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VOL. 44 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 13, 2020

Thanksgiving dinner: Is it worth the risk?

Gatherings come with warnings in age of COVID-19

By Catherine Mayhew

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The 20-pound turkey comes out of the oven, its skin perfectly browned and crisp. The sideboard is lined with bounteous platters of dressing, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato casserole and creamed onions. The pies – apple, pecan and pumpkin – rest on the dessert table nearby. A houseful of family and friends head to the table to give thanks and dig in.

That was so 2019. Thanksgiving will look different this year.

The Centers for Disease Control is warning that small gatherings in households are causing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Add to that indoor gatherings are riskier than outdoor ones. And then there’s travel, making sure everyone’s virus bubble has indeed been a bubble and what to do about dear Aunt Edna and Uncle Lester who are getting up in years and are at high risk of a bad outcome should they contract the virus.

Research from Hormel Foods and Butterball, which sells more than 40 million turkeys for Thanksgiving, suggests consumers will break large gatherings into several smaller ones and host some celebrations outdoors. The number of folks who plan to only host their immediate families jumped to 30% from 18% last year. The Kroger supermarket chain has done its own research and found that 43% of its shoppers plan to only include members of their immediate households.

Feeling that holiday spirit?

“The biggest thing is small gatherings,” says Dr. Calvin Smith, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Meharry Medical College and a member of Nashville’s Board of Health.

“I know a lot of people like to have 10 or more people, but we need to focus on having small intimate gatherings. If you know a relative with health conditions, you need to be very careful and get tested before going.”

Smith says everyone involved should get tested for the virus, guests and hosts.

Plenty of people have conducted business via video this year, so doing the same for Thanksgiving seems to be a natural progression.

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“Results are coming back in 24 hours or less,” he says. “Get tested on the weekend or early in the week before Thanksgiving. The last thing you want to do is have a visit with an elderly relative and feel that you caused them to contract the virus. You don’t want to have a large gathering (later on) for a sadder occasion.”

Many families are pondering the best and safest way to celebrate and there are lots of options on the table right now.

“I’ve offered to get the clubhouse in my condo complex so that a few of us could come together for a meal,” says Peggy Shaw, a former Nashville resident now living in Atlanta. “We would just all bring dishes. But my son-in-law is suggesting to his parents that they put up tables in the in-laws’ nice garage and host us all there.”

Still, Shaw’s not sure yet because of her elderly mother.

“The bottom line is that I am still concerned,” she says. “I may end up going over to my mom’s with a Cracker Barrel meal. We may decide that it’s not the best idea for her to be part of any gathering, but I won’t want her to be alone on that day.”

Sarah Karpie and husband Marty have one child in the military and two children who live in New York. She’s weighing the fact that somebody’s going into quarantine if they travel.

“We are still waiting to see what we are able to do,” she says. “We have one child in the military whose travel restrictions could change unexpectedly. Our other two children live in New York and if they leave the state they have to deal with two-week mandatory quarantine when they return.

“So we might have to go there, but that means we have to quarantine for two weeks. We are definitely going to go to New York for Christmas since our daughter is getting married Jan. 2, but not sure we can do quarantine in November and December. It is sad, we want to be with our kids for the holidays but the travel restrictions are limiting that possibility.”

Let’s talk turkey

Video visits might be as ubiquitous as turkey, dressing and pecan pie this year with safety a primary concern.

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Producers at the nation’s 2,500 turkey farms realized last spring they might have a problem this year. They had to decide how many turkeys to raise and how big they should be. Nobody knew what Thanksgiving would look like back then.

Now we know. Thanksgiving gatherings are expected to be smaller this year. Demand for smaller birds has increased. Some celebrations will include turkey parts, such as breast only. Others might stray from turkey altogether and opt for roast pork, duck or even prime rib.

“Definitely smaller,” says Cindy Thomsen, who recently retired from the Vanderbilt communications office, of her planned gathering. “And I’ve made the switch from turkey to pork standing rib roast. Hoping for nice weather so we can stay outside.”

