Pandemic restrictions lead to new Thanksgiving traditions
ThanksgivingReinventing tradition

Pandemic restrictions lead to new Thanksgiving traditions

A garage meal, a rib competition and porch delivery for expecting parents

The Butlers spice up Thanksgiving with fun festivities. Last Thanksgiving, Nina Butler made whole grain bread in the shape of a turkey. (Photo courtesy of Nina Butler)
The Butlers spice up Thanksgiving with fun festivities. Last Thanksgiving, Nina Butler made whole grain bread in the shape of a turkey. (Photo courtesy of Nina Butler)

This Thanksgiving, Nina Butler is readying her friends and family for a pandemic-friendly iteration of her annual rib cook-off. Matthew and Gwyndolyn Riddle are expecting twin sons and a meal dropped off on their porch. And Dana Platt Blitstein plans to eat lunch in her cousin’s garage.

They’re a few of many who are reinventing holiday traditions during COVID-19.

Butler’s daughter does not like turkey, so the family’s rib cook-off offers an alternative. But even for the turkey lovers in the family, the contest spices up the holiday.

The Butlers’ Thanksgiving ribs (Photo courtesy of Nina Butler)
Each year, the competition is stiff. Dueling chefs from several families vie to outdo each other’s dishes.

“It’s all good food and good humor, and sometimes the humor wins above the food,” said Butler.

Her family, her daughter’s family and her 97-year-old aunt Chantze all live on the same property, bought by family members after WWII. Usually, they can show up to each other’s homes for breakfast, but with COVID-19, they have been eating outside at a long buffet table on a covered deck: Aunt Chantze at one end, two fans blowing down the table, and the kids at the other end.

For Thanksgiving, though, they’re planning to eat inside, social distanced, to evade the chill.

Even though friends and other family members won’t be able to join Butler for a big meal this year, they can still compete in the rib cook-off. They’re invited to prepare a couple servings of ribs (or turkey or dessert) and deliver them to Butler’s deck on Thanksgiving. Her family will have an entry in the same category to swap. And in honor of each participating family, the Butlers will donate $18 to the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry.

“I look at food as a way of expressing love and sharing something more than something to eat,” said Butler. “[But] this year, more than any year, we’re all getting a firm lesson that Thanksgiving is about more than just the food.”

Gwyndolyn and Matthew Riddle with their golden doodle, Buddy (Photo courtesy of Gwyndolyn and Matthew Riddle)
For Matthew and Gwyndolyn Riddle, it’s about welcome surprises — perhaps none more special than a surprise pregnancy with twin boys expected around Thanksgiving. The pregnancy came a few months earlier than anticipated, but the couple couldn’t be more thankful.

“Matthew and I really try to lean toward gratitude this year in a time where we could just easily slip into the darkness,” said Gwyndolyn. “As Thanksgiving is coming along the way, this is just a beautiful time to share what are real things that we’re thankful for. For us, definitely the crème de la crème is the surprise twin sons.”

Gwyndolyn is grateful that she was able to convert to Judaism over the past year amid the pandemic. Her Jewish great-grandmother converted to Christian Science in the 1920s, leaving little trace of Judaism behind.

“I always knew that I wanted to convert,” she said. “This was just the right place at the right time, the right synagogue, the right city, the right man that I’m with to convert so that our children can be Jewish and to also just possibly celebrate and bring to life what was kind of put to rest in the 1920s in my family.”

She and Matthew are now actively planning a double bris.

Wanting to be safe with the twins on the way, the Riddles will skip the family’s usual Thanksgiving dinner and stay home. But Matthew’s parents will drop off plates of their favorite food on their porch.

Dana Platt Blitstein with Thanksgiving turkey (Photo courtesy of Dana Platt Blitstein)
Meanwhile, Dana Platt Blitstein plans to spend Thanksgiving in a garage.

Usually, the whole mishpacha, 20-25 people, gathers at her cousin’s house for a big meal. Her cousin gets a large table and chairs, decorates and makes all the food. They stay for hours.

But this year, it will just be a handful of family members — Blitstein’s family, her cousin’s family and a couple others — congregating in her cousin’s garage with space heaters, masks and puffy coats unless it’s nice enough to sit outside.

Blitstein is confident her cousin will try to replicate the experience of Thanksgivings past.

“I’m sure it will be similar, just in a different location,” she said. “The most important thing is celebrating and being with family, even if it’s a small amount of family, and if this is how we have to do it in order to be safe, then it will be fine.

“[It’s] definitely going to be different, but we’ll still have a little touch of the holiday season,” she added. “If we have to eat more, we’ll take one for the team.” PJC

Kayla Steinberg can be reached at

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