The Legend of the Atlanta Midnight Thanksgiving Feast

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Three years ago, on Thanksgiving Eve, I found a peculiar message in my Facebook inbox:

“Feifei! What are you doing for Thanksgiving? If you’re around, come to Midnight Turkey. Come around 10. Epic feast at midnight. Text me for more details… -Mike” And then he left his number.

I found it peculiar only because it was the rare kind of Facebook message drafted by the sender specifically for its receiver — which is to say, it wasn’t an invite to someone’s book launch, housewarming party, or baby shower, nor a marriage proposal from a stranger (or bot, who can say anymore?) from the other side of the world.

I didn’t text him, and I didn’t go to Midnight Turkey that year, but about a month after that, I was telling Mike that I loved him inside his 1969 Ford camper in a park just outside Atlanta. So, the following Thanksgiving, it was on.

Midnight Turkey is essentially a Thanksgiving after party on steroids: Around 10 p.m., after people have had proper Thanksgiving dinner with their families, they roll into Mike’s house for the pleasure often missing in holidays spent with family. Records spin nonstop, and people grab “mystery beer” cans out of blue coolers throughout the night (a strict “no takebacks” policy is enforced). And at midnight, we eat.

When Mike said “epic feast,” he wasn’t exaggerating. He usually cooks between 8-10 turkeys, some fried, others roasted, all delicious. There are just as many sides, nearly all of them riffs on classics with a dash of whatever food and flavors he’s been into that year: pumpkin bisque, kimchi kale salad, and Cajun mac-n-cheese with tasso ham are the ones I remember most from the two Thanksgivings we spent together. But the hallmark of the event is the Suckling Turduckling: a quail stuffed inside of a Cornish hen stuffed inside of a chicken stuffed inside of a duck stuffed inside of a turkey with multiple layers of stuffing throughout. That combination is then wrapped in bacon, stuffed into a deboned sucking pig, and smoked for 24 hours. The whole process takes about 48 hours, and Mike does the whole thing himself.

It’s his take on the New Orleans classic turducken, and arguably the reason most people have shown up over the last 20 years. The tradition began in Deland, Florida, where Mike is from, on Thanksgiving Day 1998. He was working a late shift at a restaurant, and couldn’t eat dinner with his own family, so a friend suggested they cook a separate turkey meal later in the evening — that bird was finished around midnight, and so Midnight Turkey was born.

But I’ve always loved it for the way it gives people without a place to be on Thanksgiving just that: a place to be. There are dozens of familiar faces at Midnight Turkey — close friends, friends of friends — but there are usually just as many strangers: neighbors who heard the music from down the street, or straight up strangers who saw the public invite on Facebook. The one year we hosted Midnight Turkey together in the home we shared, I asked Mike whether he thought we should just invite friends we actually knew that year. He quickly dismissed the idea, telling me how he’d just invited a particularly friendly Uber driver he had that afternoon (she eventually showed up with two bottles of wine).

As a Chinese immigrant raised in an atheist family, I didn’t grow up celebrating any of the major American holidays, and I’ve spent many Thanksgiving nights alone, not always because I chose to be. But Midnight Turkey reminds me that I’ll always have a party to crash. And that’s why — even though Mike and I are no longer together — it remains my favorite Thanksgiving tradition.

Feifei Sun is a writer and editor living in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in TIME, Marie Claire, Dwell, and more. She is, much to her own chagrin, not the supermodel of the same name.