We need to talk about Thanksgiving

An illustration of virtual Thanksgiving by Cailin Doherty
Cailin Doherty

Update: Ontario has introduced new public health restrictions since this story was published.

Thanksgiving isn’t cancelled in Canada. But trying to figure out how to host a dinner without inviting COVID-19 to the festivities is anyone’s guess.

The public has been hearing mixed messages from government officials ever since the Throne Speech in late September. Justin Trudeau warned that we may have to skip the Thanksgiving dinner altogether in order to save Christmas.

After that, the Ontario government said Thanksgiving dinner should be kept as small possible. Premier Doug Ford and his health team initially refused to define the term “household.” Later, he said people should only celebrate with those you live with.

However, the province isn’t against allowing people who live alone to join other households, arguing mental health is also a public health consideration. 

“If you’re alone, you can pair up with one other household, but only one,” Ford said on October 7.

As cases soar in Toronto, the city’s Chief Medical Officer Eileen de Villa also insists in-person celebrations should include only people who live together.

What if you live alone? Logging into dinner virtually is the “safest” option, she said.

“Yes, the situation is that serious,” de Villa said.

She added that people who live alone and have “significant” mental health concerns requiring connection should meet up outside at two-metres distance with masks on.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam urged people to come up with “holiday hacks,” like celebrating outdoors.

One thing they all definitely agree on: large gatherings are a no-go.

“The majority of people I know are absolutely not planning big family get-togethers,” says Dr. Marc Gelman. The ER doctor from Scarborough Health Network is not convinced the public will follow even basic social distancing rules and play it safe during Thanksgiving dinner. 

Mary Berg Kris Siddiqi Ryan Hinkson

Gelman offered up his own advice ahead of NOW’s virtual Thanksgiving roundtable on holidays in the time of COVID.

Our guests: Mary Berg from CTV’s Mary’s Kitchen Crush; comic and creator of the CBC series Bit Playas Kris Siddiqi; and the food culturalist behind the @eatfamous Instagram account, Ryan Hinkson.

We discussed the anxiety that goes into carefully hosting Thanksgiving dinner during a second wave of COVID-19 and ways to celebrate safely.

Hear are some key tips to survive Thanksgiving dinner in-person:

  1. Have lunch instead of dinner and move outdoors so you have room to social distance.

2. Don’t do shared dishes. Have enough utensils and make sure one person dishes out the servings onto individual plates.

3. Introverts, savour this moment. COVID-19 is the best excuse to cancel!

4. Prepare a virtual Thanksgiving dinner by sharing special familiy recipes in advance so everyone is eating the same thing. Hopefully there are some wonderful disasters to laugh about.

5. Support local and order the same takeout from restaurants or caterers. Eat together virtually. Go here for more than a dozen local Thanksgiving options.

6. Make multiple servings of your Thanksgiving specialty and drop off portions to family and friends.

Watch video of the entire conversation below for more holiday hacks, read the transcript or listen on the NOW What podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (available Friday).  


What are everyone’s thoughts on guests at Thanksgiving?

“It’s very easy to slip up even with the best of intentions.” – Dr. Marc Gelman

NOW:For the people who are hosting Thanksgiving in-person, you can have rules. But you can’t control your sloppy guests.

Mary Berg: Especially if drinks are involved. Everybody gets real shouty. And if they’re shouty, they’re spitty.

Kris Siddiqi: And then touchy, if they’re tipsy.

Ryan Hinkson: Particles everywhere.

NOW: You also get that aunt who acknowledges that coronavirus is a thing. But she’s like, “I’ll never have coronavirus, give me a hug.”

RH: “You’re not going to hug your aunty?” You get guilted and you hug her.

MB: And in two weeks, you’re like, “Oh my god. What is this? Is this allergies?”

NOW: What kind of anxieties go into hosting?

RH: Snitchy neighbours.

NOW: More than catching COVID?

MB: Has anyone been snitched on? I’ve been snitched on.

NOW: It’s funny to me that out of the four of us, the white person has been snitched on.

KS: I wasn’t going to say it. But you said it! Let’s be honest, all of us Black and brown folks are already used to it. So we’re just hyper aware (and careful) now.

RH: I think the majority of the host’s anxiety may not necessarily come from making sure everything is right. I’d be worried about everybody coming. How safe have they been? I know what I’m doing in my house. Just because I love you or we’re connected by blood, doesn’t mean that I love your habits or know how seriously you are  taking things. You don’t want to be excluding family members. But maybe this is the perfect time to exclude.

MB: We’re all younger. If, god forbid, any of us were to get it, in theory we’d be okay. I’m more worried about getting other people sick. That’s why I wear a mask. It protects other people. If I was hosting, I’d be concerned that people will come and get COVID from my event.

NOW: The exclusion factor would be my number one anxiety. If I invite this person, do I have to invite this person? There’s the anxiety of people finding out you hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and you didn’t invite them. I don’t know if this is as much of a concern for people who are not brown, but it’s a huge concern for us.

KS: I was just going to say.

NOW: But Mary, you mentioned the age thing and keeping people safe. If we are holding a Thanksgiving dinner, how do you do it without Nana? You don’t want to infect [your grandparents]. They’re obviously the most vulnerable. But how are they going to be feeling if they’re not invited? Would “for your own safety” fly as an excuse?

KS: I think so. But if you’re old and cranky, you might just start holding it against people. All my Muslim family members would take this like, “Oh well don’t speak to him again.” But you really have to be a sour old codger if you’re going to hold this against your family.

MB: They exist.

RH: COVID’s kind of like the ultimate excuse these days. I double-struck. I got a baby and COVID as an excuse. I can get out of anything.

KS: My kid’s 10 and I still use him as an excuse.

MB: It’s like an introvert’s dream. I love cancelling plans. Now it’s perfect.

