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In Praise of Thanksgiving Leftovers and Reading Choices

by Spencer Salas |

Happy Thanksgiving from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte! For this month’s post, I’d like to write about holiday leftovers at my godparents’ in Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA and reading choices.

The fourth Thursday of November, Thanksgiving, is a special day for so many Americans. It’s one of the few four-day weekends in the federal, state, and school calendars to celebrate being together. Although we often associate the holiday with the Mayflower Pilgrims’ first harvest, it was just after the horrific Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation inviting Americans to set aside the November date as one for national prayer.

Different families have different traditions around the holiday. One that we had growing up was to drive down from Fairfax to Fredericksburg to visit my godparents the Friday right after the Thursday celebration.

I’ve written previously about my godparents’ home in Ferry Farms and digging for Civil War relics in the gravel driveway that circled the red brick house. That’s where we’d go at the end of November, when the Virginia afternoon sky is piercingly blue, the burnt grass yellow and crunchy under your feet, and the old cedar trees dark and green. We’d run around the farm all morning and then come back into the warm house with its cast iron, wood-burning stove. In the meantime, my godmother had arranged a buffet of leftovers. We'd all sit down and enjoy a second holiday meal while her own adult children and husband were out hunting.

My mother and godmother, childhood neighbors from the same Western Pennsylvania township of Nanty-Glo, shared the same first name, "Helen." They also learned to write in cursive from the same third-grade teacher and, consequently, their adult handwriting was astonishingly similar. So too, for the most part, was the sort of food they cooked—stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce, roasts with mashed potatoes and gravy, bread, nut rolls, and fruit pies. But the day after Thanksgiving was different because my Aunt Helen’s dining room table always included things that my mom, Helen, didn’t make—things that my godmother had learned to cook in Ferry Farms, things that I’d only have once a year when we’d visit after the holiday. 

There were bright rings of pineapple suspended in translucent green and red gelatin, venison, and once, even a goose. There were whipped sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows, corn pudding, and cold salads of canned fruit and shredded coconut and sour cream. 

For some, “leftovers” reads like a negative. But I sure enjoyed the ones my aunt served us because they were something other than what I was used to. That made them even more delicious.

Remembering those leftovers in Fredericksburg got me thinking about the choices we make (and don’t make) as readers. Allington and Gabriel list six elements of instruction that every child should experience every day. Of these, students’ access to many books and allowing students to self-select what they want to read are the two most powerful instructional design elements for building young readers’ motivation and comprehension. The science goes that if we allow children to choose what they want to read and what they think they can read all by themselves, they’ll read more in school. Maybe, they’ll even start reading outside of school. 

Everybody likes choices. However, it’s also true that readers sometimes get stuck on a certain library shelf and are reluctant to try something outside the diet of reading that they've established for themselves. At least, that’s how I’ve been for much of my life. I’m wary of straying away from what I’m 100% sure that I’ll like. When I start a book, I feel a strange obligation to finish it — kind of like a plate of food. So I'm careful about taking on a new author or genre or time period. But when you taste or read someone else’s specialty or favorite, it might just become yours, too. I remind myself that whenever a friend tells me about a new book and urges me to read it. I think of my godmother’s table.

I’ll end this post with a plateful of Thanksgiving leftovers and a couple of questions:

    • What’s a favorite book that you’d like to recommend to a friend?
    • What’s a book a friend recommended that ended up becoming one of your favorites too?

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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