Greg Mowery's Thanksgiving table is all set. The silver has been polished, china plates set out, and crystal goblets cleaned to a fresh sparkle. But, much as the New York cookbook publicist likes the finer things in life, they are simply accessories to an occasion he feels is more important than ever this year.
The real stars at his table will be several close friends, who, like Mr. Mowery, are also single New Yorkers. In recent years, Mowery had given up hosting to "hire myself as the perfect Thanksgiving guest," but this year he felt compelled to put out the welcome sign once again.
"One of the things that struck me after the attacks of Sept. 11," he says, "is that single people all over the country were probably feeling more lonely. There was nobody around to give them a reassuring hug and tell them everything was going to be OK."
So his guests, two men and four women, can count on plenty of hugs. They will also start the meal with a reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson's "How to Live Well," and listen to American songs by Aaron Copland, especially "Simple Gifts."
An avid cook who usually likes to pull out all the stops for a party, Mowery is planning a more modest meal than usual.
"I'm cutting down on dishes, not because I'm lazy, but because I think it's a good idea to simplify so we can concentrate on what brought us to this celebration in the first place," he says. "All the dishes I serve will be old, familiar, and well-loved foods that I've served for years. I think tradition will have more meaning than ever before."
Mowery is typical of many Americans, who, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, are tweaking their Thanksgiving plans by making an extra effort to connect with family or friends, putting another leaf in their holiday tables to include those who would otherwise be alone, or simply placing more emphasis on the spirit and history of the holiday than on the turkey and trimmings. For many, this year's Thanksgiving will have a more poignant, heartfelt quality than in years past.
"What fell down on Sept. 11," says the Rev. Peg Stearn, minister at the First Congregational Church in Amherst, Mass., "is our fast-paced life. There was a rush toward acquiring that blinded us to so many of the realities of everyday life. We are now more aware of our need to take care of one another. For me, a greater awareness of the fragility of life is not only about people dying in the twin towers and the Pentagon, but about the need to be more sensitive to those suffering from homelessness, abuse, or other crises of life."
Ms. Stearn will celebrate a low-key Thanksgiving in North Carolina with her father, a widower. "He would have been all alone," she says. "It means a lot to him that I'm flying down there."
She recalls a conversation she once had with a "pilgrim" reenactor at Plymouth, Mass. "I asked him what he was going to do for Thanksgiving, and he said that was when 'we go into the meetinghouse and spend the day in prayer.'
"It was mind-boggling," she says, adding, "I think that's in a sense what's going on today. We're going back to our ancient roots. Thanksgiving isn't about football or going to the mall. It's about family and friends and gratitude and prayer."
For some people, focusing more on the spirit of Thanksgiving has meant breaking from tradition. Bostonian Christie Clark, for example, has already eaten her turkey. To avoid traveling during the busy holiday weekend, her four grown children and a handful of friends flew to her parents' home in St. Louis to celebrate Thanksgiving on the first weekend of November.
"We've always given lip service to the fact that Thanksgiving should be a year-round event, and we finally can demonstrate that," she explains. "We'll sit around a Ping-Pong table to allow room for extended family, which feels especially important this year. I was surprised at how readily friends accepted the invitation to join us. Everyone is looking for an occasion to celebrate life."
While a yearning for connection is the pervasive sentiment these days, some people who are reluctant to fly are coming up with creative ways to do this. "A number of my friends," says Ms. Clark, "have made alterations in their usual holiday plans and will communicate via conference calls or on the Internet. It feels like a time to celebrate the intactness of family regardless of the date or, for some, actually being in the same location."
This year more than ever, it's important to go with the flow, says Dr. Susan Ginsberg, author of the book "Family Wisdom" and the national newsletter "Work & Family Life." She explains that families who were directly affected by the tragedies or those who have chosen to hunker down at home rather than to travel, may want to invent new rituals or shift responsibilities.
"There will be different configurations of people at the Thanksgiving table," she says. "And maybe someone else will cook, or for the first time, guests will be asked to bring food. Everyone needs to be willing to pitch in, reach out to people they don't know, and be flexible."
To avoid family squabbles, she adds, it's important to keep the focus on gratitude for time together. "We need to be a little more deliberate than usual this year about setting aside our differences. Decide ahead of time not to get hysterical if, for instance, Mom insists on treating you like a child and you're in your 40s."
