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Opening up the table this holiday season
Studio 209 Thanksgiving pic
Journal reporter Elizabeth Arakelian and local chef Dana Johnson show off their culinary accomplishments for an episode of Studio 209. - photo by FRANKIE TOVAR / The Journal

When I think of Thanksgiving I think of communion. Not the formal process of partaking in the bread and wine at a place of worship, but rather the more colloquial use of the term: sharing a meal, breaking bread, eating. Thanksgiving is a time to commune with our friends and family and I found myself thinking of food differently after spending the afternoon in the kitchen of local chef Dana Johnson while cooking up a Thanksgiving spread for our most recent episode of Studio 209.

While a large portion of the segment is devoted to Dana instructing me on how to create traditional Thanksgiving foods with a twist (like stuffing blackberries), the segment is also peppered with a lot of laughter. In the kitchen we’re elbowing each other, making jokes, and of course cooking. I followed Dana’s lead as I prepared sausage for the stuffing and plated the mashed potatoes, enjoying the conversation and the cuisine as we sat down to dine together.

While it is no surprise that Thanksgiving is a holiday centered on food – that was how the pilgrims and Native Americans found common ground after all – I felt myself considering the holiday this year in a different light after my time with Dana. As we transitioned from standing side by side in the kitchen to sitting at the table to eat the dynamic changed. It slowed down, it got quieter, and the jokes became fewer. Perhaps we were showing reverence for the meal or maybe we were just occupied chewing, but I truly recognized that breaking bread, communing with someone, is a special experience.

I would venture to say that the two dominant functions of our mouths are to speak and to eat and that is just what Dana and I did. Well, and drink some fabulous red wine. (Can you believe they pay me to do this?) As Dana and I dug into our holiday feast she remarked that she has an “open” Thanksgiving table – everyone and anyone is invited to dine with her family, she asks no questions, she just welcomes you with open arms. To me this was a courageous comment. I started to think about how quick we are to use our mouths to share our opinions with one another and how reluctant we are to share a meal. How many of us seclude ourselves during the holidays? Yes, we gather with friends and family around the table, but for how many of us is that a “closed table,” one reserved for close friends and family members?

When my sister, who lives in Boston, recently told me she would be spending Thanksgiving at a couple’s house that she met at church (who are also California transplants) I was so happy. They’re not best friends, they’re not family, but they are going to share a meal together, meaning that they recognize the importance of having someone with which to commune on Thanksgiving. I believe if more of us opened our table to others, just as our ancestors did for the Native Americans, the holiday would be more satisfying — and not just from stuffing our faces.