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Thanksgiving 2020: Tough Times and A Cheaper Turkey Dinner

Thanksgiving is America’s most traditional holiday as, for generations, families have sat around the table to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. And though there is some variety of opinions on what constitutes the correct, traditional trimmings line-up — mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce tend to show up year after year on tables nationwide.

And all that tradition and collective memory of Thanksgivings past can tend to disguise the essential truth of the Thanksgiving holiday — which is however traditional and immutable it feels, it is, in fact, also one of the more flexible and malleable holidays on the calendar. Despite what everyone was taught in kindergarten, the Pilgrims didn’t hop off the Mayflower and invent the Thanksgiving spread we all know and love today.

The centerpiece, for example, is a latter-day edition. The Pilgrims, at the harvest feast hosted in 1621 that is often referred to as the first Thanksgiving, might well have eaten turkey, but it’s far from a sure thing. Official accounts note that the colonists ate “wild fowl” at the first feast — but most historians agree that could also mean duck or goose.

Turkey didn’t become standard fare on the Thanksgiving table for over another 200 years when Abraham Lincoln officially declared it a national holiday in the 1860s. And when Lincoln declared Thanksgiving, it was to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November, something Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed during the Great Depression to the fourth Thursday in November to extend that holiday shopping season for hard-hit retailers during the Great Depression.

And in fact, the list of long standing Thanksgiving traditions that are younger than one might think they are is pretty long. Green bean casserole, to give a final example, has only been going on tables since 1955 when Campbell’s soup employee Dorcas Reilly invented it. Cranberry sauce was once the side dish of only the wealthy at Thanksgiving until Ocean Spray started canning it in 1912, when it suddenly became a staple. Historically, Thanksgiving tends to meet the times it falls in and incorporates whatever is going on around it into this year’s menu.

Something to bear in mind in 2020, when, as was the case in 1939 when Thanksgiving got its last major revision by presidential order, Americans are celebrating the holiday facing a national crisis, deep economic uncertainty and preparing to celebrate their holiday very differently and far more digitally than they ever have before.

Thanksgiving will still happen on the same date this year. Turkey will still be on most tables, but it will be a very digitally enabled dining experience as Americans attempt to do something they’ve never tried in the 157 years Thanksgiving has been a national holiday. It’s new to the holiday, but it is what consumers have been doing for the last eight months — using digital tools to find ways to come together and celebrate — while staying safely spread apart.

A Banner Year For Buying A Turkey, Especially Online

Consumers hit hard by the severe economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have gotten some good news in terms of their Thanksgiving dinner shopping. According to data released by the American Farm Bureau Federation, it will cost less this year than it has been for a decade, down 4 percent since 2019 alone. The average total cost for 10 people is $46.90, or less than $5 per person, according to an annual survey.

“What we see is that Thanksgiving continues to be affordable,” John Newton, chief economist for the farm bureau, told NBC News.

Prices on turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls, butter, peas, cranberries, veggie trays, pumpkin pie, coffee and milk are all down year on year — in turkey’s case by as much as 7 percent. The only outlier in the group seems to be stuffing, which, for some reason, is slightly up in price.

“Around the holiday, we did see USDA data that suggested more than 80 percent of retailers were already running promotions and that they had run promotions earlier this year than in years past,” Newton said.

Consumers are also increasingly pushing their thanksgiving shopping online, as COVID-19 case counts continue to rise. Official warnings coming out from health officials that consumers look to spend no more than a half-hour within a physical location when doing their holiday shopping — consumers are increasingly making those thanksgiving orders online and picking them up curbside rather than wandering the aisles of stores.

They are also modifying their shopping habits, as 70 percent of those planning to celebrate Thanksgiving will do so with six or fewer individuals, up from 48 percent last year, meaning grocers report they are buying the same staples but in smaller amounts, according to reports.

Those smaller celebrations, notably, will eat into the savings on offers on Thanksgiving staples, though not as much as one might think. Consumers ordering online and shopping in stores aren’t buying notably less than they have in previous years, meaning apparently many people are building leftovers into their dining plans.

