Illustration by Michael Witte

Often where we travel and why is motivated by food, whether a journey charted to find new favorites or a desire to return to a place where a great meal—or maybe just a slice of pie—was once memorably enjoyed.

Whenever I hear someone is planning a trip somewhere that I’ve been, the first thing I offer up is a list of places to eat. As I recount local specialties, memories of place come flooding back. Recently, helping a friend plan a trip for the holiday season, it occurred to me that were any of us to describe a Thanksgiving journey, whether a trip home or to the house of close friends, the account would not be unlike a restaurant review. We’d remark on the great variety of dishes, the reliability of the menu to please, the accommodating kitchen and service, and always, the deep comfort of pulling up a chair to a table in this special place, no matter how humble.

Thanksgiving is about food memories, certainly. But unlike a café critique, our memories of the experience seldom include complaints about wobbly tables, the scorch on a dinner roll (in my family it’s not Thanksgiving until something bursts into flame), or the number of crying babies. The food’s deep level of comfort, its deliciousness, is linked to the company, the friends and family who have loaded up cars and set out to rendezvous at a mutually agreed upon destination, determined to join one another in gratitude. Something about the tradition, the blessing, the raised glasses, the toggled seating, Papa’s Jello salad, or Aunt Betty’s ambrosia (dishes no one would ever travel to order in a restaurant) make us willing to hit the road, whether across town or state lines, to be together.

I count among my treasures memories of my family’s Thanksgiving gatherings. My sister and brother-in-law, a military family, would fly in from somewhere exotic. One year they arrived from Spain, a toddler in tow. I would soon hand my nephew his first drumstick (in our family the oldest and youngest guests got the drumsticks, scepters to wield over the feast).

But in time things changed. Some years my older brothers journeyed to their wives’ homes in other states. My sister’s growing family made it difficult for her to travel. Fewer chairs were needed, fewer dishes. Suddenly, mom felt the need to reinvent our traditions. My younger brother and I were notified one year that we would be celebrating Thanksgiving on a camping trip.

I’d enjoyed camping with the family for as long as I could remember, but I thought my parents had gone mad. I was a pre-teen, stubborn and opinionated: Thanksgiving was to be celebrated as it had always been. I was roundly ignored. Packing for the journey to a ranch outside Brownwood began.

My mother was the most enterprising sort of cook. She managed loaves and fishes miracles in the kitchen every day, scarcely kicking off her workday heels before heading to the stove to scratch up elaborate meals for five kids and a husband from a disparity of ingredients, often in 30-minutes or less. But that year, a Thanksgiving feast conjured up out of an ice chest, to be cooked in the 2×3-foot kitchen of a 16-foot travel trailer, was her most magical feat—a campsite cornucopia of cornbread stuffing, candied yams, green beans, and the crisply-browned Cornish game hens we forever after called “little turkeys.”

This time of year I always remember that dinner, the warm hum of the tiny butane-fueled cooking space just steps from the dented screen door that slammed out to the wet and cold environs of our deer lease—wet and cold but for the campstool seating around the roaring fire that was the centerpiece of our meal.

The roster of guests was reduced to my father, brother, and me. There was no memorable row over politics or life choices, no kitchen fire. Refusing to be glum over our reduced ranks that year, mom reinvented our traditions and served a glorious meal beneath a bright blue sky. Full to the brim, aware on some subliminal level that my world had shifted, I felt grateful that instead of saying, “Let’s eat out,” mom had opted to take the show on the road. A “little turkey” tradition was born.

Years when snow and thousands of miles separate my son and me from extended family, that campsite menu has become my go-to line-up. It translates to a menu for two that is easily doubled, or—when my plus-one became a teenage boy—quadrupled. Elegant little Cornish game hens are deeply flavorful, and while half a hen will feed reasonable folks, serving one per guest allows me to feel lavish. Most of all, it remains a meal that is easily taken on the road.

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