Thanksgiving 2020, like so many other mileposts this year, is a heartbreaker.
On a holiday defined by togetherness and feasts, the deadly persistence of a pandemic has scaled down this warmest of American traditions to small, sometimes solitary observances on the advice of cold, hard science.
Colorado’s timing couldn’t have been worse. We saved our lowest moment in the battle against the coronavirus — schools have gone remote, restaurants in more than 20 counties are banned from serving guests indoors, and in some areas, gathering with anyone outside your own household is prohibited — for the time we’re least prepared to endure it.
But endure it we will. And with some imagination and perseverance, we’re determined to enjoy it.
COVID-19 IN COLORADO
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The Colorado Sun asked its readers how they will spend this untraditionally traditional holiday in this most surreal year. Many have found creative ways to make it memorable. For others, including Indian Hills resident Kathy Owens, the day is less about celebration than sacrifice.
She will leave the comfort of home for her job as an ICU nurse.
Helen Resnik of Denver invited friends over for an outdoor “gratitude toast,” 8 feet apart and near a fire pit, before each goes home for their own meal. Cookie Murphy-Pettee of Gypsum will exchange food — over the fence — with the couple next door, which includes a man who recently had heart surgery.
Beth Norton, who for more than 30 years has gathered for Thanksgiving dinner with a coworker, his partner and an ever-expanding number of relatives and friends, will eat alone, with a “proper” meal that proudly reflects the real deal.
“I’ll be cooking a Cornish hen,” the 67-year-old Denver resident wrote to The Sun. “I’ll tuck its little wings. Tie its little legs. Set it on top of a chopped potato, carrot and onion in my little casserole dish. There will be stuffing, green beans and rolls.”
For dessert, Norton leaned toward apple hand pies. “Even in 2020,” she said, “I have much to be thankful for.”
A family food swap
Emily Gillis is not particularly looking forward to her mother’s “cucumber salad,” which in truth is cucumber slices locked inside lime Jell-O.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” she said, with a laugh. But Gillis will deliver that to her family’s doorsteps on Thanksgiving, along with her mom’s mashed potatoes and Gillis’ savory sausage-chestnut dressing.
The Gillis family — parents Lisa and Patrick, and their three grown daughters — all live within about 15 minutes of each other in Westminster and Arvada. On Thanksgiving day, Emily will serve as the designated driver for a loop around the north Denver suburbs to swap all the fixings for a typical Gillis holiday.
Lisa Gillis is roasting a turkey, along with potatoes, a green-bean casserole and the infamous “salad” that stems from her Midwestern roots. Emily’s oldest sister is making pumpkin pies. Emily will also whip up a cranberry-orange dressing, and her youngest sister has kept her creations a mystery (or she’s still deciding what to contribute).
Once all the food is delivered, the family will “gather” virtually via Google Hangouts and chat during the Thanksgiving meal.
“It’s very weird,” Emily said, but the three sisters in particular felt it was the best way to spend the holiday at a time when an estimated one in 41 people in Colorado are contagious with the coronavirus.
The main reason the family decided on a virtual turkey day was that Emily’s oldest sister is pregnant with the Gillis’ first grandchild. Her other sister works in a grocery store, where she faces potential exposure to the virus every time she goes to work. Emily’s dad is retired, but her mom works in a bookstore.
The risks seemed too great.
Emily expects that her mom will feel it the most, saddened that her daughters are not gathering around the same table in the home where they all grew up. It’s especially hard to take since they all live so close together now, after Emily, a graphic designer, moved back to Colorado from Baltimore a few years ago.
Emily said she will miss her mom, too, but maybe not enough to eat the cucumber Jell-O salad.
— Jen Brown, Staff writer
A soulful Thanksgiving
At the family gathering of a man who literally wrote the book on soul food, the menu has always been predictably sumptuous: Anchored by traditional turkey and ham, the meal’s myriad side dishes dive deep into the historic African-American culinary portfolio.
“Our tradition is basically a soulful Thanksgiving,” says Adrian Miller, the Denver author whose James Beard award-winning book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time” was the first of three food-related volumes he has written.
Mustard and turnip greens augment the smoked turkey. Save room on the plate for blackeyed peas with ham hock, cornbread dressing — “We don’t say ‘stuffing’ in soul food households,” he notes — and sweet potato casserole with crumbled pecan nuts (don’t even think about marshmallows).
And of course, there’s mac and cheese, whose American heritage with wealthy Southern families served by slave cooks earned it a place in every iconic 19th-century Southern cookbook, usually under the name “macaroni pudding.”
Topping off the sides: rolls and chitlins — aka chitterlings, or pig intestines, infamous for their foul smell and divisive nature. “Chitlins are one of the most controversial aspects of soul food,” Miller says. “There’s nobody on the fence about chitlins. It’s either hate or love. I’m on the love side.”
