One September, when I was 10 years old, I was rummaging around in my grandmother’s guest room, a place of mysterious Victorian furniture and various attached dust ruffles, when I discovered a stash of wrapped Christmas presents. I immediately became hopeful.
I went downstairs to tell my grandmother that I’d found some gifts from the previous December that she’d neglected to tag and give to me. Could I open them? I asked.
Alas, she let me know that at the holidays, there were often guests that came to her house unexpectedly for refuge from their unhappy families, or perhaps because they were traveling for work and stranded far from loved ones. She made a point to not only host them for Christmas Eve dinner or her big party on the first of the year, but to have appropriate gifts for them at the ready. Those presents I had found were for those guests, not for me. This was my first encounter with the idea of “holiday orphans.”
This idea stayed with me as I got started in the restaurant business. Our first restaurant in Baltimore, Savannah, opened the day before Thanksgiving in 1995. It was very easy on that particular Thanksgiving to provide a heartfelt meal to all the staff displaced from their families while they were working with us. We probably drank a little better and with greater thirst and relief than any of the guests who preceded us in the seats that evening.
Since then, each year we always serve a serious Thanksgiving meal to our staff after our clients have gone, and usually we’ve invited employees from other restaurants who are not traveling to distant family. We have often numbered in the 50s and 60s. One year we had at least 10 children come, along with the spouses of the staffers working at Charleston that day. It was especially interesting to see little family moments and work-friend moments coalescing all around the room.
There is a purity of intention to these meals. All parties are truly thankful for the chance to stop work, relish a meal and have a leisurely time with their compadres. It doesn’t hurt that the food and wine is always remarkable and plentiful. There are no moments of family weirdness, untold family secrets or angst. For a few hours we are the relaxed and well-heeled bon viveurs enlivening the room. We just clear our own plates.
In the past few years, since my father has retired and moved back to the area, he has insisted on hosting Christmas dinner at his house in the country. Every year it seems I am nominated to cook, and I am happy to do so—with one major stipulation. I need to have my orphans to dinner.
There are a few family friends that are entertaining fixtures, and one year it was a close friend and her husband and a handful of key managers from my company for whom travel to family was impractical. These last-minute insertions are always terrific. They bring energy and freshness to something that could be staid and fussy. And the shifting number of guests keeps us on our toes.
Time has taught me that the inclusive nature of this event at my father’s, just like my Thanksgiving at work, is my real highlight for the season. I have been a thorough humbug-er for most of my life. This may have cured me.
Tony Foreman is a restaurateur and co-owner of the Foreman-Wolf group.