Small is the new big for Thanksgiving in the age of COVID

LITTLE GOBBLERS: Jeff and Ashley Miller's youngest two children, Betsy June and Charlie, learn safe knife techniques from the pros. Photo by Lynne Caldwell

Alice Oglesby, marketing and garden manager for Sunny Point Café, speaks fondly of Thanksgivings past, which she and her partner traditionally spent around the dinner table of longtime friends in North Asheville. “Their daughter and her husband come up from Atlanta, they invite some other friends, it’s anywhere from 12-15 people. The hosts make the main, and everyone else brings sides and desserts,” she says.

After dinner, Oglesby continues, the group customarily walks to the Omni Grove Park Inn to view its gingerbread house display before heading back for dessert. Sounding wistful, she adds what she calls the mantra of 2020: “But not this year.”

Variations on the sentiment that “things will look different this year” have become part of a pandemic lexicon as COVID precautions have affected virtually every traditional celebration in 2020, starting with St. Patrick’s Day in March. As North Carolina segued through official phases of reopening, many warm weather holidays, like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day, were relatively safely observed outdoors. But rising numbers of cases in Buncombe County and the state does not portend well for travel-reliant, indoor gatherings like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In a media release, Stacie Saunders, Buncombe County public health director, says the county’s contact-tracing investigations reveal that many new cases have been associated with small gatherings of family and friends. “The best protection is reducing contact with others outside of your household as much as possible,” she reminds.

In other words:

Thanksgiving 2019: Friendsgiving fun!

Thanksgiving 2020: Pods-giving proactive. Womp, womp.

Professional pod

Members of the restaurant industry have become experts on pandemic protective procedures, with little wiggle room between the professional and personal. For many, Thanksgiving will indeed look different this year, and small is the new big.

“Normally, we get together with extended family,” says Anthony Coggiola of how he and his wife, Sherrye, owners of The Cantina at Biltmore Village, usually spend turkey day. “But this year we are not traveling to see family, and no one is traveling here to see us. My sister lives here, and a cousin lives here, and we have been seeing them, so that’s our pod this year.”

Because their restaurant staff members are part of their professional pod, Coggiola says that with Cantina closed on Thanksgiving Day, he and Sherrye have invited employees to stop by the restaurant’s large outdoor space in the afternoon for a drink and a light bite. But it will be family only when it comes time to sit at the table for dinner that evening, where a smoked turkey from Luella’s will be carved.

“We did that last year, and it was delicious,” he says. “I’d rather use that big chunk of cooking time and oven space for sides and pies.”

A few good friends

Jeff Miller, owner of both Luella’s Bar-B-Que restaurants in Asheville, is pleased when told of Coggiola’s turkey plans. “It’s the biggest honor to be on so many Thanksgiving tables,” he says. “The first year we offered them in 2007, we did about 12 and thought we were crushing it. Now we cap it at 250 turkeys, with 125 at each store, gallons of gravy and pounds and pounds of potatoes and veggies.”

Even so, he says, he was a little surprised to find his own turkey on the table at their host’s house last year. “I was like, ‘You knew we were on the guest list, right?’”

When he and his wife, Ashley, are hosting, he prefers a roasted local bird, though, for him, it’s all about the sides — particularly the mashed potatoes, which are his specialty. “Yukon golds, skin on, smashed and lumpy, with a ton of the highest-fat butter you can find,” he says.

But for the Millers, there will be no large Friendsgiving gathering this year. “We are not sharing indoor space with anyone other than family right now,” says Jeff. Instead, they plan to dine al fresco with a couple of friends they spent time with outdoors over the summer. Should bad weather prevent that from happening, he says, they will pivot. With four kids between the ages of 4 and 15, the Millers still form a lively pod of six.

In-laws only

Chef Joe Scully, co-owner of Corner Kitchen and Chestnut, will kick off Thanksgiving 2020 with his wife, Vanessa Salomo, as he normally does. “Every Thanksgiving, Vanessa and I and whoever wants to help go to [Veterans Restoration Quarters] and feed dinner to a few hundred,” he says. “We’ll still do that this year with a couple of menu and service changes.”

Before their now-3-year-old daughter, Frances, was born, Scully says, he and Salomo took a low-key approach after serving the vets, usually going to a movie in the afternoon. This year, though, they will have dinner with Salomo’s parents, Kitty and John Webster, the only people the chef’s family spends time with indoors and unmasked. And dinner will be on him.

“I’m the only person who cooks in my house,” Scully says with a laugh. “I’ll slow-roast a prime rib from Hickory Nut Gap, Yorkshire pudding, green beans, twice-baked potatoes, root vegetables and a pumpkin pie for my father-in-law. We feel very safe in that bubble.”

Plan B

Oglesby plans to have Thanksgiving dinner with the pod quartet she and her partner created months ago with another couple who, like them, have a low risk of exposure to the coronavirus professionally and are extremely cautious personally. They began in the spring getting together in their yard at opposite ends of a 12-foot table, progressing from drinks and snacks to potluck dinners, games of distanced croquet and even crafty projects like dividing aloe plants and painting pots.

As more has been learned about how the virus spreads, the four have moved onto Oglesby’s covered, high-ceiling porch and a smaller table, though their weekly dinners are always preceded by check-in texts on individual levels of exposure the week prior, and if anyone is not comfortable, they postpone until the next week.

Given the all-clear, on Nov. 26, they will convene earlier in the day due to cooling temperatures and the earlier sunset. And rather than cook, they will treat themselves to Sunny Point’s take-away full dinner for four.

While marveling over the elaborate gingerbread houses at the Grove Park Inn is also COVID-canned this year, Oglesby has a Plan B. “Since I won’t be cooking dinner, I’ll make gingerbread instead, and after dinner, we can all make our own gingerbread houses,” she says.


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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