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Turkeys, Race Tracks and Bar Tabs

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Thanksgiving is a time to partake in holiday traditions, but not all those traditions necessarily fit the Norman Rockwell archetype of the prayerful family gathered around a roasted turkey. Some locals mark the holiday by dining out together at a restaurant, while for others the Thursday feast turns out to be something like Charlie Brown's Thanksgiving, with friends pitching in a green bean casserole or a bottle of wine or a Hubig's pie with the price tag still attached to help fill a casual potluck table.

For Jo Starnes, though, a New Orleans Thanksgiving always means low bets and high style at the Fair Grounds Race Course. A transplant from Arkansas, Starnes has no family ties in New Orleans and, though she's nobody's thoroughbred handicapper, she has made the opening day of Fair Grounds' racing season the central part of her Thanksgiving Day celebration for years now. So many people turn out for Thanksgiving at the track that this year the Fair Grounds decided to award tables for its clubhouse dinner service to the highest bidder through an online auction. That doesn't make any difference to Starnes, who as usual plans to spend the afternoon down by the track rail. She places small bets, usually loses, but says she has a great time along the way, seeing friends and dressing to the nines.

'I get a new hat for it every year," Starnes says. 'I know what I'll be wearing for Thanksgiving at the track before I even have my Halloween costume ready."

Last year, her getup included an elegant veil, imitation fur and huge sunglasses. This year, she's going for what she describes as a 'modern French burlesque" look.

'You're outside in the sun, you're yelling at horses, eating raw oysters and drinking Bloody Marys," she says. 'This is my Thanksgiving tradition and I love it."

Transplants and newcomers to the city aren't the only ones celebrating Thanksgiving away from home and hearth. Even people who have gleaming new kitchens thanks to post-Katrina home repairs don't always want to spend their holiday cooking in them, so rather than stuffing turkeys and stirring gravy they head out to eat.

Getting someone else to do the cooking on Thanksgiving, however, can be harder than it might seem. Cold calls to a range of restaurants around the area early in November revealed that many will be closed for the holiday or remain undecided on the question of opening. The reasons are clear: few people want to work on the holiday and restaurateurs know most of their customers will be deep in tryptophan stupors at home or on grandma's sofa by mid-afternoon. Even among the area's Chinese restaurants " those go-to stalwarts for nontraditional meals on Christmas Day " many close up shop for Thanksgiving.

Restaurants that do serve on Thanksgiving face a completely different rhythm than on a normal day of business. Instead of two-tops and double dates, the dining rooms are filled with multi-generational parties taking up multiple tables and placing large orders at once, all while the kitchen staff and front of the house might be operating with reduced numbers. The solution used at most restaurants open on Thanksgiving is to put the regular menu aside and present a smaller range of choices or a set up a buffet.

All three local restaurants in Ralph Brennan's restaurant group (Ralph's on the Park, Bacco and Red Fish Grill) will be open for Thanksgiving, each serving its own a la carte menu. A handful of smaller restaurants will be serving their own holiday menus, including Le Parvenu in Kenner, the Flaming Torch and Philip Chan's Asian Cajun Bistro, where the kitchen's pan-Asian cuisine will take a back seat to traditional American and Creole Thanksgiving dishes.

Hotel restaurants are typically open and staffed for the holiday, so putting out a big spread makes sense as an amenity for guests and a lure for locals looking for a celebratory meal outside the home. At the Windsor Court Hotel, for instance, the New Orleans Grill transforms into a large, luxury buffet experience for Thanksgiving. At $72 per person (or $36 for kids younger than 12), the buffet carries a price tag to match the dining room's princely ambiance, but it is also stocked with some dishes taken directly from chef Greg Sonnier's dinner menu. The array of food includes Sonnier's smoked rooster gumbo and she crab soup, New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp pie, grilled rabbit en brochette with tasso grit cakes and over-sized crab cake 'chops." Of course, there is also turkey with giblet gravy and, among the many desserts, something called the 'chocolate fountain action station." The restaurant takes reservations for three Thanksgiving seatings, at noon, 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

One restaurant that changes nothing for the holiday, however, is Tujague's. With more than 150 years under its belt, the French Quarter landmark conducts business as usual on Thanksgiving, just as it does on Christmas Day. As always, the kitchen will put out a six-course, table d'hote menu built around the house specialties of shrimp remoulade and beef brisket. In all cases, when planning to dine at a restaurant on Thanksgiving, reservations are essential.

Rodney Beals has no reservations for Thanksgiving dinner, but he knows where he'll end up anyway. He says he's heading to Pal's Lounge, his neighborhood bar in Faubourg St. John, for aluminum trays of turkey, ham, potatoes and stuffing all laid out on the bar top and adjacent tables, a free feast for patrons. Beals is a New Orleans native, but with his family still spread out after Hurricane Katrina he says a meal and drinks with his friends on both sides of the bar at his local hangout has become a post-storm tradition.

'You walk in, everyone calls out your name, shoot that's close enough to be family," says Beals.

Pal's co-owners Suzanne Accorsi and Linda Novak typically spend Thanksgiving morning cooking food for their bar-top cornucopia , and also fielding phone calls from people about what other side dishes or desserts to bring over. Beals says sometimes he whips up a dish of crawfish pasta to share or brings a load of rolls from the bakery where he works.

Some people spend Thanksgiving " or at least part of their Thanksgiving " in a much different setting. Several nonprofit agencies run Thanksgiving dinners for the needy, including Bridge House in the Lower Garden District. Anywhere from 600 to 1,000 people typically eat early Thanksgiving dinner at Bridge House each year and, just like during its annual Christmas dinner, Bridge House relies on volunteers to help prepare and serve food and distribute other donated goods.

'We get people volunteering who are new in town, don't have any family connections here, but we also get plenty of local folks," says Wayne Olivio, who is coordinating volunteers for Bridge House. 'Sometimes whole families come in to volunteer for a few hours together."

Bridge House has two volunteer shifts on Thanksgiving Day, from 10 a.m. to noon and from noon to 2 p.m. To sign up, or for more information, call 522-2124, ext. 13.

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