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How To Plan – And Even Be Grateful – For A Socially Distanced Thanksgiving

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Jasmine Surti (far right) and three generations of her family celebrating Thanksgiving in Philadelphia in 2018. From left, front: Louise Aucott, Gabe Aucott with Juniper Chamberlin, Rachel Aucott, Sandhya Surti, Anjali Surti, Hemant Surti, Jasmine Surti 2nd row, starting from center: Steve Hoenstine, Aimee Landau, Mike Aucott Top: Ezra Landau.
Image credit: Aimee Landau

You should be counting your Thanksgiving blessings if you have someone like Jasmine Surti in your immediate family or circle. She’s a mother, a daughter, a friend to many in Lawrenceville, N.J. And she’s the sort of super-planner who joyfully takes on the daunting task of organizing a pandemic Thanksgiving.

“Well, I guess I like to make spreadsheets and surveys and things,” Surti acknowledges with sheepish pride. “Basically, problem solving, you could say.”

Surti problem-solved her socially-distanced Thanksgiving — involving six households spread out across New Jersey and Philadelphia — by putting together a complicated system of not just who makes what this year, but who drops what on which family’s doorstep. All to ensure everyone gets to eat their favorite foods, prepared by friends and family.

“People laugh at this, but I created a map of how we’re going to get the food where it needs to go,” she explains, warming to the topic. Because Surti is such a virtuoso planner, she was also intent on reducing unnecessary travel. So she arranged for one New Jersey friend to make the longest trip, to Philly, and devised multiple drop-off/pickup points, to cut down on driving.

Unfortunately, spreadsheets are not a solution for Cora Faith Walker, of Ferguson, Mo. Her massive family is spread all over the country. Walker is one of eight adult children; her husband is one of nine. Everyone loves her father-in-law’s potato salad but the family cannot congregate this year to enjoy it. So Walker says she resorted to desperate measures.

“I reached out to him and asked him if whether we could maybe send the potato salad in the mail,” she confesses. “Like, I really took a moment and looked into the logistics of what that would take.”

Because no one wanted to add side servings of botulism to the holiday menu, Walker says, her father-in-law decided to tell everyone how to make the potato salad instead. Numerous long-coveted, heavily-guarded family recipes are being shared for the first time in 2020, according to many of this reporter’s sources, since their keepers cannot proudly present the food in person during a global pandemic.

Linh Song (lower right) and Tina Lam (upper right) celebrate a family Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor, Mich, in 2014.
Dug Song/Linh Song

Linh Song’s family celebrates Thanksgiving in 2017. From left, Suzan Song, unknown man, Sue Song holding Soona Song
Dug Song/Linh Song

Technique, rather than ingredients, is the secret to Tina Lam’s traditional Thanksgiving larb. The delicious salad is usually made with ground chicken, lemon and cilantro in countries such as Thailand and Laos. For this most American of holidays, Lam uses roast turkey instead. The tricky part is the toasted rice. You can’t just explain how to make it. You have to show them.

“It takes a while,” offers Lam’s daughter, Lihn Song, during a Zoom call with her mom. “You have to put it on low heat. It has a nutty taste.”

Lam lives in Riverside County, Calif. Song lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. This year, mother and daughter plan to make larb together over Facetime, with Lam supervising the process — and teaching it to her young granddaughter.

Tina Lam’s traditional turkey larb, from a family Thanksgiving in 2017.
Dug Song/Linh Song

“And she’ll also have my daughter hold the camera up to inspect the state of my skin,” Song sighs. “She’ll probably tell me I need to use more Oil of Olay.”

“That is also traditional!” Lam agrees with a laugh. As someone who fled Laos in 1975, during that country’s civil war, Lam knows what it’s like to be separated from your family during terrifying times. There’s so much to be thankful this year, she says. Just being able to see the faces of the people you love on a whim, to call anytime you want — that’s not something, she gently reminds us, to take for granted.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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