It was an old hunting lodge, built in the early 1900s to shelter men who journeyed north from San Francisco to kill birds and large mammals in the fog. At its heart stood the lodge proper, steep-roofed, deep-eaved, and the color of a pinecone. It housed the reception lounge and restaurant, with a few guest rooms upstairs. In the woods that surrounded the main building, according to no discernible plan, stood a bunch of cabins and outbuildings submerged in perpetual deep-green shade. Manka’s had not been built so much as accumulated, like boots on a porch. After the presumed extinction of the huntable mammals there followed a dark period in the hotel’s history, involving bikers and mysterious Czechs, about which little was said. Then, sometime in the ‘90s, there appeared an enigmatic neuro- psychologist named Margaret Grade, who remade the place in its own idealized image as the archetypal big-woods lodge, all Hudson Bay-blanket upholstery, animal-parts decor, and dark oak, fir, and redwood; a Marin County Rivendell; a retreat out of legend, for the hunting of sasquatches and wendigos.
If Manka’s was like Tolkien’s Last Homely House, Margaret Grade was an elvish presence, magical and furtive. With a blend of Zen and whimsy, she wrought meals and a vibe of fanciful rusticity out of fine local ingredients, with furnishings that dialed down the hunting-lodge gothic with touches of farmhouse minimalism, and a distinctive use of text as decor so you knew she was around. But her presence was elusive. If you caught a glimpse of her, you felt lucky and a little dazed. To catch her in conversation was like netting the rarest butterfly, and after a minute you felt compelled, out of pity, to release her.
We numbered six and my friend’s family four; their old neighbors, who had lit out for the fringes of West Marin to spend down their inheritance in the study of soul migration, kundalini, or Swedenborgianism (I forget), brought the total of our party to 14. We arrived the day before Thanksgiving and immediately set about the leisurely work of encouraging eight children — of wide-ranging ages, with uneven degrees of acquaintanceship, divergent upbringings, and distinct styles of getting on one another’s and their parents’ nerves — to cohere. This was accomplished by means of long walks on chilly beaches, the playing of board and card games, and repeated screenings of Steve Oedekerk’s inexplicably hilarious Thumbs! micro-epics, The Godthumb, Thumb Wars, Bat Thumb, Thumbtanic. An analogous procedure was undertaken among the couples, 66.6 percent of whom had never met, with equally effective applications of hot tubs and wine. The air was perfumed with eucalyptus, wood smoke, and the brackish breeze off Tomales Bay. We sank into thick sweaters, leather club chairs, and companionship.
Recollections are hazy about the holiday meal itself. There may have been turkey, or goose, or both. It is generally agreed that the stuffing starred rabbit sausage. There can be little doubt, given the fundamental principles of Manka’s kitchen, that every course — and in our hazy, hot-tub-and-wine-soaked memories there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of courses — was constructed from roots, fruits, leaves, milk, butter, cheese, and meat that had been, until very recently, in a patch of ground, on a branch or stem, or in the udder or on the bone of an animal within an hour’s drive. The meal moved at a stately pace over several hours, at once eventless and exciting. The printed menu, as always at Manka’s, incorporated elements of symphonic program, galactic itinerary, and Victorian novel, each dish entitled like a tone poem, sketched with outlandish precision, and brought to you by one of the inn’s vast dramatis personae of local farmers, fishermen, foragers, or hunters. There was an entire menu of simpler fare for the children. One by one, they nodded and retired to their rooms until, at some late hour, long after the remnants of some last outrageous pie had been cleared, there was no one left in the dining room but we six, and nothing to give thanks for but one another and the final bottle of wine.
Ten years have passed since that night at Manka’s Inverness Lodge. The yoga gypsies broke up a while back. Mr. Robinson’s daughter was killed by a terrible disease at the age of 18, and his wife has since fallen prey to another. And two days after Christmas in 2006, a massive tree fell onto the main building of Manka’s, damaging a water heater, which started a fire and burned the old lodge to the ground. We can never go back, therefore, to the place as it was in its heyday, to the families we were in our prime, to the things that we had all taken for granted up until that day.
And that, to me, is the meaning of Thanksgiving. Of all the Thanksgivings before and since, the one spent at Manka’s stands out for me as the truest, even though we were far from our places of origin. Nothing lasts; everything changes. People die, and marriages dissolve, and friendships fade, and families fall apart, whether or not we appreciate them; whether or not we give thanks every waking moment or one night a year. For the act of returning to the same table, to the same people and the same dishes — to the same traditions — can blind you to life’s transience. It can lull you into believing that some things, at least, stay the same. And if that’s what you believe, then what have you got to be grateful for? None of our Thanksgivings are ever coming back; we’ve lost them. They’re gone. And so this year, let’s go somewhere with strange customs and unfamiliar recipes and the latest collection of ill-assorted chairs, and give thanks — not for everything we have, but for everything, instead, that we have lost.
(Originally published in Bon Appetit, November 2012.)