PITTSBURGH — Laura Magone has celebrated Thanksgiving exactly the same way for as long as she can remember.
Her mother, Wanda, always plays host in her Monongahela, Pa. home. Up to a dozen extended family members show up with giant appetites. And the menu never varies. A giant turkey filled with Italian bread stuffing is always the star of the holiday feast.
The stuffing is special because it’s her maternal grandmother’s recipe. Maria Previtali didn’t know what to make of the American holiday when she and her husband, Giovanni, immigrated in 1905 to the Mon Valley from the Collio region in northeastern Italy. Along with the milk, eggs, celery and broth to moisten the breadcrumbs, she added a few flavors of her homeland — spinach, onions, garlic and grated Parmesan cheese. It was a hit.
In fact, it’s so fabulous that Magone and her family “wait for it all year.”
But like for so many Americans, Thanksgiving will be different for the Magones this year. Health experts are advising smaller holiday gatherings to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay. According to a Butterball survey, 30 percent of people say they’re complying.
While the Magones will still celebrate the holiday, for the first time in their lives they won’t be together.
Wanda Magone’s only dinner guests will be her daughter and a close friend. And instead of a whole bird, they’ll dine on one of two 3-pound frozen Butterball turkey breasts Laura Magone bought in a panic last week at Giant Eagle. It will be served with just a small bowl of stuffing, to avoid being inundated with leftovers.
“I’ve heard smaller turkeys could be in short supply this year,” said Magone, which is why she purchased the meat early.
“It’s just strange,” she added with a sigh, about opting for parts instead of a whole bird. Heartbreaking even, because they’re an Italian family, “and we don’t know how to do small.”
Linda Fergus of Freeport is the yin to Magone’s yang.
The grandmother of two and mother of four still plans on going big. With a guest list of around 20, her holiday meal will revolve around a 22-pound Honeysuckle White fresh turkey in addition to a turkey breast or second smaller bird.
“We like our turkey,” she said with a laugh.
Everyone invited to dinner is someone she comes in contact with on a regular basis, including her sister, Joni, who lives next door. So she is not worried about the virus because she knows her family takes mask-wearing and social distancing seriously.
A remodeled, open-plan kitchen means no one will be banished to the kids’ table. “We’re so excited we’ll all be able to sit in the same room,” she said.
Their celebrations might be polar opposites, but both have one thing in common: To create some sense of normalcy by sticking with tradition.
They’re in good company. According to Butterball, one of the nation’s largest turkey producers, nearly nine out of 10 adults who regularly celebrate Thanksgiving plan on making the holiday happen this year. In addition, three-quarters of hosts are planning to serve the same size turkey or larger than last year, even as the data points to more, smaller Thanksgiving gatherings.
“The trend definitely seems to be toward smaller birds,” said Brock Stein, president of Koch’s Turkey Farm in Tamaqua near Allentown. “But there’s still demand across the whole spectrum,” with the most popular size in the 12- to 16-pound range.
Some of his customers are even buying larger birds than usual, he said, because they’ve got college kids or young adults at home.
The fourth-generation family farm raises more than 800,000 humanely raised, organic, free-range and heirloom turkeys each year, with around 400,000 sold during the holidays.
Like many in the turkey business, Koch’s initially hoped that the pandemic would end well before the holidays, causing little or no impact to turkey sales.
“In March, everyone was optimistic about it,” he said. Yet by June, they realized there was a good chance the country would still be dealing with the virus by Thanksgiving. So in connection with its retail partners, the farm started to shift its production of small birds by about 25 percent. He believes smaller turkeys will soon sell out.
While people were able to revamp their Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day celebrations, Thanksgiving is different. “No one has lived through a coronavirus holiday with a sit-down meal,” Koch said. “So no one is quite sure.”
Daniel Sullivan, a spokesperson for Cargill, which produces Honeysuckle White turkeys, agreed the research suggests that smaller birds will be in higher demand and could sell out soon. Alternatives for smaller crowds in those cases, he said, include bone-in breasts, roasts, triskets (a boneless roast designed for smoking), breast cutlets and turketta, a bacon-wrapped boneless turkey breast.
“While turkey remains the star of the show, how people bring it to life is changing,” he said in an email.