Alaska Life

After years of pandemic disruption, Alaskans are setting more places at the Thanksgiving table

The Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Museum are collaborating on an ongoing series of articles, Neighbors: Stories from Anchorage’s pandemic years. We’re collecting stories and making opportunities for residents to share experiences from the past two years. We’d love to hear from you. Email neighbors@adn.com. Funding for this project was provided in part by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.

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Aimee Marx’s family is big on Thanksgiving. For years, her husband planned elaborate feasts with the same group of friends, their “Alaska family.” Chocolate-pecan pie. Sweet potato biscuits. Tables long and loud.

Then came Thanksgiving 2020. Three of her four family members tested positive for COVID-19. They bought dinner. She put the turkey in the oven but forgot to remove the wrapping.

“Nobody could smell the dang plastic bag melting,” she said. “That Thanksgiving was really a bust.”

The next year, as the delta variant surge filled hospitals, they gathered with some friends, but it was small and cautious. This year, for the Marx family and many others in Anchorage, the holiday guest list is finally what it used to be.

Over the last year, life in the city has inched back to normal for many people who had their usual routines hijacked by the pandemic. COVID risk hasn’t disappeared, but with the availability of vaccines and COVID treatments, residents are returning to the office, going to the movies, rejoining gyms, going out for dinner and gathering indoors without masks. For many, this Thanksgiving is going to be one that feels like it did in “before times,” though there are some lessons carried forward from the COVID years.

“It was an isolating, miserable experience having the pandemic. It caused upheaval for every single person. We all share that, but we all felt it differently,” said Aimee’s husband, Rob. “It’s a little bit more special this year because we went through that and we get to share things back together again.”

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Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, will be setting seven places at her table this year. They won’t be taking COVID tests before dinner because they’re vaccinated and there’s no one high-risk on the guest list. Last year, she took an ER shift while her family gathered with some neighbors outdoors and did some ice fishing. It’s important to take care to mitigate risks for COVID and other infections, she said. But Thanksgiving is important too.

“Life is precious, time is short. I don’t want people to miss out on opportunities to be connected as a family,” she said.

Anne Zink, chief medical officer, coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, Kenai Peninsula, vaccine

There is still a risk for COVID transmission, she said, but it’s relatively low in most parts of Alaska. Alaska’s hospitals, though, are as full right now as they were during the delta surge, she said. Flu, COVID and RSV, a virus that can have serious complications for children under 2, are driving the high number of admissions. There are also more patients suffering from mental illness and illnesses that went undiagnosed over the pandemic. The difference between this year and last year is that all the pressure isn’t on one set of health care workers, because the viruses and health problems lead to a wider variety of admissions.

“While the strain is a lot, everyone is able to help out in this kind of surge,” she said.

Most flu-like respiratory illnesses have a relatively short incubation period, Zink said. If people want to take extra care, they can wear masks for a few days before the holiday to minimize their risk of infection.

Zink encouraged Alaskans, especially those who are having elders and very young children at their dinners, to be vaccinated for flu, up-to-date on COVID boosters, not to attend if they have any symptoms of illness, and to be vigilant about handwashing. Taking a COVID test ahead of the gathering is also a good idea.

“This has been a long, hard couple of years. It’s not all about respiratory illness; it’s about the whole person, mental health and physical health,” she said.

Thanksgiving Dinner

This is the first year Colleen Bailey and her husband, Ryan, are having Thanksgiving in their new home in Eagle River. It’s also the first year they plan to host family rather than attending as guests.

“We have an actual house where I can have a dining room table and I have furniture and I have space for people,” she said. “I have already started putting up some decorations, I planned my ‘tablescape.’ ”

By “tablescape,” she means she’ll decorate with a navy blue tablecloth and a burlap runner, ornamental pumpkins, candles and apples, she said. She’s got her food prep plan mapped out far ahead of time.

“My husband may think I’m going a little overboard but I do not care,” she said.

The last two years haven’t been easy. She was laid off from her job at the Alaska Zoo. She decided to go back to school to become a lawyer. Looking back, she feels lucky to have a strong family.

“I get to show them my house and pamper them and make sure that they feel the level of gratitude that we have for their support,” she said. “Also feeding people is one of the greatest ways you can show them that you love them.”

Molly Johnson’s low-key COVID Thanksgiving last year totally changed the game for her. She’s not going back this year.

“In the past, we’ve traveled out of state and gone down to (her husband’s) family and there’ll be 20 rednecks in a double-wide and a lot of people with a lot of traditions,” she said.

But last year, in the interest of protecting her elderly parents while still including them, they had a small gathering. Instead of the big to-do last year, it was just her husband, son and parents. The turkey was small and they spatchcocked it, so it cooked faster. They didn’t dress up. They ate, they napped, they ate again.

“I had so much fun. Like it’s the first time I really enjoyed Thanksgiving in a long time,” she said. “We’ve never had a family gathering that was so intimate. And we got to, like, just really enjoy each other’s company.”

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Upending the usual traditions gave her the opportunity to audit the energy she put into things automatically. Take, for example, her grandma’s Jell-O salad.

“That sucker takes like three days to make and an acre of refrigerator room and no one may ever see that salad again,” she said. “It might be just something that we show the picture and talk about.”

This year her Thanksgiving will be small again. “I don’t want to go back,” she said.

Sara Dykstra’s planning to have a familiar group of longtime friends over this holiday. Some of them haven’t been inside her house for two years She’s a vegetarian and is planning lots of sides. Her husband is smoking a turkey.

It’s only recently that they got back to the practice of getting together with friends for dinner. The pandemic years gave her quality alone time with her husband and children, which helped to distill what she found most important. But she’s got a new appreciation for seeing the faces of friends across the table.

“In Anchorage there are so many people who have come here and created family with the people that they connect with,” she said. “Some people have family here, but I don’t. Having your family be the people that you’ve met along the way, it is just so much more valuable and meaningful now.”

Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum.

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