The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 22, 2002


Table for 50, please: Thanksgiving with the Millikens

Lee Milliken insists there's nothing so unusual about her Thanksgiving plans. She'll roast a turkey; other family members will provide mashed potatoes, salad, vegetables and pies. "It's quite a traditional menu, nothing gourmet," she says. Traditional, perhaps — the only distinction is that the gathering Lee and her husband, Art, attend each year typically includes 50 to 75 of her closest relatives.

Lee thinks it was her paternal grandparents who began the family's current tradition of including as many participants as possible in the Thanksgiving gathering. Her grandfather was a professor at Harvard, and he and his wife always invited any students or colleagues they knew of who didn't have family nearby to join them in a Thanksgiving feast. These days, the assemblage includes Lee's brothers and their families, dozens of her cousins, and whatever friends, roommates, fiancés or companions the family members bring along. The age range? "Last year I think it went from three months old to 90," she recalls.

Lee Milliken will take a cranberry mold to the family gathering in Milton, carrying on a family tradition. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)

Not surprisingly, as the number of those gathered grew each year, the biggest challenge became fitting the entire group into one house. For many years, Lee and two of her cousins took turns hosting. Lee remembers the last time the group came to Carlisle: "My daughter Sally was in Australia for the year, so I turned her bedroom into a dining room." Still, it was a daunting job until Lee's cousin, Carolyn, came up with a novel solution. Carolyn is on the faculty at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, and suggested that the family use the school's facilities. Thus, a new tradition was born. Now the clan travels to Milton every year, and their ad hoc dining room is the school's spacious and elegant library.

"We usually begin the celebration with a soccer game," Lee explains. "Then we sing traditional songs and hymns — my brother brings photocopies of the music, and there's always someone who can play the piano. After that, we eat, but food isn't a big focus of the event. It's really more about visiting with family, many of whom we see only once a year." Though much of Lee's extended family lives in New England, other members travel from as far away as Chicago and Vancouver to be part of the annual gala. "Many of us are very interested in politics and international affairs, so the conversation tends to be lively," she says.

As to how it's possible to produce a meal for fifty or more, Lee is quite offhand about the challenge. She and the two cousins who used to alternate hosting duties now take turns acting as "Thanksgiving coordinator." The coordinator is responsible for the menu logistics — finding out who wants to bring what, and making sure that no major Thanksgiving food item is forgotten. The coordinator also provides plates and silverware for the entire group, "but sometimes it's just paper plates and plastic," Lee says. Her job every year is the meal's centerpiecethe turkey. She usually roasts three birds. All the cooking is done at home and transported to Milton, where it can be reheated in a small kitchen attached to the library. "The school's handyman sets up tables and chairs for us," Lee says. "We give him most of the leftovers."

One would think that an endeavor as complicated as this one would be rife with mishaps and oversights, but when asked about funny, near-disaster stories from Thanksgivings past, Lee can come up with only one: "There was one year that the family who was responsible for mashed potatoes got so carried away making different types of potatoes some plain, some with garlic, and so forth — that they forgot they were also responsible for peas. So we had no peas that year." Here's hoping that the Millikens and their fifty closest relatives celebrate yet another festive, family-filled, and peas-ful Thanksgiving.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito