Savor everyone at the Thanksgiving table

Families can be challenging, but let the love of Christ guide you

Photo: Madeline Wilson

Thanksgiving embodies the idyllic family feast, at least for us here in America. Our literature, movies, television shows, and commercials (!) all pick up the theme: Thanksgiving is for family. 

Even our statistical data bears this out: 95 percent of American families gather for Thanksgiving, according to a Harris Poll of people surveyed four years ago (see But not all family gatherings are idyllic. Not all Thanksgiving dinners are thankful. And the perfect or ideal family doesn’t exist.

Family is often messy because human beings are messy. For some, the annual Thanksgiving gathering provides yet another reminder that their family just doesn’t measure up. Maybe you find yourself in those shoes. Maybe the thought of Uncle Frank taking up space in your house again — even for just an afternoon — makes you bristle with both anger and disgust. Maybe the thought of Aunt Mavis sitting at the table clinking glasses with you and regaling the family with story after story of her many, many superior accomplishments makes you feel just a little “less than.” 

Maybe Cousin Johnny’s penchant for igniting anger in the hearts of all present at every single family gathering by simply refusing to talk about anything other than religion and politics (and doing so in the most unsavory manner) is something you would rather skip out on this year. If so, I get it. I understand. I’ve walked in those shoes, too. Our families may be filled with the frustrated, the fallen, and the foolish, but our families are not total failures. There is always hope where there is faith.

Thanksgiving is for family.

I find great comfort in the parable Jesus told about the weeds and the wheat (see Matthew 13:24–30). After it was discovered that an enemy had sown weeds in the wheat field, the servants asked the owner if he wanted them to pull up the weeds. The owner told them not to pull them up, because in doing so they might also inadvertently pull up the wheat before it was ready for harvest. He said, “Let them grow together until harvest” (Matthew 13:30). 

If I’m honest, I can see clearly that there are both weeds and wheat in my heart, just as there are both weeds and wheat in my family. That recognition, and the honesty it requires, gives me the courage to allow the weeds in my life to simply be. In my younger years I believed that I was supposed to somehow magically change the weeds in my life into wheat. I believed (consciously or not) that I was somehow supposed to change Uncle Frank, Aunt Mavis, and Cousin Johnny. 

Mercifully I have learned over the years that I can’t change anybody, and that I should leave all changing in the hands of the One who sees into all hearts and who loves us infinitely. Still, there’s the matter of Thanksgiving dinner and the fact that some unsavory weeds might very well be gathering together with me … wheat that I am. So what am I to do about that?

I can’t help but think about how St. Teresa of Kolkata said, “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the action that we do.” And again, “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” 

Love begins at home.

Can I be open enough? Can I be willing enough to let Jesus love Frank, Mavis, and Johnny through my own wounded and sensitive heart? It really boils down to willingness. Am I willing? Am I willing to be open? Am I willing to allow Jesus to do for me what I cannot do for myself — to love others through me? 

Reading the memoirs of people of faith has always helped me to be willing, to be open when I would rather not be. 

One of my favorite writers is Heather King, who has written nine memoirs and who, like me, is messy. She’s an alcoholic, sober 31 years, and she’s a Catholic convert. Her books cover everything: her 20 years as a hard-core drunk and how she sobered up; a spiritual crisis as a Beverly Hills lawyer that culminated in her leaving that profession and taking up the vocation of writing; becoming Catholic; and her relationships with food, money, cancer, unrequited love, prayer, and healing from abortion. 

All of Heather’s writing is shot through with love and is deeply, deeply Catholic. Her words never cease to inspire me and call me higher — usually by reminding me that I need to go lower. “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). 

Heather’s latest book Famished (TSEHAI Publishers and Marymount Institute Press, 2018) is a food memoir with recipes. She has graciously allowed me to share a recipe with you here, and I chose to share the one that will be on my Thanksgiving Day menu: Fall slaw with apples and bacon. Below you will find her recipe as it appears in the book. 

The notes in the recipe are hers. I love salads of all kinds, and I always encourage families to serve Thanksgiving dinner in courses. Families typically spend hours making the meal, but only minutes eating it. There’s no need for that. Thanksgiving dinner is meant to be relished, to be savored. It’s not just the food — it’s the people. Relish the people; savor the relationships. Take your time. Be open to all who gather with you. Smile, for “the smile is the beginning of love.” 

Relish the people; savor the relationships. Take your time.



6 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons oil

3 tablespoons minced shallots

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons honey

½ teaspoon coarse salt

Red pepper flakes, to taste

12 cups ⅓-inch-sliced mixed cabbage, such as red, green, and savoy

2 tart apples, quartered, cored, grated, shredded, or minced

¾ cup small-diced celery

¼ cup snipped chives

7 bacon slices, cooked until crisp but not burnt, crumbled

(I’ve never followed any of these amounts to the letter. As long as you don’t overdo the red wine vinegar, you’ll be fine.)

To Prepare

Make the dressing: measure the cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, water, oil, shallots, honey, salt, and red pepper flakes into a small bowl and whisk until combined.

Place the cabbage, apples, celery, and chives in a large bowl. Add the dressing. Toss until coated. (This can be made a day ahead and refrigerated to let the flavors mellow.)

Serve chilled or at room temperature, as you prefer (I happen to like room temperature). Just before serving, add the crumbled bacon and toss well. You’ll want to taste now to adjust the oil, honey, and/or vinegar as necessary. Serve immediately — you want the bacon to still be crisp.

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