Celebrating Thanksgiving

“I think we Brits are a bit short on things to celebrate at this time of year,” DoneDreaming wrote when I asked what people might like to read about. “With Thanksgiving coming up I wondered if you could give us the lowdown on how we could join in. Do we Brits have what it takes to re-instate Thanksgiving over this side of the pond?”

Well, as every card-carrying American knows, the most important element in a Thanksgiving dinner is canned pumpkin, and—shock, horror, and I hope I don’t create in international incident here—it’s not sold in British supermarkets.

Okay, all you Americans who buy a prefab pie, settle down out there. I’m not bad-mouthing you or your pies or your dinners. My mother did the same and she was a wondrous and wise human being. Not a great cook, but if I had to choose between the two qualities. I’d go for the wonderful person.

Sill, those of us who pride ourselves on doing things from scratch load up on canned pumpkin and bake our pies with it. And somehow or other it never crossed my fuzzy little mind that dumping something out of a can kind of undermines the idea of from scratch until I moved to the U.K. and discovered that no one here had ever heard of canned pumpkin.

It took me several years (during which I begged our friend A. to make the pies) to work up the courage to kill, gut, and skin an actual pumpkin myself. I’m a vegetarian. My sensibilities are delicate. But the job needed to be done—I couldn’t impose on A. forever—and I not only learned to do it, I learned to take our Halloween pumpkin and cut it up and bake it the next day, turning it into pumpkin slurp. One vegetable, two holidays. Vegetarians of the world, all ye who proclaim that you don’t eat anything with a face, I tell you, this takes courage, because that jack o’lantern has a face, and it looks at you reprovingly from the cookie sheet as you shove it in the oven.

But let’s cut to the chase here: You bake a pumpkin, you scrape the slurp out, and you freeze it. Then a day or so before you make your pie you unfreeze it, by which time the water will have separated from the pulp and you can drain it off. Then you use either a food processor or one of those whizzy little blender sticks that are a whole shitload cheaper and you turn it to moosh—exactly the kind of thing you’d find in a can if only you could find a can.

And there you have it: canned pumpkin from scratch.

Wild Thing swears the pies taste better made from true scratch and she may be right. I can’t remember. But they work. That’s the main thing. Because you can’t have Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. And no, I’m not going to offer a recipe. They’re all over the internet. Take your choice. But do serve it with whipped cream—a dollop on each slice.

The next thing you have to have on Thanksgiving is turkey (or for a small gathering, a chicken pretending to be a turkey). In the U.S. this is a cheap meat. In the U.K., for some reason, it’s crazy expensive, but since we only buy it once a year we just close our eyes and hand over the cash.

But I’m a vegetarian, you say. Yes indeed. But the rest of the world hasn’t come around to my way of thinking and for no good reason I draw the line at eating meat, not at cooking it. Purer vegetarians serve things like tofurky, which is tofu dressed up as turkey. Don’t ask because I’ve never tasted it. In fact, I’ve never actually seen it, just read about it. But its existence is a monument to how central the turkey is.

Back in the old days, you had to get up at 4 a.m. to put the turkey in the oven, because you had to keep opening the oven and basting the bird, which cooled the oven, which slowed everything down. Nowadays I use a magic non-melting plastic bag that keeps all the juices in so it doesn’t need basting and we sleep till a decent hour and feel like we’re getting away with something. The bags are probably ever so slightly toxic—who knows? I have a suspicious mind—but what the hell, we don’t use them often.

Thanksgiving’s a very patterned meal. You have to have cranberry sauce, although you don’t have to eat it. You have to have gravy, and ditto. You have to have potatoes—white, sweet, or both. You have to have a vegetable or salad, and you have to have something breadish, preferably rolls. We have baking powder biscuits—a nod to Wild Thing’s southern origins.

