Thanksgiving with the classics

College president creates a home away from home for friends and students

November 24, 2006|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

For some St. John's College students who gathered yesterday at the college president's house for dinner, it was their first Thanksgiving away from home.

And for others it was their first Thanksgiving - period.

But for almost all of the 50 or so who gathered, it was a different kind of Thanksgiving.

There was no football and no fussing about who should set the table or who sits where. Instead, the dinner hosted by Christopher Nelson at his West Annapolis home was a feast with meaning, enhanced by lofty readings about the nation's early history.

There was Frederick Douglass on equality. Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address. And, thrown in for fun, Mae West on being her bad old self.

(The irony of Peter Salmon-Cox reading, with his slight British accent, from the Declaration of Independence wasn't lost on anyone, and his version drew big laughs.)

Nelson, who has hosted Thanksgiving dinner at his home since 1991, began the reading tradition in 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I think of Thanksgiving as the most American of all holidays, and everybody should be home, so we decided to try to be a home away from home," Nelson said. "These readings remind us of what it means to be a country that is free. It's a welcoming spirit that pervades and one that has energized this country for years."

The gathering was consistent with the focus of St. John's, a centuries-old college in Annapolis best known for its Great Books curriculum that teaches classics, math, philosophy, science and literature. Francis Scott Key graduated from the college, and Lincoln's speeches are among the required reading. The school has about 500 students.

Nelson based his ceremonial readings on a booklet created in October 2001, A Thanksgiving Feast: We the People Give Thanks. Across the country, more than 30,000 copies have been distributed and the ceremony is officially called Freedom's Feast.

Robin Weiss, whose son, Jacob Dink, was scheduled to have a similar dinner at St. John's campus in Santa Fe, N.M., described it as "Passover seder, St. John's liberal arts classics-style."

So yesterday, there were lessons about freedom, and, of course, a mammoth homemade feast - all prepared by Nelson and his wife, Joyce Olin. And Nelson had a sweaty brow to prove it as he took sweet potatoes and vegetables from the oven.

Much of the food was prepared Wednesday. Because the Nelsons' refrigerator is only so big, some of the food was stored in car trunks to keep it fresh.

The spread included 10 pies (rhubarb, pumpkin, pecan), four turkeys, 30 pounds of mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing (vegetarian and turkey-flavored), carrots, string beans, bread and cranberry sauce.

Fabio Lomelino of Sao Paolo, Brazil, who learned snippets of American history growing up and who referred to the Thanksgiving tradition as a "Pilgrim thing," made sure to pile his plate high with turkey.

"Here we go. ... Where do I start?" said Lomelino, 24, surveying his first-ever Thanksgiving dinner plate.

He cut a piece of turkey, put cranberry relish on top and put the forkful into his mouth.

Lomelino liked what he tasted.

"Thumbs up, thumbs up," he said. "It really is all about the turkey."

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