Column: Family falls into Thanksgiving Hobbit Hole

By SCOTT SAALMAN

So, my dad seriously considered the dreadful-sounding Hobbit Hole Breakfast on the Denny’s Hobbit-themed menu for his Thanksgiving meal. We all had a good time with that one: Hobbit Hole.

“Hey, grandpa’s going to eat the Hobbit Hole.”

“”˜Hobbit Hole’ just sounds wrong. It makes me uncomfortable,” said my daughter, Delaney.
What an unfortunate name for a movie tie-in meal, much like if Dairy Queen had, in 1989, offered customers a My Left Foot-Long Hotdog.

Dear Denny’s: Moons Over My Hammy, yes (enduring classic); Hobbit Hole, no.

The menu described it as “two eggs fried right into the center of grilled cheddar bun halves.” Even professional food photographers couldn’t make the Hobbit Hole look appetizing on the menu’s photo spread — and those guys have the talent/trickery to make mouths water over a turd in a tin cup.

“Your grandma used to make these,” dad said, nostalgia-stricken. “We called them Texas Eyes.”
It bothered me that he was ordering breakfast, for this was our official Thanksgiving dinner. It seemed unAmerican to not order traditional Thanksgiving food.

I ordered the Hobbit Menu’s “Dwarves’ Turkey & Dressing”: turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce. There was the alternative “Senior Turkey & Dressing” dinner, which, I guess, came with very old bird. The fresher foul was worth the extra $1.40. My dad was paying anyway.

“Restaurant turkey just doesn’t turn me on,” said dad, which I thought was just a lame excuse to defend his Hobbit Hole.

Delaney chimed in. “Ugh. The Dwarves’ meal looks too much like school lunch.”

“Yea, like Salisbury steak,” said my son, Austin.

They were right, it did have an institutional look about it. But for me, it was turkey or bust — even if it meant masticating mystery meat. It was Thanksgiving, for goodness’ sake. Pilgrims would roll over in their Plymouth Rock graves if I ordered the Banana Caramel French Toast Skillet instead of dwarf turkey.

It was my idea to bypass the larger family gathering we were invited to and instead spend it at Denny’s. Mom’s initial reaction: “Denny’s is for people who have nowhere to go, but you do.” I expected her reluctance, resistance, not only because I was mutinying family tradition but because the last time we had all dined at Denny’s (another town, years ago), a cockroach (still in our memory banks) dropped from the ceiling and onto my pancakes. The manager offered a 75 percent discount. I don’t know how he calculated that. Was it in the manager’s manual? I don’t want to know what unfortunate thing had to be on my pancakes to entitle me to, say, a 90 percent discount.

I chose Denny’s with good intent. We seldom break bread together as a five-some anymore. During normal family holiday gatherings, I get too distracted by the many extended family members to spend quality time with my kids. This Thanksgiving, I wanted to experience a more meaningful time with them.

I really didn’t know what to expect at Denny’s on Thanksgiving: lonely people crying over cups of coffee; crabby waitresses who preferred to be home with their own families; wretched customers resembling zombie extras from “The Walking Dead.” What I found, though, were not the anticipated human equivalents of the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys, but normal-looking family units like mine. Our waitress was cheery and wonderful. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade aired on the TV — a nice homey touch. We five conversed and laughed and listened, and I cannot think of a more meaningful Thanksgiving spent together. Being fragmented from our extended family enabled us to focus more on one another and feel more together, more whole.

This is it! I thought. This is Thanksgiving!

I even stopped feeling uptight over being the only one at our table eating turkey. Delaney and Austin enjoyed their Red Velvet Pancake Puppies; mom, her French Toast Slam (France!!!); and dad, some five-piece customized breakfast in place of the much-discussed Hobbit Hole. (“You guys shamed me out of it,” he explained.) Thanksgiving is all about America and America is all about freedom of choice and Denny’s menu is all about choices — so how could I argue about their selections?

We were happy, united and thankful — I have smartphone photos to prove it! (I hadn’t been emotionally moved enough to take Thanksgiving Day dinner photos in years.)

So touched was I that I also did something else uncharacteristic: I stretched my arms out over the table and said, “Let’s all hold hands and give thanks.” There was alarm on my family’s faces, as if they’d woken from an ether rag encounter and found themselves kidnapped by a congregation of charismatics. Not surprisingly, they didn’t reach for my open hands, which relieved me since I had left my hand sanitizer in the car.

“We’re not that kind of family,” Delaney said.

“I was just messing with you,” I said.

What Delaney said was correct. We are not that kind of family — we don’t hold hands, period. But we are a family, and we seemed more like one than ever on Thanksgiving Day at Denny’s.

Austin even texted me later: “That was a lot of fun,” something he had never professed about Thanksgivings past.

It looks like the start of a new holiday tradition. Maybe my dad will get that Hobbit Hole meal after all.

Scott Saalman and the Will Read and Sing For Food Players’ last performance of 2013 will be at 7 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 5) at Vincennes University Jasper Campus to benefit Community Food Bank. Admission: a monetary or canned good donation.




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