But more to the point, you can’t serve foods that aren’t part of the pattern, although we’ve thrown tradition to the winds for so many years now that it’s in tatters. Our tradition (and it’s not a traditional tradition, just something we’ve always done) is that guests bring a dish to add to the feast, and since we moved to Britain—well, the traditional meal has gone all pear shaped, to use a British phrase that makes no sense but that I love. People bring quiche and cauliflower and cheese and roast vegetables and chocolate cake and things that would have the Pilgrims—who American mythology holds started the tradition—accusing us all of heresy and witchcraft.

But, y;know, the Thanksgiving quiche? Why not?

The most important ingredient, however, is people—the more the better, in my opinion. Our party, sadly, is limited by the size of our house, so we try to keep a lid on it but each year we sneak in an extra person or two and it hasn’t exploded yet. More traditionally, people celebrate with the extended family, but we’ve never lived near our families and Wild Thing was estranged from hers for years, so we gathered up all the friends and acquaintances who were either far or estranged from their families and we made family out of that. It’s been wonderful.

Some families will stop and talk seriously about what they’re thankful for. Most will just eat. Many will watch the football game.

If you’re living outside the U.S., though, Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday so you’ll want to hold your party on a weekend, when people are off work. (Traditionally it’s on a Thursday, and no one who has to work the next day gets much done.) So you pick a random weekend late in November, because what the hell, it’s not the real date.

And then, if you follow the example I’m setting this year, you get the flu and have to postpone the party. In the U.S. if this happened you’d either go ahead, asking someone else to cook the turkey while you hide behind a closed door so you won’t infect your friends, or you’d move it to someone else’s house. Because Thanksgiving has to be held on Thanksgiving or it’s not Thanksgiving.

Outside the U.S., though? What the hell, it wasn’t on the real date anyway.

[Sorry, no irrelevant photo today because I really do have the flu and am putting this together on my toy typewriter, which doesn’t have any photos. Enjoy the holiday, whether you celebrate it or not.]

Domestic Wildlife

Monday: We have a mouse problem. At least we think we do. The four-legged residents are paying a lot of attention to one corner of the spare room.

Let me be clear about this. We have two cats. Two of them. Enough, you might think, to vanquish even the wiliest of mice, but no, it’s the dog who usually gets rid of them. The dog who looks like a wind-up toy dreamt up by a particularly extravagant little girl. And not some tough, tree-climbing little girl, but the over-the-top stereotype of a little girl in the pink princess dress, complete with the wings and the wand. If she got the job of inventing a wind-up dog, Minnie to Moocher is the one she’d invent.

Never underestimate a foo-foo little dog. Or a girl in a pink princess dress. She—that’s the dog, now, not the girl—is a stone cold killer.

Minnie the Moocher, also known as Killer

Minnie the Moocher, also known as Killer

But we have to start back a way. We live in the country. The weather’s getting cold. Mice are surely looking for a nice warm place to bed down for the winter, but that’s not how the current one got in. I’m sure of that. Our younger cat, Smudge, brings them in. He wants to start a captive breeding program. We’ve discussed this with him, but have you ever tried arguing with a cat? Save your breath. They’re always right. He thinks like a feudal king: Once he stocks the forest—or the back room—with enough game, he’ll keep himself amused forever.

The little horror is one hell of a hunter. When he was younger he brought in birds, mice, voles, rats, and moles, some dead and some living. I’m not sure which were worse, the ones that were so mangled we had to kill them or the ones that were so unmangled that we ended up crawling all over the house, throwing furniture as we went, while we tried to catch them.

One of the rats was in perfect health. He’d brought it in courteously and left it to explore its new surroundings. I was nowhere around, lucky me—I think I was doing the book tour for Open Line—and it took Wild Thing a full day but she finally killed it by bashing it with the bread box. The hunt involved a lot of yelling and some interesting language, none of it on the part of the rat.

Wild Thing did not get her name by accident. And I really do call her that a good bit of the time.

