My last post wound itself up so nicely that going into procuring Thanksgiving ingredients seemed like a bit of a tangent. But it was an adventure which I wanted to duly document, especially as this was my first Thanksgiving where I was doing all the cooking. I’ve helped before of course. I’ve been helping my mother with the pies for years, including one memorable year where I was rolling out the dough for the mince pie, which we make every year for my uncle.
“Here,” my mother said, handing me a cookie cutter, “use this to cut a hole in the top so the steam can vent.”
I looked at the cookie cutter. “Mom! This is a Star of David!” For the record, we’re not Jewish, so the existence of this cookie cutter in our house is a bit of a mystery.
My mother waved me off. “Just use it. No one will notice.”
On Thanksgiving day we put the mince pie in front of my uncle, and he took one look at it and said “Why is there a Star of David in my pie?”
In addition to making pies that welcome all faiths, I was also responsible for arranging the fruit bowls and the hors d’oevres spreads. But I was never in on the mystery of turkey and stuffing preparation. The most I did was shout my preferences from the living room. And, when my father wanted to eschew canned cranberry sauce for the homemade stuff only, raised a protest with my sister. After all, the log of cranberry sauce with the indentations of the can still in the side and the date stamped on the bottom is the very essence of Thanksgiving.
This year, though, I’m living in England, and no one here does Thanksgiving dinner. They do roasts of course, and that’s very close, but I needed it to taste the same, and be American. Thus began the odyssey of finding the exact right ingredients.
The turkey was pretty easy to come by. I wanted a butcher one, and my mother in law worried it might be hard to get if we had to order it. But lo and behold, she walked into the shop and there was 6kg of bird in all its glory. Sweet potatoes don’t come in a can, but I was doing an orange glazed sweet potatoes that could be made with canned or fresh. Alright, peeling and prepping sweet potatoes would bring me one step too close to living out Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (aka by me as Okonkwo and the Yam), a novel which I was forced to read as a student and teach, and which I have never liked. But I was willing to make some sacrifices, for Thanksgiving.
Living with an Englishman, I had fortunately perfected a roast and mashed potatoes. I think he would divorce me if I couldn’t do those things. He was insistent we roast the turkey with ‘streaky bacon’ on it, which is just regular bacon to any American. The British use back bacon, which is more meat and less fat, a difference I had learned of long ago. The secret truth is that I prefer British bacon.
I decided to make the stuffing for myself. The Brits have dried stuffing–I myself have cooked Paxo on several occasions. But the bread bits are too small…there’s not enough celery…basically it’s tasty, but it’s just not Thanksgiving stuffing.
All in all, my Thanksgiving plans were coming together with ease. The cherry pie filling my mother always uses wasn’t available, but as my husband hates cherries anyway I swapped cherry pie for raspberry pie and decided I was beginning my own tradition. But then I hit some stumbling blocks: cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
I discovered that the Brits do in fact do cranberry sauce, and it’s even Ocean Spray that you find on the shelves. But the kind that I had seen was whole berry in a tasteful little jar, and that just wouldn’t do. I needed the jellied, smooth kind, in the can. Amazon was selling it, but it wouldn’t arrive in time. So two days before Thanksgiving I wandered the aisles of my local mega-Tesco, trying to hunt down the can. In the end, I found the smooth stuff, but it was in a jar. I would miss the round slices of cranberry sauce, but I chalked it up to cultural differences. At least it was Ocean Spray, and at least it would taste the same.
The hardest thing by far was pumpkin for pumpkin pie. I had ordered some off Amazon, but they sent me an email saying it wouldn’t arrive until Monday, which left me in a desperate situation. I had to have pumpkin pie. It’s that thing only a few people like, but you have to make it anyway because it *is* Thanksgiving. I went up and down every aisle at Tesco. Perhaps it would be with the squash in the vegetable aisle. No. Perhaps then with canned fruit or veg? No. Baking ingredients? No… I finally resorted to International foods, and there I found canned breadfruit and lychees, and a selection of Polish baby food, but no pumpkin.
As my husband helped me hunt, he pointed out “Even if you had gotten a pumpkin in October, it wouldn’t have been grown for taste.” Halloween is sort of kind of making a start over here. “We don’t really eat pumpkin.”
In that moment, I felt like I was really someone from the New World. Of *course* you eat pumpkin. It doesn’t just go into pie, but bread, and soup, and muffins, and even ravioli.
In the end, I prayed that the pumpkin my father-in-law had grown at his allotment was still good, and by a Thanksgiving miracle, it was. So I made a pumpkin pie from absolute scratch, something I had never done before. On the internet there was a helpful woman who, despite her use of comic sans, had many useful recommendations for cooking pumpkin pie abroad and had all her measurements in metric. I was a real pioneer girl, making the food of my homeland in a foreign country. Thanksgiving in reverse.
I still can’t get over the suspicion of pumpkins, which are so ubiquitous and innocuous to me. But my sister-in-law, while heartily praising many of the dishes I made, marveling at how the cranberry sauce I cooked (I couldn’t resist trying it, and it’s crazy-easy) went from a mess to cranberry sauce, and praising both stuffings. But she squinted at the pumpkin pie and said “That wasn’t what I was expecting.” She thought it would be a two crust pie. How could someone not know what pumpkin pie looks like?
When I related my epic orange odyssey to my best friend, also British, she said “I’m a bit wary of pumpkin. It’s just that goop you get out of it when you make lanterns…I can’t imagine how that makes pie that tastes nice.” That’s not even the bit you use!
Most of the time, living in England is not too terribly different from living in America. A lot of the time when it comes to food, I can get the exact same brands as i do in America, and if not that, the general type of food is very similar. There’s no language barrier. But something as simple as the attitude toward pumpkin makes me realize this is a different country entirely. One which is suspicious of squash.
On Thanksgiving a couple of family members dared to try the pumpkin pie. The raspberry was gone within minutes, as were most of the mini mince pies I made. But I took three quarters of the pumpkin back with me. I have to say it was a good one though–creamy and rich and nice and spicy. I’d make it again, but I can’t get any pumpkin.