When Linda Coats realized she would not be able to host her children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving this year because of the pandemic, she and her husband considered volunteering at a soup kitchen and skipping the turkey dinner entirely. Instead, they decided to spend the holiday with their second family: Their neighbors in Lexington Park, Md.
“We’re going to miss seeing the kids and grandkids so much that we decided we had to be with other people,” Ms. Coats, 59, said.
So Ms. Coats and her husband will smoke two turkeys, their neighbors will make various side dishes (and maybe a smoked ham) and the group of about 25 will turn up masked and with their own plates and utensils to a buffet set up on picnic tables on their cul-de-sac. They will be able to chat briefly, then return to their own homes to enjoy the meal separately.
“We’ve all been kind of checking up on each other,” Ms. Coats said. “Thanksgiving is going to be as good as it can get for 2020.”
With many Americans not wanting to travel, host people who have been traveling or have anyone except immediate family in their homes, Thanksgiving is even more of a puzzle than usual this year. Never mind how many pounds of turkey per person, or whether a green-bean casserole can (or should) be fancied up — this year it’s about whether to request coronavirus tests, how guests can help with food without setting foot in the host’s kitchen and, maybe most importantly, how to observe traditions while also observing health regulations.
Laura Douglas, 60, the president of Bristol Community College in southeastern Massachusetts celebrated Thanksgiving on Oct. 25, when it was still warm enough to eat outside. Her parents, both 86 years old, adore the holiday, and with most of the family on the front lines (a doctor and a dentist among them), the safest way to gather seemed to be outdoors on her sister’s deck..
Ms. Douglas’s sister, Holly Douglas Matty, set up three tables so everyone could sit by household, and cooked the turkey as well as the sausage stuffing. To avoid going in and out of her sister’s kitchen, Ms. Douglas skipped the usual family sides of mashed potatoes and green bean casserole and instead prepared foil packets of fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts with bacon on the grill. Ms. Douglas’s parents turned up, creamed onions in hand (a family staple for generations), wearing Pilgrim hats, which cracked up everyone.
The family did manage their traditional round robin of sharing what everyone is thankful for. “My mother always insists on it,” Ms. Douglas said. “We’re thankful to be healthy and able to work through the pandemic, when we know there are a lot of people that can’t.”
Other gatherings will occur indoors — and on Nov. 26 — with precautions.
Emily Gordon, 49, who works in media relations for the Yale School of Management, is joining her friend, the writer Annie Murphy Paul, and Ms. Paul’s two sons for dinner at their house. Everyone invited has been asked to take a coronavirus test first. The plan had originally been to crack the windows open wide, but the weather is looking cold. Before this, Ms. Gordon and Ms. Paul had only been getting together outdoors.
Fran Keller, 52, an entomologist in Davis, Calif., will also get tested. She’s hosting the first Thanksgiving she can remember — she usually goes to her eldest sister’s, also in Davis, but this year the crowd felt too large for comfort because several family members are high-risk. At Ms. Keller’s dinner will be her son (who lives with her), her daughter and her daughter’s family, though they will sit at separate tables because her daughter has asthma. (Ms. Keller is jokingly calling the second table “the Covid table” instead of the kids’ table.)
“I will hug my daughter, but only if it’s OK with her,” Ms. Keller said.
For many, instead of a celebration with relatives, this year will be spent with a chosen family, whether that’s with a pod or with friends — and sometimes both. Podsgiving (or Friendsgiving) still preserves the spirit of the holiday, with favorite dishes and the feeling of belonging.
Instead of going home to Templeton, Iowa (population: about 300), Chezney Schulz, 28, a hair colorist who lives in Manhattan’s East Village, will host a Podsgiving on her apartment’s rooftop for a dozen friends she’s been hanging out with during the pandemic. (Three of them are her roommates.)
The plan is to buy a cooked turkey (“my oven is too small to fit a turkey,” she said) and make stuffing and traditional — for her — holiday salads. These include an Oreo salad made with the crushed cookies, Cool Whip, and instant vanilla pudding, and an apple Snickers salad (apples, Snickers bars, Cool Whip, caramel, vanilla pudding). There will be space heaters and decorations — maybe a cornucopia — from one of her crafty roommates.
Ms. Schulz, who describes herself as “a silver linings person,” said she’s happy with her holiday plan.
“I feel like because of Covid our friend group has become very close and I’m truly surrounded by people I actually care about,” she said.
Matt Jennings, 44, of Charlotte, Vt., is also hosting his pod instead of the usual some 25 family members. Thanksgiving is the “premier holiday” in Mr. Jennings’s family (“we’re not big gift-givers,” he said), but everyone is in the Boston area in red zones.
“We thought about having everybody come up, but are we going to make everybody get tested? I don’t want to get into that,” said Mr. Jennings, the vice president of culinary for Healthy Living Market & Café, a small chain of whole foods stores.
Mr. Jennings, also a James Beard-nominated chef who says he “can’t not cook” on Thanksgiving, will serve the dinner (including apple pie made using his father’s recipe) in his barn, so his 14 neighbors have a little room to spread out. Instead of laying out a buffet, he plans to set up food stations. The barn has an old oil heater and guests will be reminded to wear thick sweaters.
“I’d rather be in the dining room with the fire going,” he said. “But we are blessed to be in a situation where we can still get a couple of families together in a beautiful place.”
Then there’s a group of friends from Rye Brook, N.Y., who met in high school, planning to quarantine so Covid can’t interfere with their 11-year-old tradition.
Called “Mikesgiving,” after the friend who was always a good sport about being made fun of (and who hosted the first one), the Thanksgiving eve dinner features the most ludicrous photos they can find of Mike, adorned with eye patches and bubbles that say “Argh,” then pasted on paper turkeys. Other essentials: The food must be from Boston Market (a favorite high school lunch spot that was just far enough away that getting there during the school day felt like an achievement), and at some point someone must ask if Rachel has arrived with the drinks. (Rachel still has not brought the tequila, and isn’t likely to this year — nobody has spoken to her for at least three years.)
“On paper we are quarantining for two weeks to come home to our families for Thanksgiving,” said Larry Rosenzweig, 28, founder of a video start-up called Cquence. “But in reality we are quarantining for Mikesgiving. We look forward to it all year.”