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A Free Times food writer figures out Thanksgiving during a pandemic

Masking Tradition

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Rachel Barnett’s corn pie (copy)

Columbia's Rachel Barnett, co-founder of the food blog Kugels & Collards, shows off a family Thanksgiving staple, corn pie.

Why isn’t everyone’s favorite holiday Thanksgiving?

A day dedicated to cooking food, eating food, laying down, not buying presents, eating more food, and finding a way to enjoy the leftover food is pretty much my idea of paradise.

But for me, that paradise is, at least for this year, lost. Up until now the lack of obligations thanks to COVID-19 hasn’t changed my life too much, something very few people are able to say, I know. But having to drastically alter Thanksgiving is a hit I had not fully prepared for until my family started asking each other about Thanksgiving plans amid a fraught week of election coverage and bad football outcomes.

How Thanksgiving is celebrated has shifted in my adult life. The death of my grandfather was the biggest change because Thanksgiving was his Super Bowl. He started discussing the menu after Labor Day, and pretty much every day afterwards. But food was our shared language so I relished it.

Afterwards were a few Thanksgivings that didn’t quite have the same feel. The past few years, my husband and I have gone to Orangeburg to meet up with my in-laws and gorge on a Thanksgiving buffet at a little country place behind a gas station. I’d out eat the whole family, with everyone wagering on how much more I could handle. But this year? No thanks to a rural buffet, though I am sure they are taking safety precautions.

I’m going to miss the endless options on that buffet this year, even the unappetizing Watergate salad. But there’s no way my dreams of squash casserole, green bean casserole, fluffy fresh rolls, rivers of gravy running through mountains of mashed potatoes, collard greens that changed my mind on collard greens, and small slivers of pie so you can have a taste of five kinds are worth the COVID risk.

As everyone should know by now, COVID cases are spiking yet again across the United States, including in South Carolina. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this spike can directly be attributed to small household gatherings. That means the people you think won’t give it to you are the most likely to do so. Just because it’s your beloved relative doesn’t mean they aren’t able to breathe infected particles into the air you’re breathing.

I love my family and I’m pretty sure they are being safe, but with some still going into an office setting because they are essential workers, it's an additional risk. The CDC says people who go into an office are twice as likely to test positive for COVID.

My husband is a Type I diabetic, and I have an offensively delicate respiratory system, so we are in the high-risk category for COVID. And we’re both pretty pathetic when it comes to being sick. Neither of us wants to deal with a sick spouse. So we’ve been quite careful in how we conduct our lives since March and are lucky to be able to do so with minimal lifestyle changes.

That means no Thanksgiving with family this year. Sitting indoors for hours, maskless with people outside our household ecosystem seems like it would just be asking for it. Maybe this makes us seem wimpy, or cold, or like snowflakes who have swallowed the COVID conspiracy, but the risk is not worth the reward for us.

Perhaps it’s asking a lot of my family, the small subset of five whom I’d gather with, but I’ve asked that we hold off on plan-making until the weekend before Thanksgiving so we can check the weather forecast. A small, outdoor Thanksgiving is my only concession to making a personal appearance, because being in a well-ventilated area with fresh airflow has been shown to reduce potential transmission by dispersing respiratory droplets. Even though it means wearing a mask while filling my plate with gooey mac and cheese, fresh sweet peas and pumpkin cheesecake, it’s the best we can do this year.

It’s been a warm November, and it looks like it may continue through the remainder of the month — I say with baited and masked breath and crossed and sanitized fingers. I am asking a lot of my family to put the planning that used to begin in September off until three days prior to the big day, but I hope they’ll see my desire not only for my own safety, health and not wanting to feel miserable for two weeks (or a lifetime), but theirs too.

Like any longtime Gamecock fan would say, there’s always next year.

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