Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

I don't know if you know this but the English don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  O. Henry loves to tell people: it is a “purely American” holiday.  In England, where I was brought up, we celebrate Harvest Festival.  Of course, we’ve given thanks for successful harvests since pagan times – the odd virgin sacrifice to the corn spirits, you know – but the tradition of Harvest Festival as it is today began in 1843 when Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church in Morwenstow in Cornwall.  I’ve always thought he probably stood on the coast at Lands End in Cornwall, (the furthest south-west you can go in England), looked over the Atlantic Ocean where he saw Americans celebrating their own Thanksgiving and said, “It’s not fair.  Why haven't the English got a similar tradition?  I shall invent one!” And he did.  England is like a spoilt child; if someone else has something, it has to have one too.  And if it can’t find one of its own, it’ll take yours!

Nowadays, on a Saturday afternoon in late September, there are Harvest Fayres held in church halls all over the country at which people sell local fruits and vegetables; home-made bread, cakes and cookies; and jams and jellies made from local fruit.  There are corn dolly displays and there's usually someone there to show you how to make one.  The kids play old-fashioned games and everyone brings tinned food to give to the poor.  I noticed when I was little that many of the tins were rusty as if folks were clearing out old cans from their pantries; or they contained things like beets, and I used to think, “I bet poor people don’t like beets any more than I do!”  I like them now but hated them then.

At the Sunday service after the fair, people decorate their churches with vases of autumn leaves, berries and flowers.  Tables are set up to hold all the donated food.  Then everyone give thanks by singing and praying.  After the service, it's all packaged up and given to local people in need. 

But there’s no family at Harvest Festival, no gathering of the clans.  That’s one of the purposes of your Thanksgiving.  Christmas Day is our gathering of the clans.  That’s when we have turkey, sage-and-onion stuffing, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, Brussels sprouts, garden peas, plum pudding, brandy butter, fruit cake, mince pies, clotted cream, and way, way, way too much sherry.

Having lived in America for 20 years, I think I now know the real purpose of Thanksgiving.  FOOTBALL!  I doubt that Squanto and the pilgrims had a big screen TV when they gathered together all those years ago, but I’m sure someone threw an oval-shaped squash that someone else caught.  I’m sure they looked at each other and said, “This is how we should give thanks.  We shall call it football!”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  My first connection with Thanksgiving was when I was living in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in 1990.  I was working for an American irrigation company which was partnered in the same building with an English landscaping company.  These companies worked together and found fame in 2 ways: (a) they built the first all-grass golf course in the middle of the desert and (b) they were accused of cheating Sheikh Mohamed, the ruler of Dubai, out of millions of dollars.  I was there for the former and had thankfully left before the latter. 

As we approached the third week of November that year, the American employees began to grumble.  They were upset because all other American expatriates in Dubai were being given a particular Thursday off work.  Apparently it was even more important than usual because we were in the middle of the first Gulf War, otherwise known as “Desert Shield,” and emotions were running high.  The “Powers That Be” in our two companies said that it wasn’t fair for the Americans to get a day off and not the English so the answer was “no”.  I'm embarrassed to say, the English folks were rather happy about this.  It could’ve been called Thanksgiving Envy.

In 1991, the same thing happened…except that this time, the “Powers That Be” decided that Thanksgiving was such a big deal for the Americans, bigger even than Christmas, they would get the day.  Well, the English were outraged.  It’s not fair they said.  What about us?  Why should they get the day off and not us?  But that’s what happened.  The English held down the fort and Thanksgiving was now recognized by all Americans in Dubai.  Thanksgiving Envy…

The following year, I left Dubai shortly before Thanksgiving and found myself in Austin, state capital of Texas.  I was visiting a friend on my way to Los Angeles to become a film actress.  I met up with a nice group of people, one of whom invited me to her family home for the Thanksgiving holiday.  AT LAST, I was going to celebrate Thanksgiving!  I knew it was an honor; I treated it as such.  I dressed up in all my finery and put on my best English manners.  My new friend's family lived in north Austin which I was assured was absolutely the best area of Austin to live; she could hardly bring herself to talk about the riff-raff that lived in south Austin.

The extended family I met that day was delightful.  They had the biggest telly I’d ever seen, like a movie screen.  Everyone seems to have one now but in 1992, this must’ve been one of the first.  All the comfy chairs were lined up to face it and all the men were seated really close to the screen watching what looked to me like a kind of rugby match.

Everyone in the family had brought something to the table, potluck style.  After lots of hugs and kisses, we gathered around to fill our plates.  Now Americans have a long tradition of mocking the English for our eating habits and every one of you seems to have a story to tell about the ghastly food you’ve been served in my country.  I know: steak and kidney pie, blood pudding, jellied eels, spotted dick.  But I have to say, I didn’t know what to make of everything I saw on the table that day.  Of course I recognized the turkey.  This had been smoked which was new to me, but I recognized the shape.  I recognized the mashed potatoes.  But there all recognition ended.

What’s that green, mushy stuff with the bits in it and the grey sauce?  Green bean casserole.  Oh.

What’s the grey sauce made of?  Mushroom soup.  Oh.

What’s the yellow, squishy stuff with orange stretchy strings on it?  Squash au gratin.  Oh.

What are the orange stretchy strings?  Pepper-jack cheese.  Oh.

What’s that orange mashed-up stuff with pink goo on it?  Candied yams.  Oh.

