What is Thanksgiving?

Norman Rockwell did a pretty good job of showing just what the American Thanksgiving tradition should look like. In one of his most famous pictures, Grandpa looks on while Grandma sets an enormous turkey before him. Around the table generations of smiling family members await the moment when Grandpa will pick up the carving knife and begin the annual feast. It’s an image we know as Americans whether we have seen the picture or not, and we aspire to re-create it each year when our families gather and begin a celebration of abundance.

But in reality, it isn’t always like that. When I was in school abroad, I had Thanksgiving dinner in a swanky hotel restaurant. I’d saved up my British pounds for the special meal but was the only person in the restaurant aware that it was an important holiday and a time for turkey and cranberries; in London they couldn’t care less about an American tradition, but I was able to have a lovely baked Dover sole.

I shared this story with my friend, Ann, who laughingly told me she hasn’t had a traditional Thanksgiving since she’s been married. Her three middle- and elementary school-aged kids have never shared Thanksgiving with their dad. In Wisconsin Ann is known as a “hunting widow,” and there are women all over the state who nod and say that their life is the same. The men in their families are not sitting at the head of the table ready to carve a turkey on the Thursday holiday afternoon; they are sitting in a tree stand covered in blaze orange and waiting for a big buck to wander past. The women who share these stories at first seem subdued, but then a little smile creeps across their lips. They love it! Hunting widows relish the Thanksgiving holiday as a chance to gather with women friends, shop at wine sales and enjoy a week off from having their husbands at home.

At church I asked a friend who has traveled extensively if she has had any Thanksgivings that weren’t exactly “traditional.”

“Well, I’ve never had a Norman Rockwell experience,” Ruthie laughed. “I’ve had Thanksgiving in Venezuela three times, and the hardest part was finding the turkey!”

Her husband’s job had taken them to South America for three years where they celebrated with American expats and people from other countries who were interested in the tradition.

“Non-Americans are intrigued by the holiday because it isn’t religious and doesn’t require gift-giving,” she explained.

Twice Ruthie spent Thanksgiving in Copenhagen with her husband, a fan of pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, pumpkin pie filling is hard to come by in other countries, so he tried unsuccessfully to sneak a can through airport security on his way to Denmark. After a long explanation to the airport staff, he was let go – without the can of filling. Fortunately, there was a sign hanging in the Denmark airport advertising a shop that sold American foods. After a long train ride, a subsequent subway ride and a lengthy walk, Ruthie and her husband found the tiny shop. In it, there was one small shelf that contained mostly Pop Tarts – what must they think of American cuisine? – and a can of pumpkin pie filling. In Denmark, Ruthie explained, finding turkey was the easy part.

Pumpkin pie is, indeed, an important component of the Thanksgiving meal. In our home we have two different kinds. My mother prefers the old-fashioned variety, but my daughters have been turned on to a cream cheese type that is equally delectable. And pie isn’t the only dessert on offer. In years past, I have been invited to share Thanksgiving with close friends who recognized how difficult it was to be thousands of miles away from my California and Vermont family members. They took me in as one of their own, and when a birthday fell right on Thanksgiving Day, the birthday girl’s father and I spent hours creating a turkey-shaped birthday cake. We dipped cookies in melted orange-colored chocolate to make tail feathers and used an ice cream cone for a decorative hat. The masterpiece was ultimately presented with more fanfare than the poultry centerpiece had received.

Barb, a retired university professor, told me that she was surprised to find how many people are alone on Thanksgiving. In the first year after her divorce, she invited displaced students to her home to celebrate the holiday together. The students were displaced by distance that precluded their going home for a long weekend, so they joined together to become a family with whom they could share the holiday tradition.

Military service sometimes forces people to be apart at holiday times, too. Around the globe, American service people pull together on Thanksgiving to honor the holiday while their families at home lean on one another and create a new kind of family that celebrates with an empty seat at the table and waits for another year.

My daughters and I were invited to have Thanksgiving at the house of a Canadian family several years ago. The family had lived in the United States for three years at the time and was happy to share their traditions with us. Kady sewed turkey-shaped placemats, and her kids made decorative place cards. We talked and laughed and ate until we were stuffed. They had adjusted to our feasting tradition just fine.

“We celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada, too, but we do it a month earlier,” Kady clarified. “But this Black Friday thing? We definitely don’t do that!”

