Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

01 Dec 2020, 14:15 p.m.

Frances, Thanksgiving, And Potatoes

Because it's World AIDS Day, today I want to tell you a story about Thanksgiving, food, breaking and remaking tradition, and family. Caution: death because of AIDS.

Back in 2005, when my now-spouse Leonard and I lived in San Francisco, one year a bunch of Leonard's family drove north from Bakersfield for Thanksgiving. I was Leonard's girlfriend and they always tried to make me feel welcome at these things.

We were all going to have Thanksgiving at Uncle L's place in SF, hosted by Uncle L and his partner J, another man. Leonard's mom, Frances, was a Mormon, but a feminist one; the fact that her brother was gay was a complete non-issue.

J ran his kitchen and finished cooking and didn't let any of us help; L played Trivial Pursuit with us. And then we sat down to a heaping table of Thanksgiving goodies. Including a kugel J had made! But....


Mashed? Scalloped? Roasted? Fried? Au gratin? Baked-from-frozen tater tots? Zip, nada, zero. No potatoes of any kind.

Of course we had asked ahead of time about what we could bring. Martinelli's apple cider, rolls, dessert maybe. There had been no mention of this fundamental lacuna, this chasm of carbs.

Someone delicately mentioned/asked about the taterlessness, and we were redirected to the kugel. The kugel was fine! But many of us shared a glance.

Frances's contemporaneous blog post does not mince words: "We had a lovely Thanksgiving, but there was no mashed potatoes and gravy, which horrified me."

And on the ride back to Leonard's place, Leonard, his sisters, his mom, and his brother-in-law began to plan the next day's meal. Which would include potatoes. It was early in a new tradition: Backup Thanksgiving.

Leonard delicately wrote (later): "In recent years I made Backup Thanksgiving because I was learning to cook, or because of the absence of certain foods from the official Thanksgiving table." (By now you know what "certain foods" means.)

I'm glad we had both those Thanksgivings with Frances in 2005. That was her last Thanksgiving. She died of AIDS in May 2006. In her last days others took over updating her blog.

Today Leonard made Backup Thanksgiving food, including some fantastic scalloped potatoes. I loved Frances and I miss her. My government's failed at containing a pandemic. So many people Thanksgave apart this year to increase the odds we can come together next year. I'm emotional.

I wish I could tell Frances that I'm writing a book, that the new pip just came out, that Leonard's book got a great review. I wish I could have had more than a few weeks of being her daughter-in-law. She was only 54.

If you broke your traditions this year to keep everyone safer, to reduce the number of people who will feel the way I do fifteen years from now, thank you so much. I hope the Backup Thanksgivings you have in mid-2021 are fantastic and joyous.

Frances saw what was important. The love is essential and the nourishment is essential. I wish you love and nourishment.

(Especially potatoes, if you love potatoes.)