Column: The nontraditional traditionalist

sophie flax PHOTO A wild turkey in Noyac’s Morton Wildlife Preserve as photographed by the author’s daughter, an avowed vegetarian who will not be eating his (or her) brethren this Thursday.
SOPHIE FLAX PHOTO A wild turkey in Noyac’s Morton Wildlife Preserve as photographed by the author’s daughter, an avowed vegetarian who will not be eating his (or her) brethren this Thursday.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, some folks are known for their perfectly cooked turkey, while others excel in the pie-making department. Me? I shine in an entirely different arena — as queen of the nontraditional Thanksgiving.

For the record, I didn’t set out vying for the title. In fact, growing up as the youngest of five, I was surrounded by the quintessential big family rounded out by aunts and uncles who came from across the state of Ohio to join the holiday feast. In anticipation, the shopping, baking and prep work began far in advance.

As the day approached, my parents’ wedding china would come out of storage and I would inevitably break one of the fragile wine glasses, either through table setting or animated conversation.

By the time I was in high school, the wedding china was several glasses shy of a complete set and my siblings had all moved to other states. Meanwhile aunts and uncles were dying off at an alarming clip, so we had far fewer Thanksgivings together. Then when my father died at the end of my senior year, the whole notion of tradition seemed to fade entirely.

I set out to redefine the holiday on my own terms. My first dip into the nontraditional Thanksgiving pool came when I was a junior at Ohio University. I was renting a terrific little house with three roommates, all of whom had gone home the minute finals were over. But not everyone had left town, so I invited my mom, who was now on her own, to come down for the occasion and threw a big Thanksgiving day bash for the “leftovers” who had nowhere else to go.

It was a fine time, free of family fights and green bean casserole (O.K., I was in college so we probably did have that). But the nontraditional tradition stuck thereafter, at first because I was perpetually on the move (five relocations to three different states came within a year and a half of that college Thanksgiving), and later, because it just seemed like fun to pursue the unexpected.

Fortunately, when my husband, Adam, came along, he embraced the nontraditional tradition as well. Prior to moving to the East End, we lived in Hoboken and for several years, Thanksgiving Eve meant a drive into a deserted Manhattan where we’d head straight down to Chinatown and feast on a dinner of dim sum, Peking duck, whole fish or some other specialty of the house.

We eventually branched out to other Manhattan eateries, including one awesome Czech place near the U.N. that served a Thanksgiving Day feast offering a Bohemian twist on American favorites, including a flight of seven different Czech beers. I don’t even think we bothered with the last three — not that I can remember.

But the nontraditional Thanksgiving wasn’t limited to ethnic dining experiences in Manhattan. Because the holiday often comes as a four-day weekend, we expanded our horizons to include jaunts to summer resorts which were never designed to be visited in November by anyone other than pilgrims.

One memorable year in the early 1990s, the destination was a frigid Martha’s Vineyard where we rented a non-insulated little cottage deep in the woods of the appropriately named Chilmark. The only heat came from a smoky wood-burning stove and we were the only guests (surprise, surprise).

The owner of the cottage complex was a widow who had purportedly headed down to Florida not long after Labor Day. She had left her grown son, Chad, in charge of the place.

At least that’s what he told us.

I soon began to wonder, however, after realizing that each night after the sun went down, Chad had the unsettling habit of scaring the stuffing out of us by appearing outside the window of our cottage with a power tool or axe in hand.

Though his character could have provided a marvelous plot twist in a summer beach novel, I suspected Chad was just another of the lonely leftovers, so we invited him in for a beer and a slice of pecan pie, which seemed to cheer him greatly.

It seems to me Thanksgiving is all about that — forming kinships in the absence of genetic ties. For better and for worse, the holidays are defined by our relationship to others, and this time of year is very hard indeed for those left on their own with memories of Thanksgivings past when houses and hearts were filled by children who have grown up and relatives who have passed on.

They say you always want what you’ve never had, and my 16-year-old daughter, Sophie, an only child, has always longed for those big family gatherings, despite having never known them.

Though we’ve traveled the world with her, I’m afraid the traditional homespun holiday is the one thing we can’t give her. With no living grandparents, and separated by thousands of miles from aunts, uncles and cousins, it’s hard to make the holiday special when it’s just the three of us year after year.

So rather than being about home and hearth, Thanksgiving for her has been defined by trains, planes and automobiles as we travel to somewhere else in search of an adventure. I suppose one thing I should be thankful for is the lack of family drama and the sort of fights that often ensue when politics, hair cuts or cranberry recipes become a source of rancor at the Thanksgiving table.

A recent poll by the University of Michigan revealed that half of the families taking part in the survey admitted that conflicts about food at holiday gatherings were a challenge for them.

We’re talking about folks who are trying to please relatives who are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, paleo or simply politically offended by the GMO creamed corn and the non free-range way in which the turkey on the plate lived before it died for our culinary pleasure.

For the record, this year, we’re once again heading out for Thanksgiving. But this time, we’re keeping it local. Good friends up in the Springs section of East Hampton  have invited us to join their extended brood for the holiday.

All we have to provide is four bottles of quality red wine.
I can handle that. I’m also sure we’re on the same page politically, though we do have to make a special stuffing dish for Sophie, an avowed vegetarian. Fortunately, I don’t envision any shouting matches breaking out over that one, though I can’t say the same would hold true if she insisted that everyone at the table eat Tofurkey.

And my parents wedding china? It will probably sit unused in the china cabinet for yet another year.