Taste Memory

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Becoming a vegetarian in your teenage years can leave you with complicated memories of previous Thanksgivings. I was never much of a fan of turkey meat when I was an omnivore, but I’ve always been big on mashed potatoes, and given Mom’s predilection for sneaking some of our favourite foods into every holiday dinner, I was still able to enjoy a lot of the food at Thanksgiving dinners after I went vegetarian. (Dealing with family members outside of Mom, though, was another matter entirely.) Even though Thanksgiving hadn’t really been a big deal for the years leading up to her passing, dealing with a lack of the usual foods when that first Thursday without her came up was still very painful, simply because of how sharp of a reminder it was that she wasn’t (physically) there any longer.

I went to a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner the following year, the last Thanksgiving I spent in Toledo. Since coming to Wisconsin, colleagues have invited me to come spend the holiday with them, but I’ve never felt comfortable taking any of them up on their offers. On top of my dietary concerns, I’ve just never been comfortable at those kinds of social gatherings, even with friends or immediate family members around me. I’m absolutely appreciative of the offers that have been made to me over the past few years, but even thinking about going to any of their houses fills me with unease.

Last year, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic dampened the entirety of the holiday season. None of my colleagues asked me about my plans, and they had very good reason not to invite me while we were all waiting to see when we could get vaccinated. Even though family gatherings were taking place across the country, the pandemic looming over all our heads made it easier to think of that November and December’s usual activities as being on hold for more than just my usual personal reasons. I think that I might have still missed the old routines from my earliest years, but we were all dealing with much more pressing concerns that November. Not getting to eat a few special foods didn’t seem to matter much in the wake of all the other problems we were dealing with.

It feels like there’s more of a push than ever right now to make this year’s Thanksgiving festivities return to the closest thing to “normal” that we had before the pandemic. In spite of all the problems that are still persisting across the country, lots of people seem to really need a Thanksgiving like they used to have, and I can certainly understand that impulse. If all this pandemic stuff had happened when I was younger, I probably would have been eager to have Thanksgiving “like usual” after taking a year off. If Mom was still alive, then I might have even pushed for us to do something similar, even if I had to do all the preparations, just to thank her for all the Thanksgiving dinners she cooked up back in the day.

What’s been so strange about this year is that more than any of the other things surrounding Thanksgiving, I’m remembering the taste of turkey right now. Mom got me a vegetarian turkey substitute once, about a decade or so ago, and while I ate it up, it still reminded me of how I really didn’t care for turkey back when I still ate meat. Then again, that’s been the case for pretty much everything I used to eat before I went vegetarian; I’ve never really looked back on that decision, and I’m fairly confident that as long as I can control my own food choices, I’ll remain a vegetarian for the rest of my life.

Fixating on the taste of turkey this time of year isn’t unusual in and of itself, but I can’t figure out why this year, of all years, that’s my most dominant memory of Thanksgivings past. This past weekend was a painful one for many Wisconsinites — I could feel the change when I went to campus this morning — so it’s difficult for me to tell just how my mood may be getting affected right now by missing the old holiday celebrations, but I can tell that this Thanksgiving break won’t be that easy for me. I’m pretty sure that I’ll be okay, but I may spend a good part of my days off later this week just reminiscing about the good parts of my earlier holidays. Things aren’t about to get any easier, and I need all the good energy I can get to help me through the challenges ahead.

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