Ah, yes…the holiday tradition of shopping. In other countries feasts are shared in honor of the harvest, and celebrations are held in which gifts are exchanged. But is there any other country in the world where people cap off their holiday with a revered day of shopping? And Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without someone falling asleep in front of a football game – another sacred institution.

But shopping, football, feasting and hunting are secondary to the true tie that binds this holiday tradition together. Deeply tucked in between the Black Friday ads, reclined barcaloungers, recipe cards and hunting gear is the magic that keeps us celebrating this annual feast. Norman Rockwell captured one part of it in his painting, but he couldn’t encompass it in its entirety. Rockwell depicts family, the element that glues us together and packs the airports during Thanksgiving weekend, but family isn’t limited to the people who share a gene pool. Family includes all of the people with whom we share laughter, love and life. At Thanksgiving we honor the people who came before us and treasure those who have held our hands when we have faced life’s biggest challenges and enjoyed its smallest pleasures. It is said that we can’t pick our family, but the people who open their hearts and share themselves with us become a treasured kind of family that can be as strong and reliable as any genetic connection. At this time of year – no matter where we are – we welcome the excuse of a harvest feast to celebrate family – however we define it.  What a tradition!

Healthy Snacks

Whether it’s mid-morning, after-school or bedtime, growing kids sometimes need a snack.  Although it’s cheap and easy to grab a bag of chips, a cookie or a candy bar, the best choice is something that satisfies hunger while it meets the changing nutritional needs of growing children.

Elisa Zied, MS, RD, registered dietitian, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of Feed Your Family Right! (Wiley, 2007) points out that, “[Parents] need to focus more on calcium-rich snacks.”

As children grow, “calorie and nutrient needs increase,” explains Zied.  “Teens need more iron, girls because they menstruate and need to replace losses, and boys to support increases in lean muscle tissue.  They also need increased calcium as they develop peak bone mass.”

The challenge for parents is in how to meet the nutritional needs of their children while generating enthusiasm for healthy foods.

For fifteen years, Michelle Kooiker has been teaching elementary and preschool in northern Wisconsin.  Her struggle has been to entice picky eaters at snack time, and her creative technique seems to pay off.

“Sometimes kids are turned off by unfamiliar textures, so I ask them to break it down into steps,” says Kooiker, “the first of which is to ‘kiss it goodbye.’”

Kooiker’s method is to have a balking child bring a new food to his or her lips for a kiss.  Sometimes the taste on the lips is enough to tempt a bite.  Sometimes it takes longer to become comfortable with a new flavor and texture.  After a positive connection has been made to the food, she encourages a nibble.  Later on, she suggests a bite.  Before too long, the introduction is a success, and the child is picking up something new to “kiss goodbye.”

What defines a healthy snack food?

“Parents should think of snacks as extensions of meals and should include foods that fall into the key food groups:  dairy, fruits, veggies, grains, lean meats/beans,” says Zied.

Creative presentation is also helpful in selling these snacks to kids.  Peanut butter spread on celery with raisins on top becomes “Ants on a Log.”  Guacamole and hummus can be “Monster Mash” into which carrots, pita chips or jicama can be dipped.  Spinach and cheeses combine to make a great dunk for multigrain crackers and veggies.  Sweet dips are popular, too.  Blend honey with mascarpone, cream cheese or peanut butter and plunge sliced apples or graham cracker sticks into the tasty mix.

For the parent with little free time for whipping up specialty dips, low-fat pudding, chocolate milk and single-serving cheese sticks can provide a speedy calcium boost for kids.  If it’s your day to provide a snack for the class at school, bring yogurt.  Add a dollop of Cool Whip, and the kids have an activity food for stirring and cracker-dunking.  If there are 10 squealing tweens in your living room for a sleepover, sprinkle air-popped corn with tasty seasonings for their movie treat.

Avoid highly processed foods if at all possible.  Instead, buy fresh fruits and vegetables for easy munching.  Clean, slice and store them in a clear bowl in the refrigerator where they are easy to see and consume.  Sliced oranges are easier to approach than whole ones, and prepared berries are more fun to tackle than ones with stems.  A clear tray of carrots, cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber and broccoli with a tasty dip or salsa is a quick sell to hungry kids.

A good dose of fruits and vegetables will help keep kids hydrated, which is important in maintaining good health.  Water is the best drink for kids, followed by fat-free milk.  But a cup of 100 percent fruit juice per day or a sport drink from time to time can be a treat.

