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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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brits are Healthier but Americans live longer. Go figure!

A report in the scientific Demography Journal finds that older Brits are healthier than older Americans, yet Americans live longer. This week Toni invites fellow bloggers Melissa (Smitten by Britain) and Michelle (The American Resident) to discuss the issue with her.

No surprises really. Americans in general, aren't a healthy bunch and are always seeing their doctors (when they can afford it). Although obesity is rising in the UK, it hasn't reached the levels of the US, therefore related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and heart disease are correspondingly less frequent in the UK. That American doctors run far more tests on their patients and refer to specialists more frequently, also means that illnesses and diseases are reported more often.

So how come these unhealthy Americans still end up living longer than their British counterparts?

Not to be unkind, but Americans seem to go on treating their elderly when the poor sods are well past their sell-by date and are probably quite ready to "go". It's not uncommon to hear of families of really old patients insisting on "life-saving" surgery to extend his or her life by another three months. Unlike the UK, where hospital doctors rule with an iron rod, Americans can and do insist on treatments and surgeries since it's they or their insurance that's paying.

Apparently because people in many countries are now living longer, 80 is the new 50 and more and more geriatricians (that's a real term BTW) are performing successful surgeries on patients in their 80's and older.

Since Britain's NHS funds are limited, unlike the seemingly bottomless coffers in the US, it isn't surprising that treatment options for the elderly are sometimes dictated by cost. British studies have shown that older breast cancer patients have typically been given less effective treatment than younger patients, although this trend is changing. Because of this and other health trends however, I wouldn't be surprised if health and mortality rates in both countries are the same in a few decades.


I view this study from a slightly different perspective than Toni. Americans spend a lot of money on health care yet our life expectancy is only five months longer than a country that spends half the money yet provides health coverage to all of its citizens. As an American, you have to ask yourself, “Are we getting our money’s worth?”  Sure, we could pat ourselves on the back for coming out ahead despite having lousy health but I don't think that's anything to boast about. We spend billions of dollars and go through years of preventative testing for diseases like cancer and heart disease, only to live five months longer than the British.

I think Toni has put her finger on something here. Despite our poor health, maybe we live longer than the British because we move heaven and earth to make sure we do. Indeed many Americans seem to believe they have the right to live as long as medicine will allow, even if it comes at great expense, not just to their our bank balances but to their loved ones who care for them until the end. Then there are those who will spend copious amounts of money to look as though they have drunk from the fountain of youth, as if this too will help delay the inevitable. It’s this lack of acceptance and end of life issues that helped de-rail universal health care in 2009. (Remember death panels?)

And that leads me to what I think is the most important reason we don’t get the biggest bang for our buck in life expectancy - lack of universal health care. When an individual doesn’t have health care insurance he is less likely to go for preventative care, and less likely to visit a doctor with symptoms, meaning serious illnesses are caught later, when they are more difficult and expensive to treat, and the prognosis may be poorer. It’s these preventable deaths that help drive down U.S. life expectancy numbers.

But Britons shouldn't take heart in this study either; yes, as a population Americans are unhealthier than Brits, but as Toni mentioned, the British are coming, and quite quickly as well. Once illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer begin to reach U.S. levels, life expectancy will drop and the gap between the U.S. and the U.K. may widen. To keep this from happening, the NHS will need to take a cue from the U.S. and improve on preventative testing –testing younger and more often.


I would love to glow with pride over the amazingness of my home country's health system.


This research gives me nothing to glow about, as the inaccuracies of the interpretation and irresponsible reporting of data are frustrating.

The researchers conclude “It appears that at least in terms of survival at older ages [of people] with chronic disease, the medical system in the United States may be better than the system in England." I am incredulous that a person reporting on scientific studies would leap to this conclusion from such thin data. Their statement is irresponsible and potentially damaging. But in this climate of mistrust of Obama’s healthcare reform, perhaps it was intended to be.

I decided to Google more data for my own information. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the overall life expectancy in the United States is 75.7 years for men and 80.8 years for women as of 2010. In Great Britain, life expectancy for those born between 2007 and 2009 is 77.7 years for men and 81.9 years for women, according to the U.K. Office for National Statistics.

Statistics can be found to support either side of most arguments.

