Nearly 100 people crowded inside Daniel McLaughlin’s Point Breeze rowhouse last year for his annual Thanksgiving feast. Guests grabbed drinks from a bathtub brimming with booze and took their seats — on dining-room chairs, kitchen counters, couch cushions, and every other seatable surface. Then, as is tradition, McLaughlin struck the kitchen gong, diving into his 10th annual “State of the Union” address to give thanks to his friends.
As he concluded, slices from a 30-pound turkey were passed out, along with dishes like savory bread pudding, fresh pasta with pistachio pesto, oyster shooters, and Peking duck. Come dessert, tables filled with sweets were pushed to the side to allow for a giant dance party to erupt in the living room.
It’s certainly not the typical Thanksgiving scene, but neither are most Friendsgivings — a celebration observed primarily among friends rather than family that, for some, has grown into a tradition far more beloved than the actual holiday. McLaughlin throws his on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
“It’s my favorite day of the year,” said McLaughlin, a co-owner of Mission Taqueria. “It’s kind of like throwing an annual wedding where I get to have all my favorite people in the same room, but there’s no family pressure.”
Friendsgiving is a no-rules affair, an opportunity to make the holiday whatever you want it to be. If you abandon Great Aunt Sally’s candied sweet potato casserole in favor of rosemary-roasted yams, no one will guilt you for it. (Taco Bell will tell you it’s vogue to swap turkey for a Friendsgiving Fire Tortilla Chip-crusted chicken. Although you might want to run that idea by your friends first.)
For many, the desire to eliminate family drama was part of the Friendsgiving origin story.
“You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends,” said host Madison Alpern, 32, of Graduate Hospital. “When you’re surrounded by people you’ve picked to be a part of your life, the fights about politics and whatever other polarizing issue are just less likely to happen.”
In 1990, Marie Procacci started hosting “Friends Thanksgiving” with her college roommates as a way to boost their spirits before having to return home.
“When you’re 18, 19, 20, you’re sick of everyone having an opinion about your life,” said Procacci. “We wanted to take the funk out of dysfunctional and throw the best version of Thanksgiving to fortify us before we had to spend time with family.”
Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and Procacci’s core college group still gathers every year, inviting partners, children, and a few additional friends to join. When she and her husband built their house in Sicklerville, they designed the kitchen around the occasion. She instructed her architect to spare the phrase “open concept” and use “Friends Thanksgiving design” instead.
“We’ve tried every single iteration of turkey you can imagine — BBQ, rotisserie, deep-fried, convection-oven-baked,” said Sheri Cole, who joins Procacci every year. “My friends are my family, so it’s nice to spend a day being thankful for one another.”
While it’s often held on a weekend, Friendsgiving sometimes outright supplants actual Thanksgiving family dinner, especially when family isn’t nearby.
When Colleen Vineer and her husband celebrated their first Thanksgiving in California after a move from Philadelphia, they invited fellow transplants to join them.
“We always look for folks who don’t have family close by and want some place to go where it feels like home,” Vineer said. After seven years in California, they’ll host their first Thanksgiving in their new Germantown home, soon to be filled with friends and a few family members.
“It became a creative experience for us, our new tradition, where we could play with the menu but keep things low-key.”
Alpern points out that one of the best parts of Friendsgiving is the no-stress mentality.
“Friendsgiving feels more like an upbeat party. Sometimes the best memories come from fixing the mistakes that inevitably happen in the kitchen together, without anyone judging,” Alpern said.
Jeesely Soto of Phoenixville also hosts an annual Thanksgiving Day Friendsgiving potluck. As a vegan, she was driven by the desire to enjoy a holiday meal sans scrutiny.
“This is a holiday centered around food, so with family, the conversation always turns into one about ‘Why aren’t you eating meat?’ ” Soto said.
Guests have brought BBQ popcorn chick’n, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, baked macaroni and “cheese,” roasted sweet potatoes, massaged kale salad, stuffing, and apple strudel. Often, family members come along. Strangers are welcome, too, as long as they have a connection to someone Soto knows. Last year, about 40 people attended, more than a third of whom Soto had never met.
“Sure, it felt a little weird at first inviting strangers into my home, but for a lot of people, the holidays can be a depressing time of year,” said Soto. “I don’t want anyone to feel alone.”
This year, McLaughlin is using his epic Friendsgiving to give back to the community at large. He’s hosting a $150 catered event Sunday, Nov. 24, featuring dishes like turkey soup dumplings from Cheu Noodle Bar’s Ben Puchowitz, turkey gobbler hoagies from Middle Child’s Matt Cahn, and items from 10 other local chefs, with proceeds going to the Food Trust. The majority of the 150 seats will be filled by McLaughlin’s friends, but around a third will remain open to the public.
“Friendsgiving is a great opportunity to form new traditions, and I’d love for this shift to become just another part of that,” said McLaughlin. “Of course, we’ll still ring it in with a gong, and while we can’t move the bathtub, there’ll definitely be a bar.”