Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving - Does Anyone Else Get it?

This week Mike and Toni discuss what Thanksgiving means when you're a foreigner in the US and when you're a yank away from home.


It’s Thanksgiving Day as I write this, and I am away from home. Not simply away from my homeland, but away from my adopted home in Sussex. We’re on holiday this week in a small town in Scotland. But at least I have Thanksgiving Day off.

Even though we are in a very rural area—the landlord told us it is like stepping back into the 1950’s, and he was not far wrong—we managed to cobble together a respectable Thanksgiving dinner. I have a turkey breast, stuffing, roast potatoes, cranberry sauce, several types of veggies and Bisto gravy. All in all a good effort for very little work.

I mention this because it is significant that having a Thanksgiving dinner over here is not as disappointing as it used to be. Back in Sussex, I could have had creamed corn, yams with marshmallows, rolls, French-cut green beans with almond slivers, corn bread, pumpkin pie and even hot chocolate with a dollop of Marshmallow Fluff in it. (The only thing I still cannot find is that really cheap cranberry sauce in a can that tastes like the inside of a drainpipe—somehow, the posh and very tasty cranberries in port sauce we picked up in Marks and Spencer’s just doesn’t say, “Happy Thanksgiving” like a slab of tin-infused purple jelly.)

Years ago, when I tried to pull together a Thanksgiving dinner, I always ended up with a hybrid meal containing dubious substitutions that tasted of disappointment, whereas now it’s fairly easy to create a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all (well, most) of the trimmings.

But all that gets you is a Sunday dinner in the middle of the week. And even if you manage to convince a group of family and friends to come share the day, you’ll merely find yourself sitting around a table, having a Sunday dinner in the middle of the week with a bunch of people who just don’t get it.

Thanksgiving is about food, yes, but it is so much deeper than that, and without having grown up with it, a person cannot grasp the tradition, the meaning, the true spirit of Thanksgiving. So T-Day—along with the 4th of July—remains one of the few times during the year when being an expat really hits home.


There have been numerous posts in the expat blogosphere about Thanksgiving, many of them from bemused Brits fairly new to the US. You see, this holiday is huge and Americans take it very seriously.

Given that we have a tiny family in the States and all live over 1,000 miles away, we had planned to sit down to an intimate family dinner. This apparently causes apoplexy in friendly neighbours and we were swept up into their family gathering. So it was that we became part of a Thanksgiving meal for 20! Yes, 20!

As you'd expect, with so many people gathering, it was a Pot Luck affair with various guests taking responsibility for various dishes. The Ball & Chain (who seems to have been replaced by a crazed chef at the moment) brined and cooked the turkeys, while I and the Little Guy successfully attempted pumpkin cheesecake (delicious, despite the fact that I misread the instructions and put a quarter of the required cream cheese in.)
Other dishes included turkey gravy, which over here is a thick, white affair, corn souffle, and of course, the inevitable Green Bean Casserole. I won't linger too long on this lest I start up another World War, as happened on this blog last year. Jeez. 81 comments.

Kat, (Three Bedroom Bungalow), an American in England, thoughtfully tweeted me a photo and the recipe for her green bean casserole, which I promised to share here.

2 cans green beans
1 can cream of mushroom soup
black pepper to taste
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup cheddar cheese
handful of slivered almonds
1 3/4 French's French Fried Onions divided

Mix all ingredients and half of onions in bowl, put in 9X9 baking dish cover with remaining onions. Bake at 350 degrees F or 180 degrees C for 20 min or until bubbling.

I'm sorry Kat, (and other devotees) but I'm still not convinced. Mind you, the same raging debate will happen in about a month when I suggest to my American friends and family members that we purchase a Christmas cake!
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  1. I've been in the US for many years now and am quite acclimatized to the odd collection of casseroles and dishes that appear on a typical US Thanksgiving Day lunch table. But the first few years were quite a shock: OMG, Jello salad? You put green a casserole? Why does my gravy look like wallpaper paste? Don't ask me about the turkey dressing, I didn't know they came clothed. And what the hell is a yam, anyway?