He eats them only twice a year, at Thanksgiving and New Year’s, which adds to the allure of this week’s holiday. And he especially loves his brother’s version, which somehow doesn’t stink and is very tender. More people would eat chitlins, he maintains, if they could try his brother Duran’s recipe.
Finally, dessert: There was always traditional pecan pie, but usually the store-bought variety. The real attractions — don’t bring your pumpkin pie in here — were sweet potato pie and another option called lemon icebox pie. “Imagine key lime,” he says, “except the custard is lemon and the crust is crushed vanilla wafers glued together with melted butter. Next level, man. Next level.”
This was always the fought-over dessert in his house — one of the tastiest reasons to regard Thanksgiving with ravenous anticipation.
But the coronavirus whittled away at this best-laid plan. The initial thought involved Miller’s extended family gathering for the holiday meal. As the coronavirus cases started spiking, that idea was abandoned in favor of a scaled down get-together with a still-expansive menu. Miller, his dad and a few of his brothers would convene and prepare all the usual fare.
But then, a little more than a week out, they had second thoughts and scrapped those plans and decided each would do his own solitary celebration. With two of his brothers working what he calls “high public contact jobs” — one in an Amazon fulfillment center and another with an express package delivery service — they didn’t want to press their luck.
“Just gonna be me, my food and football,” Miller said. “There’s just a lot of risk right now.”
Miller is now researching restaurants offering Thanksgiving basics that he can embellish with a few soul-food touches. He’ll make some greens, pull some chitlins out of the freezer and try to find a nice dessert.
“It’s gonna be a modified celebration,” he says. “I think it’s going to feel like just another day for me. But there will be that emptiness, because I’m not connected to family, because that’s what Thanksgiving really is. The food is the centerpiece, but it’s about coming around the table, seeing people you don’t get to see a lot, sitting there, laughing, catching up. That’s going to be gone.”
His family doesn’t have the tech savvy to do a video call, he says, so they’ll touch base on the phone and call it good.
“My hope,” he adds, “is that come Christmas time we can gather, or New Year’s Day. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
— Kevin Simpson, Staff writer
A meal of “hot goo” among the sequoias
Along with all the other turmoil of 2020, Carla Geyer also got divorced.
Her ex-husband kept their house in Denver. Geyer took the RV, and after the breakup in April, she hit the road.
Geyer, 37, has already visited 15 national parks on a tour through Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Washington and California. She stays for a week or more in various campgrounds, logging into her job as an online program designer during the weekdays. (She has three Internet providers to make sure this works). And on weekends, Geyer hits the trails on foot or on her bike.
For Thanksgiving, she will hike through the ancient sequoias at Yosemite National Park and sleep under the stars. Her holiday meal is a pouch of dehydrated food — mostly likely, macaroni and cheese. “Hot goop,” she calls it.
“It’s going to be a nice distraction, rather than sitting around a campground,” said Geyer, who will leave her travel companion — a cat named Fat One — behind in her RV to lounge on the bed.
Geyer turned down a few invitations to join California relatives and friends for Thanksgiving, figuring she would rather stay safe after months on her own and protected from the virus.
“It’s been so safe,” she said. “I live in campgrounds where there aren’t that many people. There is nothing to sanitize — it’s literally just trees.”
Her solitary holiday in the Sierra Nevada is about as far as Geyer can get from the typical Thanksgiving celebrations of her married life. For the past few years, she and her husband opened their home and cooked food for hordes of friends and acquaintances who didn’t have anywhere to go.
The couple ran a Meetup group — an online forum that included 700 to 800 people — and sent their Thanksgiving invite to the entire gang. Last year they ended up with about 30 guests in a 1,200-square-foot house, where they provided the turkeys and guests brought side dishes and Honey Baked Hams with various glazes.
“This is a total contrast,” Geyer said. But one that she will remember — a holiday that was part of a healing journey across the country. The trip has been solitary, minus her video chats with coworkers and the “single-serving friends” she’s met along the way, friendships in which the entire duration is one or two nights of interesting conversation.
Geyer has no plans yet of stopping, aiming to hit the Southwest, then Canada, the East Coast and Florida. Geyer wants to see 25 national parks by her next birthday, in May.
“I don’t know when it’s going to end,” she said.
— Jen Brown, Staff writer
In southern Colorado, a muted turkey collection
Lynne Telford hung up her call with a volunteer last week with one more tale to tell about how COVID-19 has put a serious strain on her organization’s annual turkey drive.
“Everybody’s a little concerned,” said Telford, the CEO of the Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado. “I just got off the phone with someone whose daughter was exposed and has a stomachache today. Families like that are worried. The last thing they need to worry about is buying a turkey and taking it to Care and Share.”
