by Brooke Chilvers
Thanksgiving 2022 in Illinois, with our traditional group of revelers who convened there most years, had been a Covid-stalked disaster, further tainted by generational disappointments.
So, for Thanksgiving 2023, six of us decided to remove ourselves from good internet connections and family problems to our house in the woods in Virginia. But when the phone rang this past Monday night, I knew in my gut that our well-laid plans were about to go belly-up—for the second year in a row.
To recap, Thanksgiving 2022, after two years (2020 and 2021) of restricted holiday seasons at home, we hit the road and headed to my Bestie, Janis, in Illinois, driving the same 725 miles we’d done for a dozen feasts before.
Janis and her husband, Chris, live in an enormous house, with bedrooms and bathrooms to host several couples and a few singles for a week. I was glad to delegate all the decision-making regarding whose mother’s stuffing to prepare, and whether it belongs inside the turkey, and the proper use of marshmallows. Janis and Chris always pulled out all the stops, including sending everyone home with cheerful tins of perfectly glazed Christmas cookies, despite her grandkids’ teenage indifference to family traditions and her daughter’s distain for cookery.
We coordinated with our other pals, Paul and Melissa, to arrive in Illinois on the Monday before Thanksgiving. They were driving from New Orleans with 30 pounds of Gulf shrimp, 180 shucked oysters, and loaves of fresh po’ boy bread for everybody.
The plan was:
Tuesday: Hunt pheasant with Chris and Janis’s Vizslas at their gun club in Wisconsin.
Wednesday: Prep the food for 18 convives convening on Thanksgiving Day.
Friday: Girl shop-shop-shop ‘til we drop.
Saturday: Eat our way through leftovers.
Sunday or Monday: Leave, depending on weather and traffic.
In preparation, I gathered my recipes for Alsatian braised pheasant with sauerkraut, and a party-worthy gamebird pâté with pistachios, along with our martini kit and lavish leftovers for overnight at our half-way hotel near Cleveland.
For once, the weather was good the entire way, and we even uncovered good eats in Elkhart, Indiana, after wasting years looking in Sturgis, Michigan. Even better, the delay-causing construction on tricky Interstate 76 across Pennsylvania, and Interstate 80 cutting through dull, dull Indiana, was finally paying off. We survived the congestion and construction around Chicago, and arrived in time for Chris shaking cocktails.
Although our Finnish-blooded friend, Terry, had arrived from California the previous day, she was absent from the table. That morning, Chris had taken her to the ER to check out a sudden nasty cough. Her (hoped for) respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) turned out to be old-fashioned Covid, and she was confined to a downstairs guest room. This was bad news, because Terry’s OCD takes the form of non-stop dishwashing, which makes her the perfect house guest for a week-long foodie shindig.
Now the complications: Melissa and I are asthmatic; Paul had twice been slammed with hard bouts of Covid; my husband, Rudy, was recovering from delicate knee surgery; Janis has complicated heart problems; and Chris had just been diagnosed with cancer. Notwithstanding all of this, on Tuesday we went pheasant hunting, with Liesel and Viktor pointing the way.
On Wednesday, we peeled and chopped, and baked pies between cooking and cleaning up three meals a day. We pulled out 18 settings of Janis’s fine china, her Bohemian crystal goblets, polished silver cutlery, and gorgeous serving dishes, all of which would require hand-washing and hand-drying by Melissa and me.
At noon, Chris reported he was feeling ill and did not come down for lunch. This sent us off to CVS and Walgreens for a supply of at-home Covid-19 test kits. That evening, over stiff martinis, the score was still Positive, 1 (Terry), Negative, 6.
On Thanksgiving morning, Chris scored a double line. Positive, 2 (Terry, Chris), Negative, 5. Janis called down instructions to feed the dogs. I knew she would follow no protocol but her own, which meant sleeping next to Chris to monitor his breathing, instead of (safely) in a guest room.