NOW: The reason all these brown people are rushing to get married is because they have the ultimate excuse to reduce their wedding size down from 600 guests.

Is it possible to host a responsible Thanksgiving celebration?

“Try and remain a hockey stick away. Six feet. That’s a tough nut to crack when you’re all in the same dining room together.” – Dr. Marc Gelman

KS: Really it’s just keeping the same people. Everybody don’t touch anybody else. Don’t be like, “This is my new COVID boyfriend that I had during this whole quarantine.” And the big thing that we have in my family is many different utensils to scoop food into different plates.

MB: The utensils point is a really good one. Also not doing the classic Thanksgiving vat of potatoes and a whole turkey. Instead have it doled out and plated by one person. Then you know who touched it. Also, doing it outside is smart. Hopefully its nice outside. I know there’s been a huge run on heat lamps at Home Depot. But I think that’s the best way to do it. I don’t think inside is a great option.

NOW:  Dr. Gelman feels like it’s going to be a challenge to get people to break tradition by going outside and innovating the way they serve meals. He feels that people are going to be hard up about traditions like shared plates and carving the massive turkey. My family would shift Thanksgiving to lunch so that we could take advantage of the weather outside. But he doesn’t think generally people will budge like that. Are your families hard up on the traditional menus and format?

RH: Generally, yeah. My parents are West Indian. They are very, very specific about things like that. The idea of a Christmas brunch or Thanksgiving lunch would never fly. Or they would do it but you still have to have a massive dinner on top of it.

KS: My family is pretty malleable. But on the Muslim side of my family, it’s hard for them to break tradition. We were supposed to have a big family gathering before this [pandemic]. And it was hard for my cousins and aunties when we realized that we couldn’t have this big family get together. They were still trying and trying. But we had to cancel it. It’s really interesting how much some humans need tradition to hold onto.

RH: Now we feel that so much has been stripped away. You really want ownership of things that make you feel whole or “normal.” It might be really difficult to get people to part with the family dinners and traditions.

KS: I just thought of all those people who don’t have families to go back to. They have those orphan Thanksgiving dinners. A bunch of friends get together. That’s going to be a big miss this season as well.

MB:  Justin Trudeau gave that thinly veiled passive-aggressive threat, “Well, Thanksgiving is done but maybe Christmas” – the dog treat of be good now and maybe we can have it later. I think that was actually a really smart move. I think people are more willing to bend on Thanksgiving for the hopes that we might get Christmas. There’s no promise that anything’s going to change for the better. Who knows? It’s going to be an interesting day two weeks after Thanksgiving.

KS: The third and fourth wave are just going to combine together into one massive tsunami.

How can we do a virtual Thanksgiving?

“As a kid growing up, Thanksgiving was a big deal in my family. My extended family got together every year. Each aunt and my grandmothers all had their special dish that they made. I looked forward to that and they looked forward to doing it. It became a family tradition.” – Dr. Marc Gelman

RH: I was thinking about how there are certain family members who do incredible things. We don’t all have a Mary Berg in our family to throw down. Most of us rely on mom or grandma. I was talking to some people, thinking about getting the best person at making certain dishes to host a live Zoom demo and you recreate your own. So not just do a virtual dinner but share the recipe virtually.

MB: I love that! But Ryan’s right. There are certain dishes that only taste as good when that one person makes it. Even when I make my nana’s lemon meringue pie or my aunt’s pumpkin side thing that she always does, it doesn’t taste as good. One of the great thing about Thanksgiving is everyone has their thing. One person brings this. And this is the thing that they make. At least, that’s how it is at my house. It’s more like a potluck. The tricky thing is a lot of those recipes are what I call “grandma recipes.” You ask them how they do it. They’re like “a cup of flour” but the cup is a mug.

KS: Or a fistful of baking soda.

MB: Or “enough water.” And you’re like, “What does that mean?” There’s no actual metric measurement. So you have no idea how to do it on your own. That’s kind of the charm in those recipes. If you’re family is the less perfectionist type, it can work. Nana sends everybody the recipe and you all put your spin on it, compare and hopefully have some horrible flops. I don’t think anything brings fun like some terrible, truly atrocious pies. It’s a neat bonding activity that you can do that never would happen in a time outside of this. Or taking it a different way, if you are lucky to be close enough to your family, do drive-by drop-offs. Have someone make six pies and then drop it off amongst everybody. Have someone make the potatoes and then drop it off.

RH: That’s smart.

KS: My family is pretty straightforward. I’m kind of expecting more of the same from my boring, boring family.

MB: I like [Kris’s] family’s takeout idea though. There’s a lot of restaurants doing a Thanksgiving takeout meal with turkey and the fixings. [See story, page 9.] And then you can all get it from the same place, which is great because you’re also supporting local.

RH: For families who traditionally put a lot in to the cooking, takeout could be hard. If you’re getting McDelivery, it’s not going to replace that feeling of Thanksgiving. But there’s been a lot of great home cooks who offer pick-up or delivery. You’re probably getting that really close-to-home-type meal.

MB: In Toronto, Côte de Boeuf has turkeys that are a reasonable size. You can get an [11 lbs] turkey. You’re not going to Metro and buying a 47-lbs turkey. No one needs that right now. I know Bellwoods [Brewery] also does a veggie box. It’s like $25 or something a week. You get enough for two people for a week’s worth.

KS: There’s such an interesting silver lining in a lot of little things during this pandemic. I haven’t been to the Metro in months. But I’ve been to Fresh City and Unboxed Market. Finding those smaller local sellers has been such a gift.

Mary’s Kitchen Crush is streaming on CTV.ca and the CTV app. Bit Playas is streaming on CBC Gem. Ryan Hinkson’s food content is on Instagram at @-eatfamous.


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