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How To Plan – And Even Be Grateful – For A Socially Distanced Thanksgiving

Nov 22, 2020

You should be counting your Thanksgiving blessings if you have someone like Jasmine Surti in your immediate family or circle. She's a mother, a daughter, a friend to many in Lawrenceville, N.J. And she's the sort of super-planner who joyfully takes on the daunting task of organizing a pandemic Thanksgiving.

"Well, I guess I like to make spreadsheets and surveys and things," Surti acknowledges with sheepish pride. "Basically, problem solving, you could say."

Surti problem-solved her socially-distanced Thanksgiving — involving six households spread out across New Jersey and Philadelphia — by putting together a complicated system of not just who makes what this year, but who drops what on which family's doorstep. All to ensure everyone gets to eat their favorite foods, prepared by friends and family.

"People laugh at this, but I created a map of how we're going to get the food where it needs to go," she explains, warming to the topic. Because Surti is such a virtuoso planner, she was also intent on reducing unnecessary travel. So she arranged for one New Jersey friend to make the longest trip, to Philly, and devised multiple drop-off/ pickup points, to cut down on driving.

Unfortunately, spreadsheets are not a solution for Cora Faith Walker, of Ferguson, Mo. Her massive family is spread all over the country. Walker is one of eight adult children; her husband is one of nine. Everyone loves her father-in-law's potato salad but the family cannot congregate this year to enjoy it. So Walker says she resorted to desperate measures.

"I reached out to him and asked him if whether we could maybe send the potato salad in the mail," she confesses. "Like, I really took a moment and looked into the logistics of what that would take."

Because no one wanted to add side servings of botulism to the holiday menu, Walker says, her father-in-law decided to tell everyone how to make the potato salad instead. Numerous long-coveted, heavily-guarded family recipes are being shared for the first time in 2020, according to many of this reporter's sources, since their keepers cannot proudly present the food in person during a global pandemic.

Linh Song (lower right) and Tina Lam (upper right) celebrate a family Thanksgiving in Ann Arbor, Mich, in 2014.
Dug Song / Linh Song
Linh Song's family celebrates Thanksgiving in 2017. From left, Suzan Song, unknown man, Sue Song holding Soona Song
Dug Song / Linh Song

Technique, rather than ingredients, is the secret to Tina Lam's traditional Thanksgiving larb. The delicious salad is usually made with ground chicken, lemon and cilantro in countries such as Thailand and Laos. For this most American of holidays, Lam uses roast turkey instead. The tricky part is the toasted rice. You can't just explain how to make it. You have to show them.

Tina Lam's traditional turkey larb, from a family Thanksgiving in 2017.
Dug Song / Linh Song

"It takes a while," offers Lam's daughter, Lihn Song, during a Zoom call with her mom. "You have to put it on low heat. It has a nutty taste."

Lam lives in Riverside County, Calif. Song lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. This year, mother and daughter plan to make larb together over Facetime, with Lam supervising the process — and teaching it to her young granddaughter.

"And she'll also have my daughter hold the camera up to inspect the state of my skin," Song sighs. "She'll probably tell me I need to use more Oil of Olay."

"That is also traditional!" Lam agrees with a laugh. As someone who fled Laos in 1975, during that country's civil war, Lam knows what it's like to be separated from your family during terrifying times. There's so much to be thankful this year, she says. Just being able to see the faces of the people you love on a whim, to call anytime you want — that's not something, she gently reminds us, to take for granted.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Thanks a lot, 2020. What we did not need this year was to add another layer of planning to a holiday already heavy on logistics. This year, it's not just who will cook the turkey or get the cake from one house to another with the frosting still intact. It's how to keep everyone safe during a spike in coronavirus infections. NPR's Neda Ulaby checked in with families who are trying to figure it all out.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Jasmine Surti is a mother, a daughter, a friend and a master planner. She's taken on the daunting job of organizing a pandemic Thanksgiving and doing it happily.

JASMINE SURTI: Well, I guess I like to make spreadsheets and surveys and things and basically problem-solving.

ULABY: For her socially distanced Thanksgiving, with six households spread across New Jersey and Philadelphia, Surti planned a complicated system of not just who makes what this year, but who drops what on which family's doorstep.

SURTI: People laugh about this about me. But I created a map how we're going to get the food where it needs to go.

ULABY: This way, everyone gets to share food prepared by friends and family. The logistics are so dizzying, it's hard to lay them out. But let's cut to the part involving one New Jersey person making the longest hop.

SURTI: She's going to bring whatever we contributed over to my sisters in Philadelphia and then bring back what they made. And then the people from New Jersey will pick up those things. And so everything gets where it needs to go with only one trip.

ULABY: Call this a holiday plandemic (ph). Spreadsheets are not a solution for Cora Faith Walker of Ferguson, Mo. Her massive family is spread all over the country. Everyone loves her father-in-law's potato salad. But his nine kids, plus their families, cannot congregate this year to enjoy it. So, she says...

CORA FAITH WALKER: I reached out to him and asked him about whether or not we thought that we could maybe send the potato salad in the mail.

ULABY: Oh, no, no, no. But this potato salad meant that much to Walker.

WALKER: Like, I really - I took a moment and looked into the logistics of what that would take.

ULABY: Possibly a bout of botulism. So Walker's father-in-law will just share his recipe instead.

It seems more people are being generous this year with heavily guarded recipes. Tina Lam of Riverside County, Calif., is particular about how she makes larb, a staple salad involving meat and citrus in northern Thailand and in Laos. For her American Thanksgiving, Tina Lam uses turkey.

TINA LAM: The white meat - we would shred it and then put some fresh lemon juice and toasted rice.

ULABY: The toasted rice part is tricky, says Lam's daughter Lihn Song.

LIHN SONG: It takes a while. You have to put it on low heat. And the rice has to slowly turn brown. So it ends up - after it's been browned, it's like a nutty taste.

ULABY: Song lives across the country in Michigan. So she, her mom and her young daughter will all make larb together this year over FaceTime.

SONG: We'll try to make it. And we'll FaceTime my mother. And I'll also have my daughter hold the camera up to have her inspect the state of my skin.

ULABY: Her skin for spots and wrinkles - because what's Thanksgiving without the loving judgment of your family?

SONG: She'll probably tell me that I need to use more oil of Olay.

LAM: (Laughter) That's also traditional.

ULABY: Tina Lam fled Laos during that country's civil war in 1975. She knows what it's like to be separated from your family during terrible times. To see the faces of people you love and call them on a whim to say hello - that's not something Lam takes for granted. It's something, she says, to be thankful for.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.