What happens during Thanksgiving in a big American city filled with Millennials, transplants, events seekers, social butterflies, or some combo? There will be fertile ground for many "Friendsgivings." The idea of a family inviting outside friends who don't have anywhere else to eat on Thanksgiving is common nationwide; but recently it's taken a twist, as unrelated young people throw Thanksgiving dinner parties among themselves. This past Thursday, I got to tour several of these parties in Los Angeles, experiencing a West Coast slice of the budding urban American tradition.
Friendsgivings--also known as "Orphan's Thanksgivings"--are the Turkey Day version of a potluck, as different friends bring food and alcohol to one house. Sometimes they're held in addition to an actual family dinner, say on the Wednesday prior. But especially in global U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles--where seemingly everyone you meet is from elsewhere--they've replaced the family dinner. Young professionals may fly home for Christmas, but don't want to also pay the hefty costs in time and money of doing so on Thanksgiving. So they stick to their adopted cities, celebrating the holiday with friends.
My access to L.A.'s Friendsgivings came via the coattails of local actress Raven Perez. Originally from Miami, the 23-year-old Perez moved to Los Angeles after studying theater at Syracuse University. She has since become an L.A. salonniere, navigating the parties and red carpet events of Hollywood and Beverley Hills.
The first Friendsgiving we went to was a house party in Century City filled with college-aged kids. On the day before Thanksgiving, while researching, I saw a Youtube clip where comedian James Corden describes Friendsgivings as "Thanksgiving, but with weed." Other articles noted that they often start as dinner parties, but evolve--or devolve?--into full-blown drinking parties. This seemed like the direction of our first one, where about 20 people, liquor in hand, were laughing, singing and yelling at the Steelers-Colts game on TV. At one point, some guy even whipped out an acoustic guitar to strum Beatles songs.
Perez felt that in order for me to maintain a clear journalistic perspective, we should shift to the other Friendsgiving. So off we went to one that had an older crowd and a more traditional setup. The dinner was hosted by Andrew Reyna and Casey Hunter, inside their shared mid-rise West Hollywood apartment. Reyna spent his childhood in Florida and Long Island, before moving here 8 years ago for a career in music production. Growing up in an Italian family, he said that cooking for others had been a lifelong tradition, including during Thanksgiving, when his family would take in friends. Meanwhile Hunter, who is from Syracuse, NY, and is Reyna's best friend, is studying nutritional sciences, and has a special interest in healthy cooking. So three years ago, the roommates made an annual habit of co-hosting a Friendsgiving here.
Much more than the college Friendsgiving, their gathering was centered around food, offering diverse and eclectic dishes that might be expected of an L.A. dinner party. Everything was organic, hand-made from scratch, and catered heavily to the several vegans and vegetarians there. Not only was there a turkey--there were about a half-dozen other dishes, including crab cakes that, in a diversion from East Coast tradition, were wrapped in mushrooms; spiced roasted vegetables; and a pie meant to be the vegan replacement for cheesecake, with a crushed-up mix of pumpkin, cashews, dates and syrup.
Even more quintessentially Los Angeles than the food was the company. With the exception of me, the outsider, the 7 other people there were connected to the entertainment industry, having moved here from elsewhere in America. There were two actresses, a model, a screenwriter, a studio lighting technician, Hunter, who doubles as an actor, and Reyna, the music producer. As I've found generally with L.A.'s young entertainment industry professionals, these folks were, at this point, at least, more aspirational than established. Many worked part-time in their field while working restaurant jobs, which is the way some of them first met. Thus much of the conversation--over glasses of wine and Christmas music--revolved around job openings, the career paths of outside friends, and the different technologies changing Hollywood entertainment.
This specialization, said Reyna, is common in L.A. When people first get here, they often build broad social groups, slogging through the grind of networking and event-going. But with time, they adopt a “niche core of four or five friends" that are often connected by career, and become a "family away from family." Such groups are likely to spend Friendsgivings together.
There is thus a very Millennial quality about Friendsgivings, representing recent cultural shifts. The word itself wasn't public until 2009, when appearing on Urban Dictionary. Since then, use of the word has expanded on social media; companies now account for it when marketing Thanksgiving-related products; and USA Today even called it an "invented holiday." The holiday mirrors the Millennial lifestyle--this generation has flooded into big cities, fleeing their rural and suburban upbringings; they sometimes have dysfunctional families (which may be what sent them into cities, and is preventing them from returning); and they have grown up with social media, helping them expand their friend base. For these reasons, writes David Banks, Friendsgivings are “the thoroughly post-modern holiday,” featuring “the infinitely negotiable non-familial ties that make up young peoples’ lives.”
The dinners may not be the same thing as Thanksgiving home cooking. But they provide a sense of comfort--and maybe even an upgrade--for those who are too busy, cash-strapped, or emotionally detached to visit family. And as I learned on Thursday, they can offer some great food.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.] [editor's note: Beyer wrote this article in Thanksgiving of 2016, but is republishing it here.]
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. He is a roving cross-country journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine and HousingOnline.com.
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