Iowans observe tradition in untraditional ways for Thanksgiving 2020

Nathan Woody moistens the skin of turkeys Monday as they smoke at Wilson's Orchard in Iowa City. The orchard has shifted
Nathan Woody moistens the skin of turkeys Monday as they smoke at Wilson’s Orchard in Iowa City. The orchard has shifted its operations to become more diverse so operators extended their season and offerings to include smoked turkeys and more time to shop for pies and cheesecakes. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

In a more normal year, Kristy Staker and her husband would gather with extended family — her husband’s five siblings and their families, about 35 people in all.

In 2020, with coronavirus case numbers raging and politicians and public health officials alike calling on people to limit holiday gatherings, they aren’t doing that. Instead, siblings will each have their own meals.

Staker is marketing and communications coordinator for Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids, Coralville, Iowa City and Marion. And she suggests families like hers are why sales of the traditional Thanksgiving birds are actually up this year at area Hy-Vees.

“Right now business is crazier than normal — I think everybody’s still celebrating, they’re just celebrating in a smaller way. They might even be selling more turkeys as all five of us are actually getting our own turkeys,” she said. “It’s so sad, you know, but what else can you do? Our family altogether is around 35 people — we just couldn’t do it. ... We’re planning to all do our own thing.”

At New Pioneer Co-Op in Cedar Rapids, butcher Dan White said the store sold out of turkeys after ordering about the same amount as usual. But he did notice a difference: Usually the bigger birds go first. Not so in 2020.

“We’ve definitely noticed people are ordering the smaller turkeys — turkey breasts sold out really quick, the 10- to 12-pound birds sold out the quickest. Normally the 20-pound birds sell out fastest,” he said.

He and his spouse still planned to gather with his in-laws for the meal.

“I guess we’re not changing anything,” he said. “They’ve already had COVID and recovered, so we feel pretty safe seeing them.”


Some people are skipping cooking altogether and ordering holiday meals to-go from local restaurants. In a year when carryout and take-and-bake have become staples of most restaurant’s business models, more of them are offering Thanksgiving meal options than ever before.

One of those is Rapid Creek Cidery in Iowa City, where more than 60 turkeys went Monday into the smoker at Wilson’s Smokehouse. Both restaurants are at Wilson’s Orchard.

“For our restaurant, for the Cidery, it’s been the first year we’ve ever done takeout. It was never on our radar,” owner Katie Goering said. “Really I think just switching mindsets this year led us to think about doing these catering things. Also, most of our weddings have postponed, so this lets us use those same skills and recipes.”

Smokehouse pitmaster Nathan Woody said he and his partner just planned to have a quiet Thanksgiving together, instead of seeing their extended family.

“Traditionally we’d go to my grandparents’ place, but this time it’s not happening,” he said. “Meeting with lots of different people throughout the day for work, as I do, it just feels good to abstain from potentially exposing more vulnerable family members.”

Fewer people travel

He’s not alone. Those traveling for Thanksgiving this year should expect less company on the roads or in the airports than in previous years, experts said.

Meredith Terpstra, public affairs specialist for AAA, said the organization is anticipating 50 million people will travel this week for the holiday. That’s 5 million fewer than during Thanksgiving 2019, Terpstra said.

Terpstra said the anticipated 10 percent drop in travel — the largest year-over-year decrease since the Great Recession in 2008 — is “due to the health concerns and unemployment rates caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Terpstra said the number of actual travelers could be even lower as Thanksgiving plans likely will be a last minute decision for many as the latest health risks and travel restrictions are considered.


The good news for motorists who decide to travel is favorable gas prices. Terpstra said October had the lowest average gas price in 15 years. The average price of a gallon of gas in Iowa was $1.966 as of Tuesday, according to AAA.

At The Eastern Iowa Airport, traffic is down about 53 percent through the end of September compared with the same period of 2019. That trend is expected to continue, despite Thanksgiving typically being one of the busiest weeks at the airport, said Pam Hinman, director of marketing and communications for the airport.

“It’s obviously not going to be a normal Thanksgiving week,” she said.

Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla expects a pretty routine holiday week. Traffic volume saw a huge reduction at the beginning of the pandemic, but has slowly increased since then, Dinkla said. Traffic patterns are pretty much back to normal and Dinkla said the state patrol is expecting only a “slight reduction” in traffic volume.

The state patrol will have extra troopers out looking for common safety violations.

“Troopers will be watching for excessive speed, not wearing a seat belt and people who choose to drink and drive impaired or intoxicated,” Dinkla said.

A campus holiday

Some of those deciding whether to travel will be college students. An unprecedented fall semester is winding down unusually early for students at two of the state’s three public universities — Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, with final exams and projects complete by Wednesday.

The campuses won’t resume instruction again until the spring semester starts Jan. 25.

The University of Iowa did not adjust its academic calendar and will still end classes in December — but will not bring students back for in-person instruction after this break.

Some Hawkeyes are taking extra COVID-19 precautions by staying on-campus instead of celebrating the holidays with their families.

Students are free to remain in on-campus housing through break and the virtual instruction period. According to UI assistant media relations manager Hayley Bruce, as of the end of the day Nov. 19, 384 students who are living in the residence halls had reported they plan to remain during Thanksgiving recess.


Hawkeyes — especially those from out of state who are hampered by travel restrictions and expectations to quarantine should they head home — are finding ways to celebrate the usual Thanksgiving traditions.

On-campus, students picked up a meat- or plant-based Thanksgiving meal including items such as turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing and more. International Student and Scholar Services hosted a virtual Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday with an online scavenger hunt via Zoom for international students — the event takes the place of its usual in-person Thanksgiving meal to share in an American tradition with Hawkeyes from all corners of the world.

Liz Pearce, a UI communications studies lecturer, sent an email to students offering to cook and deliver Thanksgiving meals to those still in town, and a few took her up on her offer.

Her 26-year-old son in Davenport has COVID-19 but plans to drive up and stay in his car while eating dinner cooked by his family, Pearce said.

Normally she celebrates the holiday with her friends and children, but she will be cooking and delivering meals with her other three children — ages 10, 15 and 22.

She said many of her students have either contracted COVID-19 or had loved ones who were affected — coping with job loss, illness or death.

“I have just heard students who really have been pretty sad, and I didn’t know exactly what their plans were, but I just couldn’t bear the idea of somebody feeling sad and alone,” Pearce said.

The exchange went viral in a Twitter post shared by one of her students, senior Leah Blask, and Pearce said the warm reception may inspire her to keep doing this every year.


Blask, who graduates in December, said Pearce’s selfless act of service can inspire others to grow themselves after what has been a tough year. While neighbors, friends and family crave connectedness, Blask said Pearce showed an example of how a simple home-cooked holiday meal can touch many lives.

“For a lot of people, actually experiencing the fact that they can’t go home or go back to their family or can’t reach out or do these Thanksgiving meals, I think it’s going to make people value those experiences a lot more and each other,” Blask said.

Reasons for thanks

Denine Rushing is shelter services director at Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids, where staff made adjustments to how the holiday meal is served.

Instead of everyone eating together, each wing of the shelter is eating its own meal. The shelter has wings for veterans, families and single men, each with its own kitchen. At the overflow shelter, which plans to serve 75 to 100 people, meals are in shifts to allow social distancing.

“It’s different, but we’re finding new ways to make great things happen, and that’s OK. Sometimes you have to do things differently if that means keeping clients and staff as safe as possible. It just becomes our new normal,” Rushing said. “It’s so important for us as staff to stay as positive as possible for our clients so they can keep their spirits up.”

She said staff has seen an increase in the need for their services this year, with people out of work due to the pandemic and others displaced by the Aug. 10 derecho.

They’re also getting a lot of calls from former residents, who are trying to hang on and keep their families fed and kids learning with schools in virtual learning.

Still, even in a strange and difficult year, Rushing sees a lot to be thankful for. For starters, there are the community members who signed up to cook hot food.

“I am thankful for the community we live in, I think we live in a very giving community. When the storm happened, there were so many people who didn’t have electricity themselves but were out delivering meals to people or were on Facebook asking who was in need of ice or gas or water. … People don’t have to do that, they just chose to do it because they care and want to give back. People could be worried about their own families and their own meal, but they’re cooking for our clients as well.”

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