My favorite Thanksgiving as an adult began when my husband and I woke up with suddenly no one to cook for but ourselves.
So instead of spending the day in the kitchen, we decided to drive the dog to the beach. And stopped for Egg McMuffins on the way.
I never thought I would choose to walk into a McDonald's on Thanksgiving. I wasn't ready to wave the white flag of, "I'm an orphan. I've got nowhere else to go."
After my immediate family evaporated when I was 15, I spent many years hovering around other people's holiday tables, hoping to be invited to sit. And even though I usually felt like a stray cat let inside for just that day, any family table was better than none.
Then when my husband and I created our own family table, we began hosting friends and family, and I loved offering a place for anyone I knew needed it. So at first I felt adrift again when we found ourselves without any guests to host, or any gathering to attend on Thanksgiving.
But soon, I felt the freedom in not being tethered to a family table. The freedom to eat whatever I want, with whomever I want. Even the freedom to decide I'd rather go to McDonald's instead. So I was certainly grateful to find the Ukiah location open that Thanksgiving, as were a lot of other people:
Like the man drinking coffee and charging his computer. Maybe he was on the road and very happy to find a place open on a holiday, like my sister and I were the New Year’s Day we spent in a small town in New Mexico. At first we had fun, standing in the hotel parking lot at midnight and setting off sparklers, something that had been illegal in California since we were kids. But the next morning we realized we had no food, and with no grocery stores open we worried we might have nothing to eat all day. Until we saw the lights and life at McDonald’s. The restaurant was a refuge for me that day, and many times since.
Like the couple sitting with their young kids, enjoying plates of eggs and pancakes and sausages.Maybe they were also on the road, or maybe the father treats the family to McDonald’s on holidays to give his wife a break from cooking everything. My favorite Thanksgiving meal as a kid was the year my parents took my sister and me to a restaurant. Not only was the food much better than what we had at home, my mother was relaxed and smiling because she hadn't spent the day cooking.
Like the teenage girl eating with a woman, perhaps her mother. Maybe the girl was like me at that age, left with one ill-equipped parent who hated American holidays and decided that with his wife gone, he could finally stop celebrating them. Maybe that girl was perfectly happy eating chicken McNuggets on Thanksgiving because she didn't have to buy all the ingredients and cook them herself.
Now, I certainly recognize that any McDonald’s likely only opens on holidays to make more money, and I also recognize that any business open on Thanksgiving will likely be forcing some employees to work. But I’ve worked plenty of holidays without resentment. In fact, another of my favorite Thanksgiving meals was with my co-workers while we put out a newspaper, because it had better food and more grateful smiles than most family tables I’ve eaten at. And even if all employees working on Thanksgiving aren’t treated to a good meal, I still choose to believe that most of them are grateful to have a job.
For those who prefer their family’s table and never want to go to McDonald’s on Thanksgiving, I hope they never have to. But those of us who are no longer part of a family gathering — either by choice, circumstance, or a little of both — might really like having the option of finding food and community elsewhere.
Like the man in line ahead of me at the Harvest Market in Fort Bragg on Thanksgiving who reminded me of my father. Not only because of what he was buying — a six-pack of beer, a bottle of booze, a tin of sardines and a jar of olives — but because he chatted with the checker as if that were his main social interaction for the day.
And like my husband and me, who could still eat delicious turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy the day we went to the beach because of the cooks at Harvest Market. And I remember smiling as we ate our holiday meal in the car with to-go containers balanced on our laps and the dog behind us, anxiously waiting for a taste of turkey. Smiling because I wasn't at a family table, but I felt more at home than ever before.
As for this year, we are hosting again, so I will be in the kitchen that day hoping the gluten-free change to my galette recipe isn't a disaster. But I will still be smiling, because while it feels good to know I no longer need to sit at a family table to enjoy Thanksgiving, it feels even better to offer a seat at our table to others.