Some grocery chains are buying smaller turkeys. Kroger is stocking up on alternative proteins such as ham and seafood, figuring consumers who have never cooked a Thanksgiving meal might be fearful of tackling a whole bird.

Walmart is increasing its offerings of boneless and bone-in turkey breasts as cuts that might be less intimidating.

For those who take on the whole bird, the Butterball Turkey Talk Line is ready for your calls. It’s predicting a higher demand because of those first-time turkey cooks who need advice on thawing and roasting their birds. If you’re in that camp, you might want to make a note that you can call 1 800-BUTTERBALL (1 800 288-8372) or text 844-877-3456.

If cooking’s not your thing at all, there are plentiful restaurant and specialty food store offerings for families of four or more. The easiest way to find Thanksgiving deals is to visit your favorite restaurant’s website and look for a holiday menu.

Among venerable restaurants offering to make the full meal for you are Puckett’s, Ellington’s, The Loveless Café, Arnold’s and Henrietta Red. In addition to a full takeout Thanksgiving menu, Adele’s will also sell you cocktails to go. Anyone for a pecan and pumpkin martini? This might be the year.

Most of these options serve four or more. If you’re a family of two or three there are options that won’t leave you with a mountain of leftovers. Miss Daisy’s Kitchen is offering a menu with a half a roasted turkey breast plus a la carte sides.

Fresh Market has a 3 to 3 ½ pound turkey breast. And don’t forget your favorite barbecue joints. Many will sell you a size-appropriate portion of smoked turkey. Dickey’s has options that start with as little as a fourth of a pound, perfect for Thanksgiving for one. And if a whole pie for dessert just isn’t in your future, try Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop or Papa C Pies for individual servings.

At least one holiday host is going entirely the other way this year. Intimate gathering, but big feast.

Donna Stokes-Rogers’ Thanksgiving guest list is small – just her husband, daughter, mother and aunt –but the experienced cook is going all-out.

“I am going to cook the biggest Thanksgiving dinner I have ever made, with every side, four kinds of pie, maybe a cheesecake or two, because I am so damn grateful for my family and surviving this awful year. I’ve never been so thankful in all my life and aware of the loss of so many.”

Assess your risk

Assessing risk is a personal decision, different for everyone. Have you been cautious about limiting contact with others? Are you confident that others who may come in and out of your life have been careful as well? But a new study does indicate that contact within a household carries increased risk.

Dr. Carlos Grijalva, a Vanderbilt University epidemiologist, and his research team studied almost 200 households mainly in Nashville to track virus spread. When someone in a house got sick, the team obtained consent to interview everyone else in the household and take nasal swabs and collect saliva for the next 14 days.

What they found was that the transmission rate was 50%, higher than previously assumed.

Elizabeth Power, founder of the EPower Change Institute in Nashville and an adjunct instructor in psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, has some suggestions to cope with the jarring change this Thanksgiving will bring.

“Everybody wants to be with their people on Turkey Day,” she says. “But nobody wants to think about what might happen. Most people seem to catch COVID-19 at home.”

Not surprisingly one of them involves Zoom.

Power suggests swapping recipes with those who would normally be at your Thanksgiving table, cook them and then share the results virtually. She even suggests giving prizes to the winners. Another way to keep tradition alive would be to have the host at past celebrations cook the most iconic dishes and send boxed meals to former guests in the community. Then schedule a Zoom meeting and have a virtual feast.

Power also advises the recipients to offer reimbursing the host for some of the cost. After all, nobody wants to repeat Thanksgiving 2020 but if that’s the case next year you want to make sure you sent a generous “thank you.”

Smith plans to be one of those jumping on Zoom Nov. 26.

“Personally, I plan to stay home and connect with my family via Zoom,” he says. “I enjoy cooking so I’m going to make a small meal for myself. Four o’clock is when we usually gather. So we’ll do a toast and a prayer.”

And one more caution from the good doctor. No Black Friday this year. “Amazon Prime is your friend.”

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