Eating turkey and talking turkey

All across the country today, homes are humming with domestic activity. There are pies to bake, carpets to vacuum, centerpieces to arrange, and last-minute groceries to buy. It's all preparation for what many of us regard as the best holiday of the year: Thanksgiving.

Thursday all that effort will come to fruition. Families and friends will gather, eager to plant their feet under a dining table, large or small, and share an abundance of food and gratitude.

Thanksgiving still reigns as the purest celebration. There are no gifts or decorations to consider, as at Christmas, no egg hunts (Easter), no parades and fireworks (July 4), no costumes and candy (Halloween).

For the estimated 38 million travelers filling highways and airports this week, the invisible magnet drawing them homeward involves more than simply an annual serving of Grandma's candied sweet potatoes. They're heading over the river and through the woods for that most elemental reason – a chance to reconnect.

For every Thanksgiving cook rising early Thursday morning to stuff the turkey and set the holiday table, the feast is a matter of culinary pride, of course. The annual quest for a tender turkey, moist dressing, and flaky pie crust never ends. At the same time, many cooks understand that the tradition-bound menu – whether elaborate or simple, whether eaten on the best china or on plastic plates – serves simply as an excuse for drawing family and friends together. If the turkey is overcooked and the mashed potatoes are lumpy, well, no matter. It's a day that satisfies two types of hunger – physical and emotional. The real attraction may be companionship.

Please pass the turkey – and continue the conversation.

But these days even table talk, that most natural activity, sometimes needs a boost. In an age of ubiquitous cellphones, talk is cheap – and constant. But idle chatter ("So, what's up?") has its limits. And in an era of faceless e-mail, voicemail, and text messaging, relaxed exchanges over meals become more important than ever.

"Most of us are in a rut conversationally – we don't have real conversations," says Debra Fine, author of "The Fine Art of Small Talk."

It's a theme Julienne Smith echoes in "Food for Talk: Bringing Families Together One Conversation at a Time!" Noting that conversation at home sometimes gets reduced to "How was your day?" "Fine," she adds, "Think about it. Does your family sometimes go for days without ever having a real, meaningful discussion about something other than soccer schedules and piano lessons?"

As a child on Thanksgiving, I loved interacting with adults at the table, listening to them talk, and sometimes joining in the conversation as well. The segues from serious topics to light, the occasional ribbing and joshing, the compliments to the cooks – all added up to a lesson in family dynamics and love.

Yet Ms. Fine thinks a change has taken place in intergenerational exchanges. "Instead of actively encouraging children to be part of the conversation, we put them in the spotlight with a few brief questions, such as 'How's school?' or 'How's football?' Then we go back to adult conversation. But including children in conversation is important."

Some people have a knack for this, she says. But, she adds, "If the person who is so good at connecting us and starting conversations is in the kitchen, it's up to us to come up with things to talk about, and it's up to us to keep conversation going. We can't rely on other people to do that."

She urges guests to play what she calls the conversation game. "When someone asks, 'What's been going on?' instead of saying 'Not much,' or 'Nothing,' have a real answer. Give them a sentence: 'I've been traveling a lot.' Or, 'I read a really wonderful book lately. It's called "Water for Elephants." ' Give people things to talk about."

That can be doubly valuable when newcomers join the family. "If you're the fiancée being brought to the table for the first time, or your cousin has relocated to your city and is not accustomed to your home for dinner, the day can be filled with some anxiety," says Fine.

One woman I know who lives in a Midwestern retirement home always brings a topic of conversation to share at the noon meal. From there, one subject inevitably leads to another. Dinner becomes more than just the sustenance of food. It involves the pleasure of sharing ideas, experiences, and laughter.

Thursday, when the last piece of pumpkin pie has been eaten, when the leftovers have been put away and all the dishes washed, the warm afterglow of this day of gratitude will linger. So might some of the table talk. As Fine says, "Real conversation – that's what memories are made of."

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