The authors of this recent report also state that death rates among Americans were about the same as the English in younger age groups. This tells me that healthcare is not better or worse in America (or an effect would be seen in all ages), but that end of life attitudes are different. Toni also identifies this difference in end of life attitudes and comments that UK doctors 'rule with an iron rod' (with regard to end of life care). I would suggest that it is more of an 'ethical iron rod'. All end of life decision-making in the NHS is based on a framework, which is not about funds but about quality of life. If Americans are living longer but living those months or years on ventilators, possibly conscious but most likely not, then what's the point?

(Although the full report isn't available online, these articles give more detail about the results):

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Flavor of The Nation

This week: is the US a one-flavor nation?


So there I was indulging myself with some hard candy/sweets stolen from the Little Guy’s Halloween stash. Unbelievably, the first three I put in my mouth were so revolting I had to spit them out. Cinnamon, effing hot cinnamon and weird, spicy cinnamon! What is it with Americans and their penchant for cinnamon? Everything here is cinnamon flavored.

Seven out of ten boxes of cereal in a supermarket will be cinnamon flavored, as are many pastries. What I’ve never understood however, is cinnamon chewing gum. It’s supposed to freshen your breath not make you smell like a halitosis-suffering dragon! And cinnamon flavored breath mints – isn’t that an oxymoron?

My fave cinnamon item however, has to be the tooth pick. I mean why go a second without the delightful taste of cinnamon in your mouth?

Americans have a huge sweet tooth in general and I have to be very careful when buying baked beans. Most cans of beans have a very sugary taste, even when they’re not too high in sugar content. (Tip- for more savory beans in the US, buy the cans labeled vegetarian.)

What, to my mind, should be a savory meal, is often laced with spices, and god knows what. Last Thanksgiving, I made a sweet potato casserole from a Williams-Sonoma (very posh) recipe that was so sweet I had to start again with half the recommended sugar and maple syrup. Half way through the first attempt I seriously thought I was making the pudding/dessert!

Oh how I miss sensible sweets like Parma Violets, even though they tasted like my grandmother’s pocket handkerchiefs.!


If we’re entering a debate on who has the more discriminating palate—Americans or Europeans—we can end it now. I know as well as anyone that Americans have four major food groups—salt, sugar, fat and pizza. And, as Toni points out, they tend to flavor everything they possibly can with cinnamon.

Back in the States, I put cinnamon on my toast, on apples, on pastries, in cider and any number of other food items. The only reason Americans no longer need to sprinkle cinnamon on everything is that everything now comes with cinnamon in it. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with it; having been weaned on cinnamon, I rather enjoy it. In fact, I think I’ll go see if we have any in the spice rack. Coincidentally, we’re having pizza for dinner tonight—a little cinnamon will surely perk things up.

But before I go on, I need to digress a bit due to a word Toni used: Savory. I rarely heard it in America outside of gravy commercial, but here, people use it all the time: “You can’t put (food item) out now, it’s a savory!” or “These dishes can’t go together, one is a savory.”

I’ve kept silent for nearly nine years, but now I have to ask: “Just what the f*%k is that supposed to mean?” Is “savory”—along with what is and what is not—taught to little British children? It must be, for they use the word with great solemnity. I might not know what it means, but I know it is taken very seriously. When someone tells me I cannot have such and such because it is not a savory, well, that is not something I am prepared to argue with.

I suppose we don’t bother with it in America because—getting back to Toni’s subject—the line between a main course and dessert is very fine indeed. As Toni discovered, they are virtually interchangeable—you just need to add a smidge more sugar—and some cinnamon—to make almost anything into a dessert.

Cinnamon Apples

I’d like to think that my taste buds have shaken off the shocking sweetness and saltiness of American food and have come to appreciate the more subtle flavors of Continental cuisine. I have, after all, grown fond of haggis, fish-and-chips and the other major UK food group: curry. But when it comes to candy, I am afraid I find the local offerings a bit tame. The sweet tarts aren’t as sweet or as tart, the sour drops aren’t as sour and there isn’t any cinnamon in anything.

And, seriously, what is up with the Parma Violets? Whose idea was it to make a candy out of a dryer sheet?

