(Community Design) Thanksgiving in July
In the years bordering “The Great Recession,” the job slowdown was particularly rough in places like Portland, Oregon, where I lived at the time, and I was unable to secure regular employment for two years.
Each day I walked the aisles of Home Depot trying to hustle some paid handyman work; many dark nights I’d work to finish a day’s labor so my boys could eat; and most evenings I’d drive around the neighborhood in my old Toyota Corolla singing improvisational weird songs as my young sons “ate dinner” and so they might avoid the trauma of bill collectors pounding on my front door, threatening foreclosure.
Deferring payment of some bills so the lights stayed on, and so my boys never went without a meal, we chose to embrace the novelty of the experience from a place of irreverent fun, and to this day my now-adult sons describe these years as the best of their lives.
But, man. Those were hard times.
Following in my ancestors’ footsteps, who had cut their teeth navigating the Great Depression of the 1930’s, I went “all-in” hosting a regular circuit of neighbor potlucks, the high point of which is “Thanksgiving in July.”
Thanksgiving? Wait, what?
While unemployed, under constant harassment by bill collectors, and at risk of being ejected from our home and into the streets?
Thanksgiving? In July?
I like the bold audacity of embracing a spirit of gratitude, community service, and generosity while staring into the deep abyss, for as I taught my sons:
“Love is like a campfire’s flames: there’s more of it when you add fuel, not less.”
I mean, my people come from poor, and that’s how we roll.
Love is a verb, y’all, and its most visceral expression is demonstrated through a spirit of service and generosity, for when you boldly step into a faith that “things will be ok,” you create a gravity well that draws others to you, and y’all will navigate hard times as one people, transformed.
Those that participate in the tradition are invited to look back and remind themselves what they did to get through “the hard times,“ thus informing their decision years later to again step courageously into the abyss next time they face difficulty, again embracing a spirit of service and generosity.
Adding fuel doesn’t diminish the campfire; it helps it grow, thus expanding the range of its warmth and light.
As shared in this article, “I grew up at the feet of giants on the floor of my grandmothers kitchen,“ and as a child I hung on every word as my people (not always kin) retold the “family stories;” oral tradition describing how and why our people thrive through life‘s difficulties.
I’m a technology guy, and during boom times the industry pays very well, but in terms of reliable employment tech is a real hit and miss job sector in Oregon, and when slow times hit, they hit hard, especially in mid-sized cities with smallish tech economies like Portland.
Time and again I’d watch in horror as former colleagues take that final step off the bridge, figuratively and literally, leaving their spouses and children in a state of shock and horror.
It takes a lot for people to shake themselves from the shock and malaise of financial difficulties, but let’s break that spell by talking about food.
Why? Because food is delicious!
There’s no greater “bang for the buck” than hosting a mid-summer turkey dinner for friends and neighbors who are also facing hard times.
As I am fond of saying: a potluck’s success is a reflection of the love invested by each contributor, and all you need is an anchor dish and a table.
A deep dish filled with homemade enchiladas might serve as an anchor dish, but let’s talk about turkey, because turkey is amazing.
Turkey in July is pretty inexpensive, as are potatoes. With enough skill and experience, one can whip up a decent saucepan of gravy using butter, turkey drippings, flour, salt and pepper.
Boom: that’s your anchor dish, for less than $25.
Now it’s time to put on your thinking cap; you don’t want to invite people that pick up a bag of chips on the way to your house, eat three or four plates of food, and then refuse to do dishes afterwards.
During the “Great Recession,“ I was fortunate enough to curate a really rich network of people who pulled out all stops in the creation of truly spectacular potluck dishes.
For example, a set of sisters whose descendants come from the plains of Kansas brought with them an incredible attention to detail and an unmatched spirit of generosity.
They two were deeply influenced by the telling of family stories, and in their adult lives they had made a decision to embrace those who shared their values. One of the women is a public defender, and the other an actress, so they did not have a lot of extra money, but there’s were always the most incredible dishes.
And significantly, they would frequently source the ingredients of their meals from within their own home gardens, or from gardens of their own neighbors, so the quality of their food was spectacular.
Here’s something that never failed to amaze me:
Remember that thing I said about how a campfire serves as an allegory to love, which in its most pure form is a multi-faceted verb instead of a feeling?
When you add fuel to the campfire, you don’t get less fire. You get more, right?
When I hosted a potluck, everybody ended up taking home more food than they had brought, which meant that the quantity and quality of meals had somehow expanded.
Whereas at first maybe I had a lot of turkey, potatoes, and gravy, at the end of the evening I was left with a clean house, because everybody pitched in, and a whole lot of extra food.
But even beyond that, people like Kasia and her sister would take the extra time to share the wisdom they had learned from their own grandmother, and so in each successive meal, the overall quality of meals only increased.
When the economy slows (pro tip: it always does) we are conditioned to aggressively “swim upstream” relative to our peers, with hopes that we will end up “better than before.”
Of course, in order for some to win, others must lose, right?
Under normal conditions, and assuming a healthy, growing economy it’s reasonable to assume that those who are not as competitive move into adjacent career opportunities, but in practice more and more people begin to slide further and further “downstream.”
This might be an easy phenomenon to ignore when friends and former colleagues are sequestered into other neighborhoods, out of sight out of mind, right?
But unless we have sequestered ourselves away in a community that tolerates only the prosperous, eventually it becomes difficult to ignore the fact that there are those around us who are not enjoying a time of prosperity, sometimes to their significant despair.
I suppose it’s easy to sit and complain about the government or the economy, but wouldn’t it be more fun to just have a potluck, from a place of generosity and service?
All you need is an anchor dish, a table, and a small number of like-minded people who have similarly embraced a spirit of generosity and service.