Telford fielded requests for 11,000 Thanksgiving turkeys from the agencies and food pantries served by the food bank, which distributes to outlets in the southern half of the state. By late last week, she was still hoping the communities that power this service would come through.
In normal years, she’d have volunteers at grocery stores, collecting turkeys from generous shoppers and others who’d stop by to donate a bird. Helpful companies would enlist employees in take-a-turkey-to-work day. Local celebrities and TV and radio stations would pipe in music and spread the word in an atmosphere of a pre-holiday party.
But this is 2020. With so many employees working from home, the bring-it-to-work model doesn’t work so well. Volunteers and potential donors alike have been hesitant, now more than ever with rising coronavirus cases, to venture out. And the turkey drop-off events last Friday at the organization’s Colorado Springs and Pueblo centers still earned coverage — and music — but didn’t have near the holiday vibe of past Thanksgivings.
“We won’t be talking to all the people like normal,” Telford said. “They’ll just pop the trunk and we’ll get that turkey.”
What she misses most about the socially distanced reality of turkey collection is the kids. For many families, the act of donating a bird so the less fortunate could enjoy a nice meal produced a Rockwellian scene and teachable moment.
“In the past, families would show up with each little kid holding a turkey, and the parents explaining why it was important to do this,” Telford said. “The kids are the best. They’re so proud to contribute that way. It’s a great way to start the holidays when parents teach kids about philanthropy.”
Care and Share plans to distribute 50% more food than the same time last year, which has produced a strain on the entire system. With fewer turkeys donated, more must simply be purchased with cash donations. Two months ago, Telford made a large purchase to fill the gap they knew was coming.
“We get what we can for a good price,” she said. “Some years I know how big the gap will be, but I don’t know this year. Smaller turkeys are usually at a premium. You can’t get them.”
MORE: As Thanksgiving approaches and coronavirus rampages, Colorado’s ICU beds are growing scarce
Saturday’s distribution event to the partner agencies also lost the luster of years past. When organizations would arrive with their trucks to make the pickup, they’d be asked inside the center and welcomed with hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls.
This year, each agency had an appointment. Inside the distribution center, workers pre-counted their allotments and were ready when vehicles started arriving.
“Now,” Telford said, “they don’t get out of the truck. We’ll load them up, and it won’t be the festive event that it was.
“But the main thing is, it will happen.”
— Kevin Simpson, Staff writer
Echoes of Rosa Linda’s
For 30 years, Rosa Linda’s Mexican Café cooked up Thanksgiving meals for the needy on West 33rd Avenue on Denver’s North Side — the neighborhood more recently dubbed Highlands. It became a tradition that sadly ran its course when the restaurant closed in 2015.
The Aguirre family, from restaurant namesake Rosa Linda and her husband, Virgilio, to oldest son Oscar, determined they could no longer manage the long hours. Oscar also needed to attend to health issues triggered by a serious bicycle accident.
For many, the memory of the community meals remains strong. People like Christina Mares-Gevara loved the annual undertaking as a volunteer.
“It was a tradition my daughter and I did,” she recalls. “On Thanksgiving morning, we’d go in and help with what we could, cutting cakes or cleaning up or serving. We wanted to be worker bees.”
When Oscar Aguirre ran into Mares-Gevara several weeks ago, they talked about reviving the Rosa Linda’s tradition — although the spiking coronavirus numbers gave them pause about dishing up a Thanksgiving meal. Still, the seed of an idea took root.
“This year, I’m healthy enough that I can do something,” Aguirre says. “But with COVID, I didn’t want to put anybody at risk. So we decided to do food baskets.”
“It was Oscar’s idea,” Mares-Gevara says. “It’s something his family had always done. It’s a good feeling to give back to the community. Even with short notice, we did what we could and pulled it together.”
Aguirre knew Mares-Gevara, whose “real job” is in commercial financing for a credit union, served on the board of the Latina Safehouse and floated the idea of putting together a holiday meal — plus a little bit more — for the residents. So they put the word out and donations of food and cash quickly rolled in.
“We looked at how domestic violence victims, especially in COVID, are afraid to go to the cops and afraid they could be deported under this administration,” Aguirre says. “Some are in hiding.”
The Classic Eats Deli in Lakewood volunteered to collect the donations and keep perishable items like turkey refrigerated. On Monday, Aguirre and Mares-Gevara delivered 20 baskets to the shelter packed with turkey, stuffing, potatoes and pumpkin pie for a traditional feast. But they also included nonperishable staples like cereal, macaroni and cheese, rice and beans so the women and families could stretch the goodwill a little further.
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Not only have the women at the safehouse struggled to deal with domestic abuse, but the pandemic also affected jobs and incomes. The holiday meal turned out to be an unexpected blessing.
“They told me this comes at a good time,” Mares-Gevara says. “The timing was amazing.”