What do you think of the new-found flavors in your host country?

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Seeking Familiar Comfort

This week sees Mike feeling a little under the weather, and it’s prompted a variation on home sickness:


When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Robert Louis Stevenson - The Land of Counterpane

That has been one of my favorite poems since I was a child, especially when I was sick and in bed, as I am now. (And, no, it is not The Man Flue, I have an ear infection and a fever, thank you very much, but I’ll soldier on despite the pain.) Appropriately enough, I do have three pillows at my head, but unfortunately, my toys these days consist of a BlackBerry, a WiFi enabled laptop and a box of tissues. Useful, to be sure, but not as much fun as leaden soldiers.

As a rule, I attempt to avoid illness, especially now when I know that, in my misery, I will not be able to surround myself with the familiar comforts of home.

As a sick-bed must-have, Campbell’s Chicken Rice Soup is number one with a bullet. Dress it up with extra rice, some garlic salt and there is no better cure-all this side of a Jewish Grandmother’s kitchen. Tragically, it is unavailable here. I look for it all the time (always nice to have a few cans in the larder, just in case) but have never found it. This, naturally, has led to some experimentation with native ingredients. Bad idea.

Nyquil is also among the missing. As is a qualified pain reliever. British aspirin, in addition to being doled out in packets of sixteen tablets, has the curative properties of tap water, and the various aspirin substitutes are not far behind. I think it must have something to do with what we are brought up with—the drugs we take as children must get into our chemical structure, making us immune to foreign drugs. This is why I always have a large bottle of Aleve on hand—it is the only drug that seems to work for me, and I have to have it shipped in from the States.

To be fair, there are a few indigenous comforts I am learning to adopt to ease my convalescence along. The main one is tea, simply because they have better tea over here and there is nothing like a nice cup of tea when you are feeling poorly. Add to that a steaming cup of Lemsip at bedtime and you can forget about American drugs. For four hours, at least.

But I know I’d be up and around by now if I just had a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Rice Soup.


If you look in my medicine cabinet you’ll find Dioralyte, the kids’ diarrhoea-stopper and general miracle powder, Tyrozets, the throat number and general miracle lozenge, and Feminax, the answer to any cramping woman’s prayers. I can’t find anything close in the US so every British guest is asked to bring at least one of each in lieu of the usual Cadbury’s chocolate, Branston pickle or Marmite. (Yes, I sacrifice all of those for decent British drugs.)

I can’t say I agree with Mike’s assertion that American drugs are better/stronger than their British counterparts. When I showed my lady doctor the list of ingredients on my Feminax packet she was aghast that the stuff (codeine) was sold over the counter and advised me to be very careful. Given that I am usually parenting at least one child, I usually take half the recommended dose of Feminax unless I really want to pretend they don’t inhabit my world. Powerful stuff.

And then there are the British foods and drinks I consider must-have’s for recovery from anything:

  • Lucozade. Vile, orange, fizzy stuff that meant (in our house) that you were really quite poorly. It served the same purpose as Gatorade, replacing the stuff you lose when you’re dehydrated and can’t eat, but (dare I say it) tasted even worse. Ah, good times. Pop over to the web site BTW, they’re giving away an I-Phone an hour.
  • Night Nurse – Actually, it’s probably exactly the same as NyQuil, but doesn’t the name just scream TLC – if you know what I mean? That reminds me of the conversation I once had with my paediatrician when one of my kids had really bad flu. I mentioned that the Night Nurse was working wonderfully, and noticed a momentary look of shock on her face. I realised that she thought I had hired a night nurse to deal with the child through the night, and immediately clarified the situation. Despite being English, I am not royalty!

Vicks Vapour Rub– spread so thickly over your chest that it makes your eyes sting and stream for hours. You can actually buy this in the US, but it doesn’t seem to be the staple that it was for me as a child and my kids won’t let me anywhere near them with the thick gooey stuff ever since I put some under my sons nose and accidentally got it on his chapped lips. He screamed so loudly I think the neighbours were a little concerned. Americans go for the gentler versions of Vicks – vaporisers, light creams and other namby-pamby treatments.

Oh and as Mike says, soup is always good. Only for me it’s Heinz Tomato Soup all the way.

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