Did you have turkey? No, we had chili

ARE you having turkey for Thanksgiving?'' The usual question. Being traditional has its charms, but Thanksgiving can still be Thanksgiving without that famous turkey being sacrificed. There are lots of possibilities.

My husband, who disliked holidays in general, also disliked doing the conventional thing. Consequently we frequently had chili con carne on Thanksgiving. We never had turkey.

I well remember the reaction at the office when I was asked, ``Did you have turkey on Thanksgiving?'' and I replied calmly, ``No, we had chili.'' The looks! -- first of disbelief, then gradually softening into pity. My husband's chili had to be very hot (both temperature-wise and chili powder-wise) and it had to have lots of chopped beef in there with those red kidney beans. Ice cream was the usual dessert with which we cooled our flaming throats.

One year at the office I asked Bernie the Philosopher what he had done on Thanksgiving.

Looking up from his work with his characteristically whimsical smile he answered, ``Oh, I went to the Orange Room and ordered minced ham.''

The Orange Room and minced ham translated into a hot dog at Nedick's. Fair enough. He enjoyed it. He was thankful, too, that he could afford, on his meager salary, to buy a frankfurter at Nedick's, and also grateful that Nedick's was open on Thanksgiving.

There are also the vegetarian Thanksgivings. My daughter cooked eggplant parmigiana for several Thanksgivings, and we felt just as thankful. It was a tasty and filling dish.

A couple of Thanksgivings ago my roomer -- or perhaps I should say my resident sculptor -- decided to make Thanksgiving dinner for a few friends across the street in her basement studio, a crude, unfinished sort of place without cooking facilities, where she did all her sculpting. The group included my daughter and me.

At first I felt rather doubtful but, knowing Lorca's resourcefulness, I relaxed and confined myself to being curious about what she would have.

All day long she kept running back and forth between our ninth-floor apartment and her basement studio a block north across the street. I still may not have recovered everything she borrowed for the occasion -- though recently she returned a teapot I hadn't even missed.

At 5 o'clock my daughter and I crossed the street and approached the building, one that has seen better days. We had two choices: We could go inside and take a very small, rather dubious elevator down, or we could approach from the outside by a very small and dubious set of wooden stairs. I chose the latter, not being fond of elevators. (It sometimes seems that living in New York is one constant, endless ride in an elevator. My daughter recently remarked how strange it sometimes seems to her that there are people who can merely open their front doors and walk out of their homes. That simple!)

As we entered Lorca's small studio, the aroma of tempura welcomed us.

We were surrounded by silent stone presences: standing figures, abstractions, semi-abstractions, and a few small white marble birds -- definitely not turkeys.

There was a turkey in the room, though, just for old time's sake. A large brown and orange festive paper turkey sat on a table in the corner, presiding pompously over this untraditional affair.

Lorca had had to prepare most things in advance in my kitchen, but she did have an electric hot plate for cooking the tempura. It was excellent, and so were the cider and the raw vegetable salad and hot bread. Everything was served buffet style. We faced the only window, where we had a splendid view of people's feet walking by.

Lorca's father had baked a pumpkin pie for the occasion -- another nod to tradition. Except that it could not be served hot, it was perfect.

As everyone relaxed over the pumpkin pie, feeling immensely satisfied with this nontraditional but heartwarming feast, Elvi introduced a more spiritual theme.

``I want each of you,'' she announced in her lilting Norwegian accent, ``to write down on these little slips of paper all the things you can think of that you are grateful for in your life -- all your present blessings. Then I'll tell you what comes next.''

Silence fell for 10 minutes while everyone obediently thought and wrote. I was sure Elvi would collect our blessings and read them aloud, and I felt a trifle self-conscious and apprehensive.

But she was merciful and sensitive. ``Now fold them up,'' she said. ``Put them in your pocket or handbag, and take them out often during the next year and read them. Keep adding to them, too. This helped me so much at a time when things looked very dark for me, and I know it will do the same for you.''

Looking into her lively, earnest face, I was moved and grateful. I put my little paper in my handbag with a resolve to consult it often during the year.

We were all so enthusiastic about our Thanksgiving dinner amid the sculptures that I'm sure Lorca felt well-rewarded for her countless trips to and fro between the two buildings. It was better than many a turkey-traditional Thanksgiving of previous years -- better even than chili con carne or minced ham at Nedick's! And Elvi's spiritual exercise elevated it above a happy feast with friends to a meaningful celebration.

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