The scene: Thanksgiving morning at an apartment north of Dupont Circle. Elsewhere in America, families may be wrestling with gizzards and giblets and gravy, but Valerie Lam and her boyfriend, Sherman Miranda, are having none of that. They spend a chunk of the morning playing Pac-Man.
Soon the doorbell rings, and in walks their turkey and all the fixings -- in the arms of delivery man Cesar Ruiz. "See, that's it!" Lam, 24, shouts as she throws up her hands. "Thanksgiving dinner's ready."
It was one moment in the transformation of America's signature holiday.
For many years, Thanksgiving was the last major holiday to resist commercialization, but it is starting to give way. More and more chain stores, restaurants, grocers and caterers are opening on Thanksgiving Day. People are refusing to slave over a hot stove and are buying part or all of the day's meal already cooked. And for an increasing number of people, the seasonal shopping rush that used to start the day after Thanksgiving is instead starting on the holiday.
Pickup or delivery of Thanksgiving meals is on the rise: Today, 53 percent of Americans have takeout items from restaurants for part of their Thanksgiving meals, according to the National Restaurant Association, up from 34 percent in 2000. And 11 percent eat out.
Consumers say they want alternatives to the days of preparation, followed by hours of cleanup, that Thanksgiving used to require. Nowadays, options range from ready-made holiday meal packages to quick-hit side dishes sold at grocery stores and even fast-food chains. Many Americans may lament a passing tradition, but restaurateurs and business owners are greeting the change as a sales opportunity.
"We don't live in that 'Leave it to Beaver'-type of society any more," said Steven C. Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association. "Having June Cleaver in the kitchen with her apron and pearls seems to be something of the past."
Focused on getting people together
One year of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner was enough for Lam, an intellectual-property consultant who works in the District. Three years ago, when she lived in Arlington, she was halfway finished stuffing a seven-pound turkey when she got a call from her mom in California.
Skeptical of Lam's culinary skills, her mother asked whether she had remembered to take out the gizzard before stuffing the bird. She hadn't, so it took another 30 minutes to repair the damage.
"I know part of the holidays is the production of it all, but there comes a time when it doesn't mean anything anymore," Lam said. "You get so wrapped up in the hurry and scurry of it that you lose all perspective. It's more about people getting together than anything."
Lam had used Amphora Catering for work events and a friend's engagement party. When she realized that a catered Thanksgiving was possible, she jumped at the opportunity. The full Thanksgiving feast for four or five people, complete with turkey and sides, was around $300. She'll have ample leftovers.
"It allows families to have more time together," said Robert Frank, director of catering at Amphora, which has locations in Herndon and Vienna and produced more than 70 cooked turkeys yesterday.
But there are trade-offs. Despite the added free time, ready-made meals are leading to an erosion in the meaning of "transitional experiences" such as holidays, weddings and birthdays, said Dell DeChant, a religious studies lecturer at the University of South Florida.
"I think Thanksgiving was one of the last holdouts, the last vestiges of the family experience," DeChant said. "It was done by the family according to its own models and own norms, and we're beginning to see that fade."
Fifteen years ago, it would have been tough to find anything besides a convenience store open on Thanksgiving Day. Now, large-scale retailers such as CompUSA and Kmart are hoping to lure shoppers in early with online and in-store sales. Several Washington area Kmart stores were open all day yesterday, and all the area CompUSA stores opened for three hours last night.
For those who still fancy the idea of cooking at home, the last-minute shopping blitz of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has been eased by extended hours. Several Whole Foods and Safeway locations were open into the afternoon yesterday. Demand for the freshest food possible leads many customers to come in Thanksgiving morning, though managers admit the turkeys arrived earlier in the week.
"People think we go out back and kill them -- they really do," said Muriel Ortiz, store manager at the Tenleytown Whole Foods, which has been open for three Thanksgivings.
Whole Foods encountered resistance in Massachusetts last year after officials announced that stores would remain open on Thanksgiving -- a violation of colonial-era laws that prohibit retailers with more than seven employees from staying open on holidays. The state attorney general threatened the chain with criminal charges.
‘It's all about convenience’
Chain restaurants such as Boston Market are tapping into the demand for ready-made meals on Thanksgiving. The chain has been open on Thanksgiving Day since 1997 but has seen the biggest jumps in sales in the past three years.
Boston Market expected to sell more than 600,000 sides to customers during Thanksgiving this year, almost a 30 percent increase over 2005, said Carol Schauer, a senior marketing director at the chain.
"It's all about convenience. . . . Not to say this isn't a meal that has personal involvement in it," said Harry Balzer, a food industry analyst with NPD Group. "The idea is, 'How can I make this very complex meal a little easier?' "
Standing impatiently inside a Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits on 14th Street NW at noon yesterday, Sheila Strowbridge was trying to make it easy on a household of 20 waiting at home for some food.
"I need those biscuits or I need my money," she said as she picked up two, 16-piece meals -- an "appetizer" for the main course of turkey, ribs, honey ham, yams, and biscuits and gravy that was coming later in the day.
"If the house is packed, this makes everybody happy," she said. "It gives you a variety of everything."