Family Meal, the Thanksgiving Edition

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Everybody who works in retail, restaurants, or hospitality knows an invisible truth: You’re meant to work when everybody else is not. In fact, you’re meant to work even harder when everybody else is not, because that’s when everybody else gets to go shopping, go out to eat, or go on vacation. You may not realize it when you take the job, but when the holidays come around, there’s no avoiding it.

When I first moved to New York City, the economy was in a tailspin and my college degree (in screen printing) was rendered worthless. I was a drop in a sea of liberally-artistic kids flooding the job market. That fate landed me in a fancy restaurant ferrying guests from the door to their table, telling them all about Japanese beef I knew absolutely nothing about — “All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe.”

I started in the summer, but things picked up as the holidays approached. Throngs of hungry tourist families dropping hundreds of dollars on meals came in and out every night — a sure sign of the season. Thanksgiving was coming. I remember hearing that we’d be open for the holiday and slightly panicking at the thought of being scheduled. That would mean losing my own celebration. Thanksgiving, as a holiday centered around judgement-free eating, is deeply important to me. Surely the managers of this big fancy restaurant would take pity on me, the new guy who occasionally steals pastries and eats them in the coat room.

Sadly, they did not take pity on me. As previously covered, when you work in a restaurant, everybody else’s holiday is your call to arms. It would be the first time in my life that I’d be away from my family for Thanksgiving. Away from the turkey, away from the pies. Depressing.

But that was my actual family.

The people I’d spent the last few months with were my urban family. Or at least, for this Thanksgiving they were my assigned family, whether I wanted them or not. There were the joking hosts and hostesses who made 10 hours standing on your feet go by in the blink of an eye, the bartenders who’d fix you a shift drink when you clocked out, the pastry team that’d sneak you a chocolate cake, the chefs who’d scream at you but it was fine because that’s just how chefs are, and all the servers who’d tell you stories about their drag queen days and coke-fueled nights in the ‘90s.

We all had to rely on each other at the end of the day, much like a traditional family would. And to make things even more traidtional, we ate family meal together before dinner service every day. (For the uninitiated, this is when the kitchen makes whatever the hell they want and you eat it without complaint.)

I don’t think any of us wanted to be away from home for a holiday, but it did at least feel like home, with people that felt like family (plus we made time and a half). But Thanksgiving at the restaurant wasn’t just another day in the trenches. The kitchen prepared a full-on feast, with everything you could ever ask for from a Thanksgiving spread — mountains of turkey, mashed potatoes, and enough sweets to get you high and hyped for an evening of service. I remember we hung out a little longer than normal, allowing ourselves a moment to celebrate before diving into the rush.

The night came and went with plenty of happy families served. I’m sure there were fuck-ups somewhere in the mix, but nothing too disastrous that I remember it a decade later. And all in all it was a good time complete with all the Thanksgiving musts: good food, good people, and a blissful turkey sleep. It didn’t feel like I was away from my family, just that I was with a different one. Because sooner or later the people you support and the ones who support you will become your family. Truth be told, you have little control over that. It might not be the traditional idea, but it doesn’t matter. There are all kinds of family in all kinds of places.