Surviving Turkey Day

Putting the "fun" in dysfunctional Thanksgiving

For several years off and on, in between my regular duties of being a model father and husband, a lion of long-form journalism, and a decorated war hero (I served with distinction and unflagging courage in the War on Illiteracy), I also wrote an advice column at a couple different shops. It was imaginatively titled, “Ask Matt Labash.” How did we come up with such a brilliant name? Ours is not to deconstruct inspiration, merely to channel it.

Why people would turn to me for advice is anyone’s guess. But the internet is a lonely, desperate place, full of damaged people with suspect judgment. So I went about the task with a clean conscience. I’m not sure that I fixed any broken hearts or mended any destinies. But I figured I was at least as edifying as the Russian bots that my readers spent their days conversing with on Twitter.

Herewith is some of the more useful Thanksgiving advice I dispensed over the years, along with a 2021 update, in the interest of giving you your money’s worth. Unless you’re a free subscriber, in which case, you’ve already gotten your money’s worth.  (Feel free to rectify that. I have a big family, and turkey prices are up 20 percent this year.)

Matt, do you have any tips to survive a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving?  – J.S.

To many, “Thanksgiving” is a stressful word. That’s why my family has started calling it a “Harvest Festival,” just to reduce holiday tensions. As Johnny Carson once said, “Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.”

The best survival tip I have is to think of Thanksgiving as a procedural checklist, then to diligently plow through it before angst can set in. For instance, each Harvest Festival, my wife and I like to start the day at dawn’s crack by stuffing the turkey, forking the pie crusts, and candying the yams. After that, we usually get out of bed, then begin preparing dinner.

Equally important is bearing in mind the true reason for the season, and reveling in the richness and tradition of the day. We do so by gathering our children around, and relating to them the story of the first Harvest Festival feast, telling them how the Pilgrims and Indians came together to break bread. Unable to understand each other, they still communicated through the universal language of friendship and brotherhood, so that down the line, we could swindle the Indians out of their land, thus paving the way for the strip malls and fast-food establishments that have made our nation the best dadblum country in the world. Then my wife, an expert in early Native-American languages, teaches the kids how to say “suckers” in Wampanoag.

After busying ourselves all afternoon, the relatives usually come shuffling up the driveway, knocking on the door around 3 p.m.  After nearly a month of Harvest Festival drills with our kids – I suggest starting shortly after Halloween – the whole family  knows to wordlessly stop, drop, and roll behind a family room sofa, waiting quietly until the knocks subside, and the exasperated relatives decide to take off instead for Thanksgiving dinner at the Cracker Barrel, where for completely reasonable prices, they can enjoy the cornbread stuffing and sweet potato casserole, perhaps even picking up an Alan Jackson CD in the gift shop along the way.

For more persistent relatives who can’t take a hint after 15 minutes or so of fruitless knocking, we throw open the door, apologize for being in the shower and not hearing them, then welcome them inside. We fill their plates, and to avoid any dysfunctional episodes, implement a strict no-talking rule. Instead, we turn on the television, and silently watch the Detroit Lions get slaughtered, much like the Indians were slaughtered shortly after the first Harvest Festival, thus bringing the day full circle, as pie is served.

Dear Matt, With Thanksgiving here, who should cut the turkey and how should the meat be distributed? – Jonathan Winthrow

At my Thanksgiving table, we traditionally leave the turkey-carving to the one who has had the fewest drinks, and who can saw through bone without losing a finger. So it usually falls to my  houseman, Chulo. Ever since he quit his Christian street gang, Loco Para Cristo, where he committed street crime for Christ, it helps him to stick something, in order to have a productive outlet for his righteous anger. Also, he has a lot of experience cutting people/things, and can separate the clavicle from the coracoid with the skill of a surgeon.

I’m therefore no expert, since Chulo handles our carving duties. But I have generally found that the sharp, serrated edge of the knife works best on the turkey. While the dull side of the blade is good for whacking lippy children who keep yelling out which part of the bird they want before you’ve asked for their plate.

As for meat distribution, it might sound childist/sexist, but in my house, we prefer the traditional Thanksgiving hierarchy. That means children get dark meat/drumsticks. Because screw ‘em, they’re smaller than we are. What are they gonna do about it? All wives and women-folk get second-rate white meat. Not out of malice or gender superiority, but because there’s such a surfeit of desirable chick food (green-bean casserole, fruit salad, marshmallow-and-cranberry sweet potatoes) that they don’t seem to notice. That leaves the choice white-meat-eating to the men, which is appropriate since we are, after all, the hunters. Or we were, before we all grew into soft, khaki-panted, sweater-wearing cowards who need other people to do our killing for us. Still, we honor the old ways.

A common Thanksgiving mistake is to wait for dinner to be over to unbutton your pants for the tryptophan-induced catnap that you take while sitting on the couch, watching football. But why wait? Chulo unbuttons my pants right there at the table. Not only is it an excellent conversation starter (who wants to hold the turkey baster?), but it also promotes comfort and better circulation if you pass out from overeating.

Say Matt, after throwing a successful Thanksgiving dinner, how do you get people to leave in a timely fashion? – A.P.

Never underestimate the room-clearing power of feigning gastrointestinal distress. Announce loudly that you believe your turkey “was a bit pink,” and that it ran through you like a knife through hot butter. Then ask if anyone has a book of matches handy because the fan in the hallway bathroom is broken, and “Daddy needs to lay a starch brick.”

If anyone still remains when you emerge (the crowd should’ve thinned considerably), start coughing violently, and ask for a sip of the nearest guest’s wine, announcing that you’ll be fine, “it’s just the COVID acting up again.” To ward off any remaining stragglers, insist they stay for dessert, but that due to pie-crust supply-chain shortages - caused by pandemic disruption, failed socialist policies, and Hunter Biden’s laptop - you’ll be trying something new this year:  creamed-peas-and-giblet-gravy smoothies. They’ll be out of there so fast, you’ll have to mail them their coats. Just in time for you to shove off to Walmart to fistfight some woman in pajama bottoms with neck tattoos for the last Apple AirPods at the Black Thursday sale.

PS:  Since I’m toying with bringing “Ask Matt Labash” back on a sporadic basis, particularly once the paywall goes up, send any potential questions to askmattlabash@gmail.com.  (All questions are not selected, but they are all prayerfully considered.)

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Cinematic Bonus Track:  the hazards of cutting the turkey too early. From Barry Levinson’s Avalon.