  2. LOL. Here we go again! I will never like that green stuff no matter who makes it including the lovely Kat.

    Mike, you might be sad at how Thanksgiving is changing here, now stores are opening Thanksgiving night. The day is no longer sacred. Yes, K-mart was always open but that's K-mart, and that was ALL that was ever open (at least in my neck of the woods.)
    Thanksgiving is now blurring into Christmas.

    In a few year's time I predict, more of us will be expected to work thanks to the retail industry. Here was my day: Arrived at mom's at 1:30, ate dinner at 2, an unusually late hour for us but my sister had to work a double shift the night before and didn't get home until 8am. (She's a 911 operator - makes you feel secure, doesn't it?) By the time we finished dinner, had dessert and cleared the table, it was time for my sister to leave because she had a shift starting at 8pm. We left immediately after because Ian had to be at work at 3 a.m., yes 3 a.m., so he needed to go home and get some sleep. Mom seemed startled and upset. I can't blamer her. All that work and not time to visit. A lovely Thanksgiving it was.

  3. Here in NYC, I don't think I know anybody who has ever made or eaten green bean casserole in their lives, excepting one person I know who came from St. Louis originally.

    But I do know a lot and a LOT of people who make ziti and lasagna for Thanksgiving, in addition to the turkey and cranberry sauce and all. Yes, that's ziti AND lasagna, which seems superfluous to me, but then, I'm not Italian.

  4. It's official - I'm moving to NYC!!!

  5. It's really interesting to read how things can be so different just three hours from me.

  6. Nick - (welcome to the madhouse) - when I first moved here, to Dallas, every salad I had featured a frothy, fruity, jelly thing in it. My tastebuds were going wild for a while!
    And yes, the turkey gravy looks like wallpaper paste - but ours was tasty!

    Melissa - Embrace the GB casserole. I wouldn't mind but I like green beans - left on their own!

  7. I find Black Friday the weirdest time, because everyone else is behaving like it's an extension of the holiday, but for us it just seems like a normal day, except the boys have no school.

    On the day itself we had a traditional British Christmas dinner with a few added German specialities from our friends. It worked really well - and I still haven't tasted a green bean casserole...

  8. The American turkey "gravy" sounds absolutely VILE. And it can't be called gravy because gravy is brown!!

    Also, cheddar cheese only ever comes from Cheddar in England...anything else is just a poor imitation.

    So glad I'm eating British food!!

  9. Toni, I would rather embrace the lasagna thanks.

  10. As we don't have Thanksgiving, I can only imagine that it must feel like Christmas meal does to us. Or do you feel the same about Christmas dinner too? In which case you repeat the experience.
    The recipe looks delicious.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  11. Unless we're visiting family, I'm the one that makes the Thanksgiving meal so I just make a standard Christmas dinner but include some sweet potatoes (minus the marshmallows. Call me crazy but I want to avoid contracting type 2 diabetes before the age of 40. Not adding candy to my root vegetables is part of that strategy).

    I also make bread sauce for the meal which seems to confuse the Americans, but they do seem to like it once they give it a try.

  12. Purchase a christmas cake? Let me send you my grandma's recipe!

  13. Maggie,

    Pretty much Christmas dinner is similar to Thanksgiving dinner but in our family we only have turkey on Thanksgiving. At Christmas, we chose either a ham or a roast but sometimes we change up the sides too. Toni will love this, but my mother heard a lot of grumbling on Thursday because she didn't make a green bean casserole. I thought "Good for you!" but I have a suspicion it will now turn up on the Christmas table. People tend to be very set on what they expect at Thanksgiving and any diversion from that menu is blasphemous.

  14. Geeky - Christmas cake is about the only cake I would contemplate making but it's completely wasted on the Americans I know. They wouldn't even touch it and I certainly don't want to have to eat the entire thing!!
    Melissa - Funny thing - Xmas dinner will be exactly the same for us.

  15. To Toni and the earlier poster Nick - As as Brit in California I just want to say 'thanks' for letting me know I'm not alone :)


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