GUEST COLUMN • A Taylor Street Thanksgiving

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October through December is my favorite time of year. I’m that person who decorates for fall in August and drinks pumpkin spice lattes when it’s still 90 degrees. Out of that whole glorious season, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

Last year, I spent Thanksgiving in Treviso, Italy. I hadn’t planned on still being there that late in the season, but I can hardly complain. With 2020 being, well, 2020, it was a miracle I was in Italy at all.

Since Thanksgiving is a uniquely American observance, it had me reminiscing about a magical celebration back home almost 20 years before. That’s when I was able to enjoy Thanksgiving Italian style. To this day, I remember the incredible warmth and generosity of Chicago’s Taylor Street neighborhood, where I lived and worked at the time. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I only wish we had better cellphones back then so I could have captured the moment. Then again, if everyone had been busy on social media, maybe the wonderful events of the day wouldn’t have unfolded the way they did.

I was a student working at the Illinois Bar and Grill on Taylor Street. It was a little more laid back than Hawkeyes, the more famous bar down the block, but because of that and the amazing food we served, our clientele was made up of as many local residents as UIC students.

I have always loved spending Thanksgiving in my hometown of Hillsboro in downstate Illinois, but almost all the bar employees, including myself, were students, and I wasn’t lucky enough to be able to go home that year. Our boss decided that all of us would work two-hour shifts to keep things as fair as possible. I had to work the day after Thanksgiving at my other job, so traveling four hours home and back was impossible.

I decided to volunteer for an additional shift, figuring I would at least make a little extra money and allow a co-worker who lived in the Chicago area to make it home for the day. Resigning myself to eating bar food on my most favorite of holidays, I took my sad self to work.

I was so surprised when I arrived, and my astonishment grew throughout the afternoon. I think every Italian in the neighborhood stopped in for a few minutes, watched a half hour or so of football, had a beer and left a more generous tip than usual. Even more heartwarming, no one came empty-handed. Each person brought an utterly delicious dish, many of them delightfully Italian in nature. Stuffed mushrooms, ravioli, lasagna and mostaccioli were among the culinary delights we enjoyed.

One in particular sticks out in my memory. A regular customer and staff favorite brought in a beautiful stuffed artichoke. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it was a work of art, and I can’t imagine the love and labor that went into creating it. About half an hour after the gentleman left, his nephew stopped in for a beer. He saw the artichoke and let out with, “Holy sh**! Is that my ma’s centerpiece? There are six women at home about to kill each other looking for that and blaming each other. That’s why I left the house!”

I sincerely hope everyone involved in the incident that came to be known as Artichokegate survived the holiday. The purloined dish, trust me, was more appreciated than you can imagine. We may not have had a traditional Thanksgiving that day, but we had a beautiful Friendsgiving complete with a lavish, home-cooked Italian feast. It brings tears of gratitude to my eyes as I write this. I’ll be in Rome this November, and I’ll be looking forward to conjuring some version of an Italian Friendsgiving there.

I want to wish each of you a Happy Thanksgiving! The last two years have been difficult for so many. It’s my deepest wish that this year’s celebration is as warm and sweet as mine was 20 years ago on Taylor Street.

Leigh Ann Miller is the daugher of Bonnie and the late Carl Miller of Hillsboro.  She works in Italy, and the preceeding is reprinted with permission from Fra Noi Inc. (Copyright 2021)

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