What’s the pink gooey stuff?  Marshmallows.  Oh.

Where are the vegetables?  Those are the vegetables.  Oh.

There was cornbread stuffing with funny lumps which turned out to be oysters.  There was cranberry sauce shaped like a can.  There was giblet gravy.  I served myself turkey and mashed potatoes with little-bitty spoons full of each vegetable.  It was certainly the most colorful celebration meal I’d ever eaten...and actually very tasty...but I was in culture shock!

Then came the pies.  Mm, pies!  I’ve never seen so many pies: pumpkin, pecan, coconut cream, chocolate, key lime, apple, blueberry, peach.  In fact, if I recall correctly, there were enough pies for everyone at the party to have a pie of his or her very own.  I had to resist the urge to start a pie-fight. 

Following the food, especially the pies, I lay slumped on an easy chair prepared to vegetate in front of the giant TV as folks always do on Holidays.  Then I learned to my horror I was being taken to the college football game at the Texas Memorial Stadium.  So I have to tell you that I didn’t know what an "UT" was; I didn’t know what an Aggie was, and I thought football was soccer…but we won’t go into that!  After 20 years in Austin, I now know the significance of the Thanksgiving football game between the University of Texas and A&M.  I also know how lucky I was to be attending the game itself when everyone else had to watch it on the big-screen TV.

Back in 1992, the big game was held on Thanksgiving Day.  For reasons unbeknownst to me, this was changed to the day after Thanksgiving.  And then it was changed back.  Now it's not going to happen at all because of some ghastly conference thingy.  Anyway, that year, I had the treat of joining a large party at the sporting event of the season.

It was particularly cold that afternoon.  A blue norther had blown through; the sky was blue, the sun shone but it didn’t get above freezing all day so we dressed very warmly.  We had nosebleed seats which means we were so high up, the people in the blimp were smiling and waving at us.  This was the point at which I found I’d forgotten my glasses.  Added to the fact that I’d had several glasses of wine at lunch, and that my buddy had provided her guests with plastic flasks filled with the liquor of their choice (mine was gin) I could barely see the football field, let alone the players.  I could just about discern the difference between the two team colors though for the life of me, I had no idea which team I was supposed to be supporting.  My friend taught me a hand signal I should use every time she elbowed me.  And every time I held up my hands with that signal, I was to shout, “Hook ‘em, Horns, Hook ‘em!”  This I did, with gusto.

I’m ashamed to say that I have no memory of the game itself, nor do I remember the score though I think UT won.  What I do remember is getting lost on the way back from the restrooms.  Let me give you some advice, if I may.  Never, ever go to the restrooms in a football stadium just before the game ends, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the stadium.  I was actually sitting on the loo when the cheering rose to that crescendo which tells you that play is over.  Texas Memorial Stadium at that time held over 75,000 people and it was full that day.  When I came out of the Ladies’, there were thousands of people swarming past like ants and of course I didn’t know where I was or where I was going.  At one point, I got swept into the current and had to spin myself out like a top.

I cowered against the wall like a lost puppy and waited.  I didn’t know what else to do.  Cell-phones weren’t common then; I certainly didn’t have one.  Eventually, as the crowds thinned, I heard a distant voice with a broad Texas accent calling, “Bernadette.”  “Help!” I shouted, “I'm over here.”  Eventually a tall, shadowy figure appeared in the tunnel ahead of me, like Red Adair, “C'mon, little lady” he said.  I nearly sobbed.  If it hadn’t been for that extremely loud-voiced cowboy, one of my new-found friends, I’d probably still be there now.

I’ve never been to another live football game though my American ex-husband is a great supporter and I’ve sat through hundreds of games of TV.  However, I have cooked several Thanksgiving dinners of my own.  I’ve also cooked English-style turkey dinners.  My ex-mother-in-law won’t eat my roast potatoes.  Mind you, she’s from Louisiana and she complains every time she’s served potatoes in any shape or form since she believes the only real carbohydrate is rice.  Vive la difference, I say, because my stepsons love my roast potatoes and they love my sage-and-onion stuffing and they love my Yorkshire pudding.  They’ve given my Brussels sprouts a try and once or twice actually swallowed a couple by accident.  I have made my own version of green bean casserole, I’ve even made squash au gratin and I’m a huge fan of pies, “Hook ‘em, pies, hook ‘em”.  But I have never made, and I have no intention of ever making, candied yams.  I believe there is something profoundly wrong with using pink marshmallows in cooking.  And I’m sure that Squanto would agree.


  1. A friend recently turned my mashed sweet potatoes into a wholly new wonder, with olive oil (to avoid her dairy allergies) and chipotle chili powder. I think there was a bit of cinnamon in there too. Very yum.

    Oh, and those pink marshmallows? Weird. They are usually toasted brown.

  2. Fabulous. Now Heinz and I miss Thanksgiving (and you) more than ever. love, Karen and Heinz

  3. She: I think their kids had put pink marshmallows on top and they'd been lightly grilled, not baked; either way, they were very pink! Also, my real surprise on that Thanksgiving 20 years ago is that the dish was sweet when I expected it to be savoury! I've come to love sweet potatoes, mashed together with real potatoes, Earth Balance (to avoid my own dairy allergies) and black pepper. Delicious! (Your friend's recipe sounds good too.)
    Karen: I miss you too! I'll raise a glass to your health and Heinz's on the day! xox