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    Get Your Pilgrim On

    pilgrimsmallThere’s a nip in the air, a splash of gold in the foliage. As dawn leans in close toward dusk and our grocer’s aisles fill with squashernalia, we’re getting our Pilgrim on for 2015.

    Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Not so much the dinners of national and familial obligation growing up, where we sat at the Children’s Table over stiffening potatoes and waited until everyone finished eating before we could go play. Since moving after college to the West Coast, though, I and my best-friend-since-elementary-school Karen and her MIT bestie Barbara found ourselves separated from our families and discovered the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

    If you think about it, Thanksgiving isn’t really about going home. You can’t get into the true Pilgrim spirit until you’ve traveled thousands of miles to a place you’ve never seen before. There, you sit down with the friends you brought and the new neighbors you found and put whatever you’ve got on the table and thank the heavens your larder had that.

    That’s what Karen, Barbara and I did, Thanksgiving 1984. We were refugees from the East Coast in the strange land of California. Flying another 3,000 miles so soon before Christmas was unthinkable, so we piled into the little bootleg apartment in Berkeley Karen and I rented, opened the Betty Crocker Cookbook and set to unwrapping fowl and peeling potatoes and cracking open cans of cranberry and corn and pumpkin. We made two trips to the Co-op for forgotten provisions, including the roasting pan. The turkey was foil-stewed, the crescent rolls Pillsbury, the spices McCormick powder. In an era when stale hotdog rolls were our primary staple, the whole hot feast eaten from bar stools at our kitchen counter seemed like a miracle.


    Each year after that first counter-top Thanksgiving, our cooking repertoire grew. Cheesecloth and butter basting and fresh rosemary, thyme and sage were added to the turkey’s accessory list. Mixed greens salad with blue cheese and walnuts and fresh Brussels sprouts took the vegetables out of the canned foods aisle. Karen, whose eyes gleam and sharpen at the sight of a cooking turkey, was quickly named Official Carver and was presented with an electric carving knife. Sometimes Karen’s boyfriend Joe flew out from grad school, or her brother skipped a Tahoe ski trip, or friends from work or school dropped in. The central ingredients stayed the same, though: Karen, Barbara, me and a turkey stuffed into a Bay Area apartment.

    In 1991, the year our Thanksgiving hit its 7-year itch, it looked like our Bay Area colony might disband. Karen moved to Southern California that August to be with Joe, and Barbara left the Bay Area for a post-doc in Madison, WI. When Official Carver Karen offered to cook a turkey in L.A., I packed my cat and a sleeping bag into my little blue pickup truck at 4 am and high-tailed it south. It was our most efficient Thanksgiving on record. Joe put the turkey on the table as I stepped into their apartment around noon. We finished a plate, commented on how tired we were, and crashed on the floor on sleeping bags not 3 feet from the table for a nap.

    1991 might not have been our most Martha-Stewart-sanctioned Turkey Day, but it did mark a paradigm shift. That year, our Bay Area holiday expanded to cover California, shifting annually between L.A., Berkeley/SF and, after Barbara settled post-post-doc back west, San Diego.


    The guest list ebbed and flowed with the circumstances of our lives. There was the Thanksgiving where Freedom Band members sat in every nook and cranny of my Berkeley flat. The year Karen and Joe unveiled their wedding-gift dining room table. The year we met Barbara’s partner, Lee, along with her new hamster running in his ball on the ceramic tile under our feet. The year my vegetarian partner-now-wife added tofu loaf and bread upma to the menu and later various siblings and parents to the guest list.

    It is this kaleidoscope of friends, family and food that I most love about Thanksgiving. For us, it has become a gathering of chosen family, a day to give thanks for the people around the table with a wisp of sage in the air. And that’s something to celebrate.

    East Bay-based rumpet player Heidi Beeler has been a member of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band since 1991. She is also a founding member of the Dixieland Dykes +3. For more information, please visit or