Thanksgiving is a special holiday, the great American secular celebration: a common ritual, eating of a turkey dinner, almost universally practiced, in all the nooks and crannies of the social landscape. Indians may not be very enthusiastic. The return on their fabled  historic hospitality was not very good. And those who are concerned about the Native American place in the national story may have their critical doubts, but still just about everyone takes part, or at least is expected to take part, including me. A conversation I had with a good friend earlier in the week reveals what it’s all about.

My pool at the Theodore Young Community Center will be closed from Thursday through Sunday. Knowing the pool would be closed, I made sure I went today and earlier in the week. I chatted with Beverly McCoy, the receptionist and social center of gravity there, about the upcoming holiday. She explained her preparations.

Cornbread stuffing © Maggie Hoffman | Flickr

Today she is driving to her son and his family in Central Pennsylvania. Yesterday and Monday, she was preparing, doing her packing and making the cornbread stuffing, a must for her African American family. Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Bev’s down home stuffing, a specialty of the South.

I have a similar but slightly different expectation at my Thanksgiving dinner at my sister in law, Geraldine’s, place in Brooklyn, across from the museum. She and her husband Bernard will cook the dinner, but one of the necessities is prepared by my other sister in law, Lana, the kugel (the traditional Jewish noodle pudding). As Beverly’s Thanksgiving requires her cornbread stuffing, ours wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Lana’s kugel.

My daughter Brina felt this deeply when she was spending her junior year abroad in Paris. When the program director organized a potluck Thanksgiving dinner for the Brown students studying there years ago, Brina immediately thought of the kugel, which was a big success, even as it puzzled the French Thanksgiving guests, a sweet dish that wasn’t dessert. And as it happened, Brina met her future husband that year, and now, living in Paris, when she and her family and an American friend and her family prepare a Thanksgiving meal, alas not on Thursday because it is a work day, Brina never forgets to prepare the kugel, following Lana’s recipe.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" or "The Thanksgiving Picture" © 1943 | U.S. N.A.R.A. - Wikimedia Commons
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” or “The Thanksgiving Picture” (WWII poster) © 1943 Unknown | U.S. N.A.R.A.

There is a vision of America that imagines a country of similar small town values, common religious practices, a common cultural identity, as Norman Rockwell immortalized in his famous depiction. But the painting Beverly, with her family, and I, with mine, paint in our actual practice is more interesting and realistic. There are common values, but there are as well differences. Sometimes the differences present serious problems, but on Thanksgiving we symbolically transcend these. Turkey and kugel, Turkey and cornbread stuffing, turkey and many other national, ethnic, and regional specialties define the holiday and the plural identity that America is.

(This version of this post was originally published November 23, 2011 on