A Tradition Without Tryptophan

A Tradition Without Tryptophan November 23, 2017

11 23 17 gabriel-garcia-marengo-68299November is always an interesting time for a family of vegetarians.

While my three children have never lifted turkey to their lips, they’ve come home from school with a multitude of smiling birds cut out in the shapes of their hands, illustrated plates labeled peas, potatoes, and turkey, and all manner of pilgrims and Indians sitting before bulbous, crayoned drumsticks.

My children have also studied the confusingly whimsical psychology of turkeys facing certain death, a standard subject in contemporary childhood cinema and song. In second grade, my oldest daughter, Lydia, participated in several morbid numbers at a school performance, including “Five Fat Turkeys”:

Five fat turkeys short and plump.
The first one hid way high upon a stump.
The second one said, “We should run, run, run.”
The third one said, “or we’ll be done.”
The fourth one said, “I don’t want to be dinner.”
The fifth one said, “I wish I were thinner!”

Her performance was not convincing.

My husband and I have been vegetarians since 1999, four years before our first child was born. While these various carcass-related school projects don’t align with our dietary habits, they don’t offend us, either. To our children, these abstractions represent different languages of tradition and taste. Our kids go with the cultural flow, dutifully shading in their elliptical poultry breasts until December rolls around.

When my husband and I first became vegetarians, we wondered how to make our Thanksgiving meals special. Since our relatives live out of state, we didn’t have to worry about pleasing anyone’s palates but our own. For a few years, we made enchiladas.

The Thanksgiving of my first pregnancy, however, caught me by surprise. I hadn’t craved meat since going veg and had been consuming plenty of protein, but that year, when I found myself standing in my friend’s kitchen, I experienced an overwhelming urge to approach the turkey resting on her counter.

I picked off a piece of white meat, then picked off another. I soon dug in with both hands, almost in an apocalyptic panic, turkey sticking in my nails and teeth. The baby leaped in my womb.

A few Thanksgivings later, remembering that ecstatic meal at the counter, I suggested to my husband that we purchase an organic, free-range turkey. Such a purchase would be consistent with our decision to become vegetarians, which was more about boycotting what we believed was an inhumane industry rather than saving the animals’ lives themselves.

So we bought one. We winced as we scooped out the innards with our bare hands and pulled back the wings to apply butter as if it were deodorant. Our children weren’t all that interested in the final product. And at one moment, while tentatively peeling flesh from the bones like bashful buzzards, my husband and I made eye contact.

We both knew. Meat had become a foreign country to us, a country we probably wouldn’t visit again.

We tried Thanksgiving enchiladas again. Then lasagna. But those meals required a lot of work for little benefit, as the kids, very young at the time, were at that keep-all-ingredients-separated-by-at least-four-inches-upon-penalty-of-screaming stage. So then we started going to buffets, until most of those restaurants closed. My mother sent me a vegetarian Thanksgiving cookbook, and I tried my hand at some lentil loaves and other autumnal dishes. Nothing really stuck except for the handmade pecan turtles that pulled out our fillings and crowns.

When you start a family, you think you have time to establish traditions, but before you know it, the years get away from you, and you’re staring at a to-hell-with-it-all frozen pizza.

Of course Thanksgiving is about gratitude, not food. And we tried gratitude. We tried the tradition of writing down what we were grateful for during every dinner in November, but then the days we fought or ran out the door to basketball practice with granola bars for supper piled up. Soon, we found ourselves burdened with the realization that we were ungrateful, undisciplined, selfish God-haters.

Scratch the gratefulness chart.

My oldest daughter is now in middle school, and I’m facing the fact that she will remember not what we intend to do but what we do, like it or not. It has dawned on me that we do have a Thanksgiving(ish) tradition. And according to most people we know, it’s about the worst tradition there is.

Before kids, before Black Friday was even commonly called as such, my husband and I wandered into a Menards home improvement store the day after Thanksgiving. Though arriving hours into the sale, we found some fleece throw blankets and a cheap set of hair clippers. The atmosphere was warm and calm. We walked among the multicolored lights hand in hand and bought Queen Anne chocolate cherries, my late grandmother’s favorite, at the checkout.

The next year we did the same. And the next. We didn’t articulate these Friday visits as our new tradition, but they felt like a date just the same. Sometimes we bought things, and sometimes we didn’t. We just enjoyed meandering on our day off.

When our kids were born, we continued visiting Menards the day after Thanksgiving, eventually letting them pick out ornaments for one another. We haven’t beaten anyone over the head for a Power Rangers sleeping bag (in 2012 we got the last one fair and square), and we’ve picked up a number of teapots, slippers, gingerbread house kits, and other inexpensive, comforting accoutrements for the coming freeze.

Mostly, we enjoy walking around together because, well, that’s what we’ve always done.

Yes, our only consistent Thanksgiving tradition involves Christmas, not Thanksgiving, and a store, not the table. The arrangement is not particularly prayerful, elegant, or character-building; nowhere close to the kind of holiday celebration I envisioned for our family. But it’s also not inherently wrong. It developed, without our realizing it at first, as a Runyan Thing, as our thing, and we’ve decided to stay true to ourselves, no matter how superficial and non-tryptophanic our ways.

This year, as always, we will buy the cherries at the checkout and drive home, I’m guessing, through a winter-white sky with bare branches and a few spinning, icy flecks. Our kids will reach for their chocolates with the same hands they trace to make their construction-paper turkeys. This year, and I hope at least a few more, they will lick the artificial syrup from all thirty of their growing fingers.

And for this, my God, I am grateful.


This post originally appeared on Good Letters November 25, 2014.

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Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Books & Culture, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.

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