A Very British Thanksgiving

British people are slightly afraid of pumpkins.

This is the weirdest lesson I’ve learned this Thanksgiving, but there are many others.

Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday if you live far from relatives.  It’s a big day that lots of people celebrate, and the day before Thanksgiving is often known as the biggest travel day of the year.  It comes inconveniently on a Thursday and not everyone has the Friday off.  More to the point, I live across an ocean, and if I’m going to come back I feel like I should choose my week wisely.  Thanksgiving is big and small at the same time–a big feast and a short amount of time.

Although I knew I was going to spend this Thanksgiving in England, I couldn’t not celebrate it.  My family is an eating family, and every year there is a vast spread, from Italian antipasti consisting of pickled vegetables to cheeses to coldcuts, then of course the turkey dinner, to fruit and nuts and four kinds of pie for dessert–and my father always buys a ton of Lindt chocolates.  It’s insane, but I couldn’t go without doing anything, so I set about making plans to host a Thanksgiving dinner.  MR and I have bought a house, but we’re still waiting for the paperwork to process, and at the moment we only live in a tiny apartment which can in a pinch, squeeze four people.  So my mother in law volunteered her kitchen, very generously.

Then it came time to procure the ingredients.  Most of it wasn’t too hard, because the British still often do a roast dinner on Sundays, and many of the components are the same: meat, gravy, mashed potatoes, vegetables, etc.  The only thing was that I had to stand my ground regarding a turkey.  MR suggested we just get a turkey crown, which consists of the breasts only.  I was horrified–you can’t skimp on the *turkey.*  That’s the *point* of Thanksgiving!  After explaining this to him, we charged his mother with getting a turkey from the butcher in town.  As soon as she heard the mission, she asked “But wouldn’t you rather have a turkey crown?”

But that’s the thing about the British.  They don’t do excess, especially not with food, and yet Thanksgiving is all about excess.  As I described our meal, I noticed that everyone looked apprehensive at the idea of four kinds of pie and two kinds of stuffing and both mashed and sweet potatoes.  Meanwhile I was thinking that I wasn’t even cooking green bean casserole, or cornbread, because that’s just not what my family do.

This is something I’m learning about the British.  They are not a food culture.  I always kind of knew this, and of course there are tired stereotypes about British food being horrible.  When I traveled to England, before I knew any British people, I was surprised that the food was actually very good.  Not very fancy, but then my father’s family was German, and the Germans do the same kind of simple, hearty, tasty food.  Except they are much more enthusiastic about it.

In her book Watching the English, anthropologist Kate Fox devotes an entire chapter to the nation’s attitude towards food.  To sum it up, it’s basically this: if an English person cares too much about food, they are affected and snooty.  That seems to be a crime among the everyday English (which is worth a whole other post when I finally half figure out what the attitudes toward class are in this country.  It is very complex.).  So they adopt a very laissez-faire attitude towards food.  The easiest, cheapest way is the best, and anyone who goes to lengths to source ingredients or pays extra to get the nicer oils or vinegars, is regarded with a bit of suspicion.  I found this hard to believe.  I come from a rather gastronomic city, and in New York there are not only tons of world class restaurants, even the street food is quality.  People will argue for hours where to get the best bagels, and the best pizza.  When people find the ideal neighborhood place, they will travel to it for said pizzas or bagels, even if that means sitting in traffic on the BQE.   I know both an Italian and a German bakery in Queens (Joe’s Sicilian and Stork’s respecitvely) that both get lines around the block around any holiday–and deservedly so.  I will happily pay $15 for a plate of cookies from Stork’s because they are fabulous.  I have seen my father drop more than $100 in delis on a regular basis.

Which is the other thing–not only do I come from a food city, I come from a food family.  Culturally, both my ethnic backgrounds have a strong food backbone.  Italians are famous for being a food culture, and Germans have a healthy love for food themselves, especially when it comes to pastry.  And meat.  At least the Germans I’ve met, anyway.  My mother trained me to bake and cook from when I was small, and bake and cook in volume.  My father is actually obsessed with food, and spends hours driving to farm stands on the end of Long Island, or German butchers half an hour away just to get the meat he wants.  He spends an ungodly amount on food–in a week, he’ll easily spend what my husband and I have budgeted for food for a month.  Nevertheless, some of this has seeped into me.  I know that butcher meat is better than supermarket meat.  I know good food is sometimes worth the trouble and expense.  My friends get really excited about food even if they can’t cook.  When one of my friends was first starting out in her early twenties, she called me one night to ask how she should cook a can of corn (though to her credit, she has figured out how to cook in the intervening years).  But this same friend would talk enthusiastically about pizza, or remind me of pancakes my father made when she slept over in high school.  Another friend, a Texas transplant, will eat a bowl of microwaved vegetables for dinner when her husband is out of town, but ask her about getting Tex-Mex food in New York City, and she will report to you on the sad state of that cuisine in the northeast.  She will, however, tell you that it is possible to get real barbecue at Hill Country Barbecue, although she herself makes a mean brisket.  But she doesn’t like to cook.

That to me was being laissez fair about food–enjoying it still, but not being bothered for its preparation.  However, if good stuff was available, everyone I knew thought it worth the money.

Not so with the English. The first time MR and I had a real disagreement, it was over wedding cake.  I had thought my sister might make the wedding cake, being a baker, but she was also maid of honor and, more importantly, had no access to any of the tools she would need.  So I was telling this to him, and he turned very stubborn and vociferous.  “We are not spending hundreds of pounds on a wedding cake.  It’s a waste of money.  Nobody even eats it.”

“They will eat it, if it’s good.  I want people to remember our wedding cake as being delicious.”

“There’s no point!  We could just get a wedding cake from Marks & Spencer.”

A supermarket wedding cake?!  I was aghast.  Thus we started debating, and the debate was only solved by my mother stepping in and declaring “You have to have a real wedding cake.  I’ll pay for it.”

When it came to Thanksgiving and debates over turkey crowns and and suspicions about whether four kinds of pie was really necessary, I remembered the cake discussion.  I wasn’t surprised, but it was an attitude which still flummoxed me.  Why not have regular coffee instead of instant, for example?  Why be so blase about food?

The answer comes from World War II, I think.  There was rationing in the US, indeed all over, but the Brits took it to an extreme, and the rationing lasted for a long time after the war–due to post war recovery, strikes, and bad weather, rationing didn’t stop completely until 1954–nearly ten years after the end of the war.  During that time, the Brits did what they do best–make do and mend, soldier on.  Between governmental campaigns and the tenacity for survival that the British have in abundance, food stopped being a luxury and became something you ate to live.  As we’re only a handful of generations after that time, it’s not to hard to see why indulging in food is still seen as needless waste.

But I was hosting Thanksgiving, and the very definition of the holiday was about bounty, loading the table with as many goods of the harvest as are in reach.  Before the Hunger Games ironically used the cornucopia, the horn of plenty was a symbol of Thanksgiving, the idea of having an overabundance of food.  I seemed to be at a cultural impasse.

There was nothing for it but to soldier on and prepare the dinner as I would have done in the States, in the American way–be American no matter what, whether it fits in or not.  So on Thursday I sat down with my in-laws at an American Thanksgiving table, and explained about the pilgrims and Squanto, and we all dug in.  Everyone gamefully loaded their plates and stuffed themselves to the point of complaining about feeling sick afterwards.  There was a bit of family bickering and people trying to help but just getting in the way.

In short, it was a proper Thanksgiving.


2 thoughts on “A Very British Thanksgiving

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