a two-way act between Mel and me until the finish line.
“Gobble, gobble, gobble!” impersonates Mel while pressing the gobble button on the stuffed turkey. That signals the end of the race and beginning of feast preparations.
When we get home, my “nephew” Iggy, a Jack Russell Terrier-Schnauzer mix, tries to eat the poor turkey, which has already taken a beating on the racecourse. Failing to do so, he then competes with an electronic, singing and dancing turkey in the kitchen. He barks at it until it stops, retreating to his bed with the stuffed turkey as a consolation prize.
Soon the kitchen becomes a “crime scene” of food ingredients as I make dish after dish. Flour goes a-flying and batter a-splattering. Mel pulls out imaginary yellow tape to secure the crime zone. (Every year, she and Sean complain about my hot mess in the kitchen, but they sing praises about my cooking.) Then she enters the zone to become my culinary partner in crime. Sean largely avoids the zone but dares to dodge flying ingredients for his signature “mash and smash” (mashing potatoes with one hand while sipping a Scotch with the other).
Thanksgiving dinner itself is always an elegant affair. We all dress to the nines and the table is dressed accordingly with china and silver. Many candles are lit, lovely wines opened, and poppers (“crackers” per the Brits) and name tags put at each place. Dad Dansby says a prayer of thanks and we eat until our stomach’s content. During dinner, he cracks bad jokes, I spar with him as Attila the Pun and everyone tells stories of old, especially if a new person joins the “usual suspects.” (I once sent an Australian friend to my family’s Thanksgiving in my absence since he was an ex-pat in the Midwest with no place to go. The stories he heard …)
Dinner always ends with mild explosives; we pull open the poppers on the count of three and it rains paper hats, corny jokes and useless trinkets. Then we don the paper hats and read aloud the jokes. It’s a British tradition that my late, lovely American mom somehow adopted. It’s amazing how one commands the floor in a paper hat!
After dinner, my “aunt” June (technically, my second cousin) and her husband, Lou, instigate a sing-along, usually beginning with “Some Enchanted Evening.” When in Ft. Wayne, a balcony over the piano room prompts Lou to dramatically start the song from above. The talented duo reminds us that life can indeed be enchanting … when people can carry a tune.
By popular demand, my mother would temporarily replace June on the piano to play a classic like “Stardust.” Her long, dexterous fingers on the keyboard were mesmerizing. Only Iggy was/is distractible … as usual, by a B-A-L-L.
Sean typically plays catch with him and my dad checks on football scores (followed by grumpiness if his team loses). When the rest of us stop singing, we play Euchre (a card game popular in the Midwest) or Cranium (a board game involving charades and verbal cues). For example:
“Think of a whitefish we often order,” said family friend Anne to my mom, her teammate, one year during a round of Cranium.
“Sea bream?” mom guessed.
“I don’t even know what that is,” Anne laughed. “Have we ever eaten that?”
And so these games go, always ending with the losing team declaring “rematch!” Simple joys …
And that’s ultimately what Thanksgiving is about: big helpings of joy and gratitude. There is no better place to celebrate it than the Midwest. If you’re ever invited, say yes!