Long Reads

The Best Way to Say Grace at Thanksgiving? Good Question.

November 23, 2016

The concept of who gets—or, rather, who has—to say “grace” at the Thanksgiving table has never not been a source of anxiety for my family. Throughout the nineties, we wouldn't have been inclined to say grace had it not been for the demands of my sister, nine years my senior. The very concept of saying grace seemed too formal and unnecessary to my parents, woefully out of step with the fast-casual way our family tended to communicate.

In those years, my sister insisted that grace before the Thanksgiving meal was what "true" Americans did at the Thanksgiving table, as elemental to the observance of the holiday as the meal's gobblin' culinary centerpiece itself. I remember a particularly tense Thanksgiving in the late nineties at my aunt's house with the extended family, where the kids ate before the adults. There was never a pretense of grace at these functions, and as we sat at the dining table and began to eat, my sister was furious. "You have to say grace," she moaned. This was the period in my adolescence when I took my older sister's words as aspirational gospel, and so I believed this, too: To say grace before Thanksgiving was our way of realizing our Americanness.

This was in the pristine, sacrosanct era before 9/11. This catastrophic moment in American history merely emboldened my sister's stance: We would have to say grace every Thanksgiving. The world had grown more suspicious—and less welcoming—of people like my bearded, brown father. By extension, this called our whole family’s Americanness into question. Grace would be our way of being American in a time when it felt like we weren’t, as if a retort to this phobia or a reassertion of our national identity, even if this was in the privacy of our own home. No one was watching, yet we pursued the principled practice of saying grace from then forward.

Grace would be our way of being American in a time when it felt like we weren’t.

I don't mean to suggest that grace had suddenly grown grave and solemn in these years. Rather, this mandate meant that it could often be a very comic matter. About eleven years ago, we entrusted my 88-year-old grandfather with saying grace. He was a scholar of Sanskrit, and what followed was a verbal stream of consciousness with a mash-up of Bengali, English, and Sanskrit. There we all were, screaming silently and aging ten years in the course of ten minutes, the gravy congealing into gelatin before us. We almost died waiting for him to finish. We just wanted it to end.

We survived, but it was something of a watershed moment: Since then, we’ve grown especially wary of entrusting grace to someone whose motor skills are betraying them. The episode confirmed my parents' initial suspicion that grace just wasn't worth the effort. In the years following this, saying grace became subject to certain whims and variables of each year—both the demographic makeup and the pulse of the Thanksgiving table. If, for example, my brother-in-law—white, older, and Ivy-educated—were there, we had to say grace. His presence reignited our latent anxiety about being American all over again.

Shop the Story

Revisiting the many graces I've tolerated and stomached over the years, I've realized that my family hasn't quite settled on some key questions. How long should one's grace last? One minute? Five? Should we take turns going around saying what we're grateful for? Should the eldest speak? The youngest? Some median-aged soul? And during grace, how explicitly do you acknowledge how matters have gone to shit while still maintaining hope? This has always been an impossibly elaborate art to master.

So we've given up, basically. Over the past few years, our family has begun to preen our Thanksgiving table. It has just three seats now—one for me, the other two for my parents. One’s got cancer, and the other is exhausted balancing the twin responsibilities of care-taking and breadwinning. Over the last few years, it's felt like what we’re grateful for has dwindled, and so much of it beyond our control: illnesses, deaths, all that fun stuff. We've got a lot to be miserable about. You may believe that these circumstances urge the necessity of saying grace— hypothetically, it can be a panacea to the unending terror of life.

My parents and I haven't yet broached the subject of whether we're saying grace this year, let alone who's to say it. I'm not sure this works for us. I dread being tasked with saying grace myself. So far, I’ve avoided it throughout my whole life. If we must say it this year, I'm hoping the burden doesn't fall on my shoulders. I wouldn't even know where to begin.

52 Days of Thanksgiving
Check It Out
52 Days of Thanksgiving

Top-notch recipes, expert tips, and all the tools to pull off the year’s most memorable feast.

Check It Out

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • gandalf
  • Andrew MacDonald
    Andrew MacDonald
  • bookjunky
  • bbmoe
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


gandalf November 25, 2016
"[D]uring grace, how explicitly do you acknowledge how matters have gone to shit while still maintaining hope? This has always been an impossibly elaborate art to master."

Well, yes, it is a difficult art to master; and the grace that I say every year at Thanksgiving varies depending on the circumstances -- such as who is at our table for our meal, what has happened with family/friends/community this past year, and so on. I try to keep it to just 2 or 3 sentences. But I can usually find something to be thankful for, even if it's not the same things I was thankful for the previous Thanksgiving (or even the previous week).

Here's what I came up with for the 10 or so of us this year:
"Almighty God, we are gathered here today to give thanks for the bounty before us, and for the friends and family among us. Guide us to be grateful and humbled for these and all Your gifts. In Your name we pray, Amen."

I hope that your concerns were resolved in a good way for you this Thanksgiving.
Andrew M. November 25, 2016
Stop being religious, your lives will be happier and you'll be better human beings. Thank yourselves instead.
bookjunky November 23, 2016
Personally I think a grace that is more than 30 seconds is too long. It's an insult to the cook as the food is getting cold. And no one is really listening to all that blather anyway. On occasions like this, I thank Reason I'm an atheist.

If I were going to be thankful, it would be to Earth for its bounty, and to the farmers who grew the food, and the cook who prepared the meal. And depending on who's at the table, I might be thankful for the company I have.
bbmoe November 23, 2016
I guess I'm missing something. We say grace at every meal because we are thanking God for his providence. If having a short speech about the occasion is grace, then just nominate someone to do it, a chance to exercise their public speaking skills, and have guidelines. Because it's a ritual, you can make some rules to help: can't be more than "x" number of words, must mention something or someone or must not, etc. Turning our thoughts to what we are grateful for will help with the trying times. The group that gets together can call or skype those who can't make it, especially those who are infirm; you can have a display of the loved ones who have died, you can all sign a card to a loved one who has borne the loss. Saying grace is just the tip of the iceberg.