To be sure kids are hydrated enough, Zied advises that they have, “enough water and other liquids so that their urine is pale in color, not yellow.”  Deep color and odor indicate dehydration and disappear with the proper amount of fluid intake.

Include kids in their own snack selections.  Talk about food groups and healthy choices.  Include them in the purchase and preparation of their snacks, and lead by example.  A kid won’t choose sliced cucumbers if Mom is tearing into a bag of Cheetos.  Keep the experience fun, and don’t make snack-time into a food battle.  By being a positive role model, you will instill in your children life-long habits that will set them off on good, long lives.


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Gingerbread Houses


Icicles hang from a snowy rooftop, brightly colored bulbs shimmer from frosty eaves and candy cane decorations line a curving sidewalk. This isn’t a scene from a holiday greeting card — it’s what you can create with a good gingerbread recipe and a touch of creativity.


For centuries European bakeries have turned out gingerbread houses using molds created by master craftsmen. In France, a special guild was formed for these bakers of “pain d’epices,” and an annual fair ran for 800 years to celebrate their special breads. But it was the Grimm Brothers’ story of Hansel and Gretel that earned these sweet houses their spot in history.

“They were very popular in Switzerland, where I grew up,” explains Guido Landoldt, the executive pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe. “We used beautiful molds that were hundreds and hundreds of years old and carved into hard wood.”

Those antique molds are no longer available, but don’t let that stifle your creativity. There are many other ways to make this tasty seasonal centerpiece.

The most traditional way is first to bake the gingerbread that will become the walls, doors, chimney and roof. After the gingerbread cools, decorate the exterior walls while they are flat on a work surface, but be sure to frost the interior as well as exterior corners for added strength when you assemble the cottage.

Landoldt suggests royal frosting as the best glue and claims it’s stronger than liquid nails. Mix three egg whites, 1 pound powdered sugar and a pinch of cream of tartar together gently.

“Use a paddle instead of a whisk and mix slowly for seven to 10 minutes to avoid incorporating any air molecules,” he suggests.

Cover your icing with a damp towel until you are ready to begin gluing and decorating your project. Be sure to have plenty of pastry bags and frosting tips on hand to create different textures.


If baking isn’t your forte, start with a kit. John and Janet D’Orsi have been making this possible since 1981 at the Gingerbread Construction Co. in New England <www.gingerbreadusa.com>. They ship undecorated kit houses as well as fully finished houses anywhere in the 48 contiguous United States.

Don Granger, a retired construction worker in New Auburn, Wis., appreciates the particulars of construction and enjoys building gingerbread kit houses with his grandchildren.

“Making a gingerbread house with youngsters gives them an experience they couldn’t have without an adult,” says Granger, “and at the same time it teaches them where things go and why.”

Granger’s experience has taught him that creativity in decoration is part of the fun. He has used green frosting on overturned ice cream cones for trees, cotton candy for smoke and jelly beans for festive lights. To create a landscape, he covers a board with foil and paints it with diluted royal frosting. A path of chocolate bars lined with candy canes finishes the scene.


Not up to building an entire house? Consider the Betty Crocker recipe for gingerbread cookies from <www.bettycrocker.com>. These take less time and are delicious to eat. Frosting can still drip from eaves, shredded wheat can line the roof and peppermints can adorn the front door.


Very young children might not have the skills or patience to make a gingerbread house, but that doesn’t need to stop them. Beverly Cavanaugh, coordinator of the Early Childhood Center at Joliet (Ill.) Junior College offers this kid-friendly tip.

Use empty half-pint milk cartons to create a base for a graham cracker “gingerbread” house. Adhere crackers to the sides and top of the cleaned milk carton with royal frosting. Horizontally place graham cracker sticks for a log cabin effect, and make shingles from colorful gum or flat nuts.

To create a special gift, leave the spine of the container poking up between the graham cracker roof pieces.

“If you punch a hole in the ridge, you can hang it as an ornament,” suggests Cavanaugh. “Pipe more royal icing around the hole to look like snow on the roof.”

A picture slipped into the door or window can appear to peek out of the ornament which is easily preserved with a layer of shellac or a light wash of glue.

“After the frosting sets up, mix some craft glue and a few drops of water to make a thin wash for the child to paint onto the ornament,” directs Cavanaugh. “Embellish after the glue wash with iridescent sequins or other decorations for added sparkle.”

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