My Madcap, Oddball, Wonderful Strangersgiving

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I have a soft spot for people with nowhere to go on Thanksgiving. It’s too short of a holiday for me to make it home to the west coast, and too long for me to stay alone in the city twiddling my thumbs in a Netflix-induced haze. I have fond memories of a warm house with the television blaring football, my female family members fussing over whether the stuffing should have pecans, and all the fancy dishes being brought out of the china cabinet.

Friendsgiving is the natural solution. Your young urban tribe is your family now, after all. I often host Friendsgiving these days. But in college, I hosted Strangersgiving.

Knowing there would be a number of stranded students in my dorm, I printed out and hanged a sign with clip art of a turkey advising of the time and location of the shindig, invited every exchange student I knew, and told the local folks I knew from the coffee shop I worked at. I invited maintenance workers, a professor, friends from clubs, and acquaintances I barely knew.

My friend from Barnard and I were the farthest from Betty Crocker and Betty Draper you could imagine, but we formulated the menu, making sure, of course, to hit all the traditional food categories. Turkey? Turkey slices. Sides? Cranberry sauce from a can, green bean casserole, stir-fry, Stovetop stuffing. Carbs? Slices of bread and Ritz crackers. Vegan option? Vegan pot pie made from dining hall scraps. Dessert? Nilda’s Cookies.

Our freegan friend showed up with dumpstered bagels and nuts. Hurrah! Add them to the stuffing. (Don’t worry, we told everyone). Our dinner was more Food Not Bombs than Friendsgiving (though I’d say the Food Not Bombs I volunteered with was decidedly more gourmet than this).

The cooking process was far from laborious, but with no grocery store within walking distance and no car, how in the world was I going to make our green bean casserole and vegan pot pie?

Well, like Cinderella’s mice or Agnes Varda’s gleaners, 18-year-old me got crafty and collected enough packets of vegan margarine to make a crust and procured some flour from the gals who baked for the weekly women’s tea. The dining hall and a nearby college deli supplied fresh and canned veggies, soy milk and tofu.

We met in the superfancy space-age parlor of my dorm, which was ill-advisedly stuffed full of expensive orange Saarinen Womb chairs onto which students regularly spilled Rolling Rock. In the center of the room was a pit that was dug into the ground, forming a sort of round den within a den. It was there that we gathered to share our haphazard repast.

We feasted merrily, and the two Nigerian exchange students who attended seemed quite confused and then amused. We explained Thanksgiving to them in a historically confusing and shoddy manner appropriate to American legend.

“It’s about killing Native Americans with smallpox and stealing their harvest,” a student activist said to them glumly.

“It’s about shopping, capitalism and fueling the American machine,” a local who frequented the coffee shop said angrily.

“I think it’s about love and time off to spend with people you love and rethink your life and rest,” our resident optimist said.

“It’s about staying on campus and working your three jobs,” a Campus Patrol student said, as we all nodded, most of us planning on going to work the next day.

“It’s about all those things, plus stuffing your face and fighting with your family,” I mumbled, my mouth full.

“It’s not about the harvest?” one of the exchange students asked.

I gestured toward the canned cranberry in response.

At one point, we encouraged the attendant working at the desk to join us for a bite, and she did. I got the chance to hear about the life of a woman I frequently saw working, but rarely spoke to beyond “Hey, how’s it going?” She told us that normally she’d be at home preparing for Thanksgiving, but she needed the extra money. She told us about her kids and showed us some photos. We asked her how she liked working with spoiled brats like us. She said we were nicer to her than her kids.

This gathering of diverse tribes has to this day stuck with me the most of any Thanksgiving in my life, and I’ve often wondered why.

Social scientists say that you learn more from strangers, because they are more likely to impart new information to you than your friends or your friends’ friends. It was true that our conversation cut a wide breadth, from Nigerian politics to Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, from freeganism to gas prices.

But it was more than just learning beyond books. I relished hanging out with people whose life experiences had been so extremely different from mine, but with whom the desire for food and revelry was equally strong. And little did I know that after college, my life would narrow—that my circle of friends would tighten into a strong, small, trusted group and that chances to meet strangers in strange circumstances would be reserved for serendipitous travel experiences that deviated from my daily life.

I’ve never had a more lovably ragtag Thanksgiving, nor one more interesting. To a soundtrack of Sleater-Kinney, cans of Budweiser in hand, bellies full of rich, buttery Ritz cracker-turkey sandwiches, a long evening stretched on as we had nowhere else to go in life—as of yet.

Dakota Kim is a food writer, gardener, mushroom hunter and burlesque producer living in Brooklyn. She likes to brew strange Korean medicinal teas and bake vegan desserts. She is currently working on a cookbook featuring burlesque performers called Bombshell Bakers. Tweet her @dakotakim1.

Photo by Andrew Kippen CC BY