toffee crunch cake à la Kelsey
My brother played water polo during his first few years of college (I won't tell you where, no need to give attention to a school that wasn't UCLA). One of those years, the team was on the road during Thanksgiving, so we didn't do our usual gathering in Lompoc. Instead, my parents headed to wherever my brother was playing and I spent Thanksgiving with a family not my own in the central valley (Fres-no!). Being a guest, I felt like I was on the outside looking in as the amazing heritage turkey was stuffed, as the table was set, as the toasts were given. And I don't mean that in a melancholy way, it was a privilege. I was able to watch a family build and enjoy their celebration and in observing others embrace the spirit of the holiday, I found I could better define what exactly that spirit is... love, fellowship and thankfulness expressed with food and expressed in person.

It occurred to me that you could eat turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy with a group of people you weren't born into and celebrate friends just like you celebrate family. And so, Friend Thanksgiving was born. Somewhere between actual Thanksgiving and Christmas, I'd invite my friends over for turkey with all the trimmings and hope the spirit of joy and thanks that I tuned into in Fresno would show up too.

Even though I hosted the first roughly annual Friend Thanksgiving with two roommates, I did all the cooking myself. I was not the only cook in the house, and I don't recall how I got roped into making that particular meal myself. Maybe I was the only one that could get work off? Whatever the case, I needed a menu that I could prepare solo, that would feed around 20 people and that wouldn't require the selling of organs to pay for. Of course, I also wanted it to taste good. "Roasted Turkey Breast with Corn Bread-Sage Stuffing and Brandy Gravy" to the rescue. Here was a single recipe that provided the protein, stuffing and gravy. And it saved me from the daunting task of making a whole turkey. I think I ended up making three turkey breasts that first time and I rounded it out with several pounds of roasted green beans. My buddies brought stuff to share, but I don't exactly remember what... this was many years ago and my memory is hazy. But I do remember that the event was a success. Back then I was seriously insecure about cooking meat (now I'm only kind of insecure), but my turkey was awesome, the stuffing was delicious--with some parts crispy and some soft and moist--the gravy was rich and smooth. I spent the first two thirds of the party worrying that I'd created a monster, and the last third basking in the compliments of my sated guests.

And the food wasn't the only success. A friend got stuck in some godforsaken airport and called to say he wasn't going to make it, but his girlfriend (now his wife)--who I'd only met once before--might come anyway. I opened the door to find the girlfriend (now wife) standing on the sidewalk with a bowl of mashed potatoes, looking a little nervous. That she was brave enough to come alone to a made-up holiday at the home of a relative stranger was the first thing I liked about her. Last Friend Thanksgiving I found her standing in my kitchen, bent over a pan sheepishly eating my roasted brussels sprouts like popcorn. It warmed my heart to see that we'd gone from strangers on our best behavior to friends letting it all hang out.

It was at the second Friend Thanksgiving that I first talked to another friend of mine, which is weird since we'd sort of known each other for years. We share an alma mater and I'd see him in the UCLA TV edit room when I went to get assignments from the Daily Bruin. Plus we had mutual friends and attended the same parties. I think I even gave him a ride to a concert once. But we're both shy and we'd literally never spoken to one another. Until he came to Friend Thanksgiving with another friend of mine (a friend to whom I did actually say words) and that night we had our first conversation, I think about how full we were. Flash forward to the present and we never have trouble finding something to talk about. We kind of can't shut up around each other.

I can't actually remember how many Friend Thanksgivings I've held... three, four. I've used the same turkey/stuffing/gravy recipe at each and it's always a hit. I also made it for a family Christmas Eve dinner, but results were mixed as the non-oven safe probe thermometer readout was assumed to be oven-safe by a certain family member and the sage battled with melted plastic for Most Robust Flavor.

I rang in a new phase of my life with a Friend Thanksgiving last year. It was the first large-scale social event I'd held in my apartment and as I tallied my RVSPs the night before the party, I realized I was expecting 18 people. My apartment is not big and my table seats four IF I move the bikes. Luckily, I had boxes leftover from moving in and rigged up a make-shift table in the bedroom.

At the appointed hour, my friends arrived with things to share... they brought biscuits, sake and mashed potatoes studded with bacon (mmm). One guy brought a roast (he said it was the only thing he could make), fell on his way in and now has a commemorative scar on his knee. There was homemade bread still warm from the oven. My two indentured servants did everything I told them to do in the kitchen throughout the night. I made a pumpkin pie (not the terrible, terrible one I wrote about before, a different one) and it turned out really well. It was one friend's birthday, so I copied the gist of a dessert I knew he loved--the Madonna Inn's Toffee Crunch Cake (my version is pictured... white cake with whipped cream frosting and shards of toffee)--and we sang to him. I could not find toffee chips anywhere, so I ended up learning to make toffee. Another friend kept saying funny stuff right when I was about to swallow and I narrowly avoided choking to death or spitting food onto his girlfriend. I listened to three guests have the longest discussion I had ever heard about obscure horror movies. As one couple was leaving, they told me the night had introduced them to a family of flavors they didn't know existed.

Many guests from that last Friend Thanksgiving have impressively fond memories of the brussels sprouts (clean em, cut em in half, toss with olive oil and salt and roast in a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes or until they have some nice golden brown spots).

For several reasons (no time, no space, no money), I'm not hosting a Friend Thanksgiving this year. But I have incredibly fond memories of Friend Thanksgivings past and incredibly high hopes for Friend Thanksgivings in the future. If you spent the actual holiday away from home, with far flung friends and family, I think you should consider doing it all again, but this time at home, with your Angeleno friends. One of the benefits of making up a holiday, is that you can make it what it should mean to you. To me, Friend Thanksgiving is a celebration of the adult life that my friends and I have built in LA and it's my way of telling them thanks, with food and to their face, for being my friend. Or as Mr. Rogers would say, "F-R-I-E-N-D special, you are my friend, you're special to me." Getting a second go at turkey and stuffing and all that, well that's just gravy.

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