Rosa Linda’s still maintains a Facebook page where Aguirre intermittently keeps up with many of the restaurant’s former employees. After this year’s success, he may next year use the site to issue a call for his former kitchen staff to reprise the famous feeds.
“If I had a hot kitchen, I’d call the whole team up,” Aguirre says. “I couldn’t do that realistically this year. Next year, I’ll plan with advance notice.
“For now, I just want to instill hope in somebody.”
— Kevin Simpson, Staff writer
Many, many meals (on wheels)
In the 26 years that Francea Phillips has run Meals on Wheels Boulder, she has never seen a Thanksgiving like this.
On non-holiday weekdays, the organization delivers about 250 fresh meals, plus another 150 or so frozen meals for weekends. In anticipation of Thanksgiving, droves of volunteers will drop off over 300 ready-to-reheat turkey dinners on Wednesday, with another 200 frozen meals to get folks through the weekend.
Add on to that 350 meals ready for a pop-up drive-through cafe on Wednesday — normally they would be served at the organization’s Cafe Classico, but that’s closed due to COVID-19 — and more than 200 frozen quiches, pies and soups.
In other words, Phillips said Tuesday, “It is really crazy around here today.”
The nonprofit has about 1,000 clients in the city, give or take, and because it doesn’t take federal or state funds — save for some help from the CARES Act to buy PPE and air purifiers — anyone can use its services. Many clients are elderly, injured or ill. But lately, due to fears around the coronavirus pandemic, Phillips thinks many more people are staying home, and thus tucking away out of society’s eye.
“I think there’s a big gap for caring for these people who are invisible to the community,” Phillips said.
That invisibility is perhaps most pronounced in a city like Boulder, with its reputation for wealth and prosperity. Judy Wong, who’s been volunteering with Meals on Wheels Boulder for almost five years, says that driving around delivering meals shows a different side of the story.
“People see Boulder as affluent and, yes, do we have affluence, but we have many people in need,” Wong said.
Despite the potential risks of in-person volunteering, there’s been no shortage of help. People are good about wearing masks and physically distancing, Wong said, and she’s glad the group has kept up its efforts.
“For me it’s also a piece of normalcy,” Wong said. “It’s something I did for four and a half years before COVID, and something I can continue to do in terms of giving back.”
Each Meals on Wheels group is independent from each other, and while some have cut back on services during the pandemic, the Boulder nonprofit has gone full steam ahead. Volunteer drivers drop off the meals on a client’s doorstep, back up to maintain physical distance, and hopefully have a casual conversation with the resident to check in on them. Phillips said one volunteer was asked to give the resident a hug, because they hadn’t had any physical touch since before the pandemic-induced shutdowns in March.
“It’s just a different time right now, but we’re very lucky to be delivering meals every day,” Phillips said. “People need a hot meal every day.”
The organization recently got a new state-of-the-art kitchen, and though they maxed out their Thanksgiving capacity, Phillips says they are able to help many more people, especially during this time of increased need — if only they ask.
“I really wish people would call us,” Phillips said. “We can prepare and deliver triple what we are doing now, and I’d love to be able to do that.”
— Lucy Haggard, Staff writer
A tasteless Thanksgiving
My mom, dad, brother and I wear masks around the house, perhaps grasping for some sense of control just as much as we are following the science. More than anything, they are a reminder of just how strange this Thanksgiving is likely to be.
About an hour after getting home from college on Monday night, my twin brother, Justin, lifted the cover off of a scented candle and stuck his nose in it.
He looked up, pleasantly surprised, not by the artificial scent of “Autumn Leaves,” but by the realization that he could smell at all. Justin, who’s in his fourth year at Colorado State University, contracted the coronavirus from one of his roommates. “Well, it’s coming back,” he said of his sense of smell.
Now no longer contagious, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he drove back down to our family home in Monument with one of those roommates. Justin’s immune system should be fortified with at least some level of COVID-fighting antibodies, so he’s in charge of getting groceries, even if he cannot taste them.
“It’s bland, so if you can’t taste, it’s not your tastebuds,” my mom said of an egg dish she delivered to my dad in the basement, where he’s sleeping on an air mattress — and which we now refer to as the coronavirus contamination unit, or C.C.U. He’s jokingly likened it to a jail cell, where mealtime is the highlight of the day.
We’re monitoring him for symptoms after he was exposed to the virus by a coworker on a trip for work.
Though we have a large number of family members who live nearby, we aren’t planning on seeing any of them for the holiday. Instead, the four of us will likely celebrate on Saturday, in hopes that my Dad will by then have received results of the coronavirus test he took Monday.
For Justin, each day we push off our celebration is another day for him to regain his sense of taste. “It’s going to be only a fraction of my taste, of the normal levels that I can taste,” he said.
— Evan Ochsner, Sun intern