Kate Kelly, also a family and parenting expert as well as author of the book "Living Safe in an Unsafe World," urges families not to forget the power of humor to bring levity to a tense moment. While we're living in a changed world, she says, many things will feel just the same. "The kids will still make a lot of noise, the dishes will pile up as usual, and Uncle Fred might make the usual jab about the food. But you can shrug it all off with humor. 'Oh, Uncle Fred,' you might say with a laugh, 'you've never liked my turkey.' "
Both Clark and Ms. Kelly suspect that talk at the Thanksgiving table will focus more on the history of this quintessential American holiday. "Our country is feeling extremely patriotic right now," says Clark, "so it will be especially meaningful to talk about American history and the origins of the day."
Celebrating this American holiday still feels a little new to Amal Haddad, who moved to the US from Lebanon in the early '80s. She and her husband of seven months will fly from Boston to Arizona to spend Thanksgiving with her sister's family - a trip they might not have planned before Sept. 11. "We are leaving very early, changing flights, and returning on a red-eye," she says, "but it's worth it. I'm very close to her and her family, and they haven't spent time with us as a couple. You just can't procrastinate on being with people you care about. You never know what tomorrow will bring."
Ms. Haddad's convictions are largely influenced by her upbringing in Beirut, which she describes as "absolutely horrible." While her older siblings were attending college in America, and her father was in Africa for work, she and her mother were dodging bombs back home. "The sense of insecurity and fear that people are feeling here is very familiar to me," she says. "But growing up during wartime made me a different person. It has helped me appreciate what I have." Quietly reflecting on how those early years affected her, Haddad points out the appropriateness of her first name, Amal, which means "hope" in Arabic.
Like Haddad, New Yorker Lauren Groveman feels that living amid a "war zone" has helped her become a more appreciative, more loving person. The cookbook author, who makes frequent appearances on TV and radio, has just formed a new company called Hands On Food. The company, which educates people about the benefits of fresh food, has just built a kitchen and started a culinary program for women prisoners at Riker's Island Prison.
She will spend Thanksgiving at her home in Larchmont, N.Y., with her husband, three children, and in-laws.
Many people are looking forward to this first major holiday since the attacks, she says, because they want to reaffirm the blessing of having people to congregate with. "But," she adds, "we need to take the lessons of Sept. 11 beyond the holiday and make more of an effort year-round to connect with people we care about and help others."
Ms. Groveman feels that New Yorkers have a special responsibility to show how the attacks can elevate the human spirit. "People are very sore here, more so than in any other part of the country," she says. "But we have a great opportunity to use what happened to help strengthen this country emotionally and spiritually. If this has shown us anything, it's the need to be more forgiving, more tolerant, more empathetic, and especially more grateful."
1 to 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold; cut into small pieces
3 tablespoons ice water
Place the flour, baking powder, salt, and butter in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse on and off for about 10 seconds, or until the mixture resembles coarse peas. Add the ice water, and pulse until just before the dough begins to form a ball. Place the dough in a plastic bag. With the ball of your hand, gently form a flat, round disk - about 8 inches in diameter - and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Lightly flour a work surface and rolling pin, and gently, but firmly, roll the chilled dough with a rolling pin, turning after each roll by quarter turns until the dough is about 11 inches in diameter. Gently roll the dough onto the rolling pin, and then center it on an 8-inch pie pan. Put the pie pan with dough back in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
4 slightly ripe but firm pears (Bosc, Anjou, or Bartlett - they must not be too juicy)
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of a medium-size orange
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter
Peel the pears with a potato peeler. Cut them in half lengthwise, cut the halves into quarters, cut out seeds and core, and then cut each quarter into three slices. Place in a medium-size bowl. Add the sugar, orange zest, vanilla, and nutmeg. Toss gently.
Remove the prepared pastry from the refrigerator. Place the pear mixture in the middle of the pan, gently distributing it evenly in the pan. Dot the top with small pieces of the butter. Gently raise the edges of the dough up and over the fruit mixture, draping and overlapping the dough. It will look uneven and handmade.
Place the pie in the lower third of the preheated oven for about 40 minutes. The dough should be a light golden color. Before serving, dust the edge of the crust with sifted powdered sugar. Serve either warm or at room temperature with some freshly whipped cream, crème fraîche, or vanilla ice cream.
- Flaky pastry recipe adapted from 'Bistro Cooking,' by Patricia Wells (Workman)