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November 22, 2006

GSPIA dean hosts Thanksgiving dinner for students

There will be a big turkey and a ham tomorrow on Barbara Porter’s Thanksgiving table, plus all the fixings: dressing, greens, cranberries, sweet potatoes and desserts. Lots of desserts.

That much is sure.

Exactly how many guests will surround that table is less certain. In addition to family and friends, Porter, assistant dean and director of student services at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and her husband, Ron, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, issue a blanket invitation to GSPIA and Heinz School students to join them.

Although they ask for RSVPs in their invitation to students who can’t make it home or who have no family in town, no one is turned away from the door of their Homewood-Brushton home.

“We never know, that’s what makes it so fun,” Porter said. “And we’ve never run out of food.”

Their tradition started some two decades ago when one GSPIA student was invited spur-of-the-moment to share the holiday dinner with them. “He had a raggedy, raggedy car and didn’t think he’d make it home” to Michigan, Porter said.

She began thinking there must be others like him with no way to celebrate. “After that year, we put out the word,” she said.

And now the word gets around. The Porters have had as many as two dozen guests in some years, she said.

The guests typically include a mix of young and old — students are encouraged to bring their spouses and children — Americans and international guests, many of whom are curious about the uniquely American holiday.

The Porters have welcomed students from Alaska, California, England, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East. One year, there was a pair of Japanese guests who’d never seen a turkey before except on television.

“Just bring yourself” is the instruction, although many guests bring something to share — perhaps a bottle of wine or, especially in the case of international students, a dish from their homeland. Some years there’s been sushi and sashimi, Latin American rice dishes or Vietnamese delicacies.

Porter typically takes a day off to prepare. She’s already begun cleaning and freezing the greens and preparing the dining room table for the buffet. While she does the majority of the cooking, her sister has the job of supplying the sweet potato pie — because she makes the best, Porter proclaims. And family friend and former Pitt professor Sylvia Barksdale has the honor of carving.

“People eat all over the house,” she said, adding that there will be tables and chairs set in the gameroom, sunroom, kitchen and living room.

Porter’s husband gathers the guests together to hold hands in a circle that snakes throughout the house, and offers a brief explanation of Thanksgiving. Guests introduce themselves and tell where they’re from, and after a moment of silence to allow each to consider the things they’re thankful for, the eating and socializing begins, and goes on for hours. The celebration includes movies on TV and lively, sometimes heated, conversation. “These are graduate students,” Porter said, adding that her sister likes to engage them in political debate.

There are few rules at the gathering, but one stands: No leftovers. “We encourage them to eat until it’s done,” she said, adding that she has a supply of containers waiting so she can send packages of food out the door with departing guests.

For some, the day is a way to celebrate a familiar holiday; for others, a way to learn about American culture. “It’s just a place for them to be for an American holiday,” Porter said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 7

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