The Very Modified Travel Scene

The entirety of the pandemic period has been hard on the airline industry, and it looks like the end of 2020 doesn’t portend smooth skies into 2021. The airline industry is once again taking a beating as accelerating coronavirus cases prompt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ask that people stay home for Thanksgiving, leading to a drop in reservations.

“Certainly with the increase in infection rates really throughout the country, we’ve seen a dampening of demand,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said during the Skift Aviation Forum, per a Friday (Nov. 20) CNBC report.

How long this depressed environment will carry on, he noted, remains unknown. Still, the weakening in bookings recently does not provide good news for an industry that has already lost over $20 billion in 2020 due to the global pandemic. Passenger traffic is about one-third down from 2019.

Before the new spike in cases, 55 million Americans were forecast to travel during Thanksgiving, down at least 10 percent and the largest year-over-year decrease since 2008.

But that does leave roughly 50 million Americans traveling this year — ignoring CDC recommendations they stay home. The Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 1.04 million people went through airport security checkpoints Sunday, making it the busiest travel day since mid-March. About 1 million more went through TSA checkpoints each day on Friday and Saturday. Planes will be notably fuller than they’ve been since the pandemic began — but still less than half of how full they were a year ago during the Thanksgiving travel weekend.

As for the tens of millions staying home to do a smaller scale Thanksgiving? Well, there’s always Zoom.

Zoom’s Holiday Gift To The Holiday Homebound

Given that the only way a lot of people will be eating with their families this year will be digital, Zoom announced last week that it would be dropping its 40-minute time limit for free meetings so “your family gatherings don’t get cut short.”

The announcement that the time limit would be suspected for all of November 26th followed advanced guidelines from the CDC urging small holiday gatherings in the midst of rising infection rates nationwide. As the advice is popping up on the web on how to optimize the family Zoom Thanksgiving this year by applying the next and best in digital dinner etiquette to improve the experience, the nation, it seems, is learning an entirely new set of table manners for a world where the table can spread through several cities and time zones.

The consensus: mute yourself when eating as the sounds of chewing on a Zoom call will not be pleasant, limit the amount of time on the call so no one feels trapped at the table uncomfortably and use a big screen in the house rather than a small one — because crowding an entire family around a laptop on the table is uncomfortable.

And speaking of new manners and rules…

The Digital Ordering Boom

While many consumers are dutifully ordering their groceries online in preparation of doing it themselves — many for the first time — a rapidly growing host of others are taking this golden opportunity of a small holiday table to have someone else do the cooking entirely. While ordering out for Thanksgiving has always been an option, according to reports in Eater, the number of restaurants offering a carry-out full Thanksgiving dinner complete with side dishes and dessert has skyrocketed in 2020.

Chef James Rigato of Mabel Gray in Chicago noted his restaurant had always made pies for the Thanksgiving Holiday — but 2020 seemed like an excellent time to go all the way with the whole meal with dinner for two kits for customers made to serve two diners.

“A lot of two-person Thanksgivings are going to happen [this year],” he said of the decision to keep meal kits small. “Obviously, we’re looking for revenue streams wherever we can find them, so I got nudged by my team to do it. We’re also encouraging smaller gatherings, so we’re doing our part to be smart and say, ‘Hey, dinner for two, let’s all take it easy. Let’s hunker down and get through this safely.’ “

Moreover, Rigato noted, after 8 months and several holidays already under their belts, restaurants are ready now in a way they weren’t for things like Easter last spring to step in and get Thanksgiving on the table.

“Now we have all the proper software, we have all the packaging tricks down,” he says. “We basically put this together on Tock, and then list it, and it just sells itself.”

And whether they’re ordering it out from places like Mabels; picking up the Thanksgiving list curbside at their local grocer; traveling far to visit those they love; or hunkering down with just a few other people for a smaller celebration of gratefulness — this year, it seems the connected economy deserved at least one section of the thanks being doled out nationwide.

Because while much of this year has never happened before, it does bear reminding that until very recently, much of the innovation seen so far this year never could have happened before either. Which has been the difference between being socially distanced and alone, and socially distanced and still gathering in some sense this holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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