Thanksgiving Abroad

Kristen Frederickson

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It’s the calm before the storm. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, when the idea of having 15 people around my dinner table in 48 hours’ time still sounds like a good idea. It’s the afternoon when there is still time for luxurious, fiddly jobs like making place cards to stick in little china turkeys, to hang the fairy lights (red berry-shaped this year!) from the bookshelves, and to put Mr. Turkey in his brine and herb bath. Because this is my first wheat-free Thanksgiving, instead of pulling apart several loaves of soft Italian bread for stuffing, I’ve made a double batch of cornbread studded with chillies and fresh rosemary. I’m very excited for the holiday.

Of course, here in England the vast majority of the populace are not going to be excited on Thursday. They will be at school and work, planning nothing more sustaining to eat than a nice packet of fish and chips or a plate of shepherd’s pie. I really do miss that Thanksgiving feeling: of a short gray afternoon, the last leaves wafting down, everyone home and underfoot, an old movie or football game on in the background, and any number of cousins in the kitchen.

I could so easily have left that Thanksgiving responsibility behind when we moved to London and blended into the English culture that treats the fourth Thursday in November as just another gray day with an unbelievably early end of daylight. Yet somehow, since we moved here nearly seven years ago, Thanksgiving has been more important than ever. For all the other days of the year, we fit in to our adopted country, adding a “u” to loads of words where it doesn’t belong, driving on the wrong side of the road, watching the BBC and caring about the Duchess of Cambridge. But on Thanksgiving, we are resolutely American, observing every beloved tradition short of taking the day off work and school. Lots of Americans in London have given into the pressures of the work week and have their Thanksgiving dinners on the Sunday before, or the Saturday after. Although it would feel more like Thanksgiving to eat in the middle of the afternoon as Americans do, we have made concessions to our English life and celebrate on the actual day, just a little later than expected. Yes, we persevere.

And who do we invite for our feast? It’s an ever-changing guest list, made up of new friends we’ve met over the year, young people away from home for their first Thanksgiving, or people for whom I worry it’s one of the very few really filling meals they get. We invite Avery’s school friends, my bell-ringing friends, and any person who might be in town just for a few stressful days and we are the only people they know.

The most fun is inviting English people! The English have a really complex attitude toward all things American, made up of equal parts: intense admiration, lofty disdain, reluctant fascination, and outright disapproval. The English attitude toward American Thanksgiving is, however, uncomplicatedly worshipful. “You set aside a whole day to be thankful? How charming!” “You serve HOW many different types of potato dishes? Lead me to it!” “It’s like all the best things about Christmas but you don’t have to buy presents!” They LOVE Thanksgiving, and they are thrilled, flattered and even “honoured” to be invited.

I’m always surprised, every year, that so many new English guests say, “This is my first American Thanksgiving. What will I have to do?”

Well, we tell them, you will be expected to meet a wildly varied group of people, to try a bite of every dish, and we will give you three kernels of bright Indian corn and ask you to say, right out loud, three things you are thankful for. This last requirement results in an amazing array of answers, some quite tearful (that would be me crying), some very funny (usually Avery, who last year answered “Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry and Stephen Fry), some homesick, and some very earnest.

Our menu is a delicious combination of old favorites and new additions, of American traditions and English imports. There is always a turkey (as much like the Dolly-Parton-like birds we cooked in America as we can get here). This is supplemented with a gorgeous, rich English “gammon joint,” which is Brit for roast ham. This ham, ordered from my butcher the Monday before the feast, will be drizzled with a savoury mixture of English mustard and local honey. There will be mashed potatoes swimming in fresh gravy, but also a dish of shredded potatoes cooked with English cheddar cheese and thick cream. My guests bring pies, very proudly replicating the classic American pumpkin pie, rather than the fruity pie an English dinner would include. There will be caramelized carrots just like in my Indiana childhood, but also a big bowl of Brussels sprouts, which you can buy on the stalk here in England, just like they grow in the fields.

There is always some drama over the cooking of the turkey. Every year John sends me links to allegedly superior turkey treatments – cook it long and slow, or short and high, with a can of Coke poured over it, draped in bacon or smeared with butter, covered or uncovered. One year I actually fell for his shenanigans and roasted the turkey with ice packs on its breasts.
I can never make the fresh cranberry sauce without thinking of the family legend of my parents’ first Thanksgiving, when my dad opened the top of the blender to stick in a spoon and “stir” the berries. They were still finding dried cranberries behind the curtains when they moved, years later!

In years past, however happy our Thanksgivings have been here in our adopted homeland, I have always felt a bit melancholy, a bit homesick for the holidays of childhood when children and guests were hanging around all day, watching football and having a day off from usual activities. It seemed sad to me, the first few years we were here, to have the dinner at night just like any ordinary dinner party.

Suddenly last year, though, I looked around at my beloved guests – old friends and new – and realized that this is the new normal. I dote on the moment when Avery and her friends beat a tattoo on the front door, rushing in with cold cheeks, demanding snacks, then settling down to homework before dinner. I really love seeing my guests come in from the windy darkness, bearing pies and flowers and wine, everyone excited to have “a real American Thanksgiving.”

The girls at the far end of the table – the teenage end – read aloud a blessing I had concocted from reading various friends’ lovely messages about their holidays:

We welcome you here to our American holiday.  We are thankful for Thanksgiving — a time to pause and reflect on the joys and sorrows that a full life contains, to appreciate the gifts of love and life, to cherish the memory of those who are not present, to recognize our absolute gratitude to friends and family who ARE present. Today we think of the love we feel for those closest to us, and we hold dear all our hopes for the future and for reconciliations to come. Thank you, Thanksgiving.

I now feel that the sense of English wonder, of appreciation for our American traditions, the grateful consumption of my lovingly prepared dishes, is the best Thanksgiving we could ask for. It has a different quality from the familiar childhood holidays full of family faces we saw every year on that day. Every year here, in what have become our real lives, there is a feeling of newness to the splendor of the occasion.

Photo Credit: Kristen Frederickson