When we found the second of the moles, it was trying to dig its way out through a wall. It’s almost a swimming motion, the way they dig. I got a plastic box with a lid and Wild Thing got the heaviest pair of gardening gloves she could find. She lifted it into the box, it tried to bite her, I put the lid on, and we drove it to a nearby field. The whole time it was in the box, it kept making those swimming motions, digging its way to freedom. When I let it go, it hit the earth still digging.

I’m a city girl so I don’t really know, but I hope the farmer didn’t mind an extra mole in the field.

When we have to catch living creatures, I’m no worse than Wild Thing. Okay, I’m not much worse. She’s bolder about it, but at least I’m useful. I am squeamish, though, about the wounded and the dead, and for the most part I leave those to her. It’s almost fair. She’s squeamish about cleaning the litter box or dealing with cat vomit. But when she had ankle surgery (which has happened three times now, and she only has two ankles) I’ve had to get over it. The first time, post-surgery, that I looked at a mangled but still living bird, I asked myself, Could you kill it if you were being chased by a bear?

I admit, the question makes no sense. If I were being chased by a bear, killing a wounded bird wouldn’t be at the top of my to-do list. I mean, how would that help? But it did focus my mind. I pulled myself together, took the poor thing outside, and bashed its little head in. It was quick and it was the best I could do for the poor beast.

I dealt with the dead and the mangled for many long weeks. Then Wild Thing started moving around without crutches and I got squeamish again. Funny how that works.

These days, Smudge doesn’t bring his prey home as often, and what he does bring is more likely to be fully dead, and if I find the corpse first I can make myself throw it away without waiting for Wild Thing to play undertaker. I use a broom and dust pan, then wash my hands as thoroughly if I’d just juggled a dozen dead rats and then gutted them, but still, I do get rid of it.

Wild Thing picks ‘em up by one foot or the tail.

Tuesday: We haven’t caught the mouse. For the past week, Wild Thing has had some kind of bug that involves waking up at 3 a.m., turning on the light, and coughing for half an hour, so she’s been sleeping in the spare room—the mouse room. Unless (we haven’t seen it yet) it’s a rat. Last night, when she went to bed, she heard some rustling in the corner.

You have to understand something about our spare room. It’s not large, but it does contain a single bed, a bedside table, a tall, narrow chest of drawers, a computer and computer chair, roughly 150 copies of the village calendar plus a box of envelopes for them, 196 plastic sleeves to protect exactly 4 posters for the village calendar, the prototype of the Soyuz space capsule, manuals for every piece of computer equipment that ever passed through our lives, most of which we no longer own, and a cement mixer. Plus a full-size Cornish gig, with all six oars.

I may be exaggerating, but I flinched away from taking a true and unflinching inventory. There’s a bunch of stuff in there, okay? And a mouse. Or quite possibly a rat.

Wild Thing, as I think I’ve already established, is not faint of heart. Her mother once faced down a pawing, snorting bull armed with nothing better than a broom, and won. Wild Thing is worthy of her heritage. But, c’mon, she was going to be asleep. And a rat—well, we both New Yorkers enough to know that rats are capable of crawling up to a sleeping person and taking a bite if their lips have a trace of food, and she’s been living on cough drops. When I say her lips are sweet, I’m not talking being romantic.

When she heard the rustling, she called out to tell me about it, at which point Smudge the mighty hunter went out the window.

I will say in his defense that he’s as sleek and beautiful as any cat, and as self-involved.

Wild Thing went into the living room, where Minnie and our older cat were still sprawled in front of the wood stove. She picked up the Minnie (who’s not allowed in bed), and took her to bed.

There were no rats in the bed that night. By the time Smudge joined them later in the night, there wouldn’t have been room for one.

The older cat is around 17 and never was much of a hunter. She killed a bird once, and Wild Thing took it away from her. She’s convinced Wild Thing ate it herself and she gave up hunting.

Wednesday 10 a.m.: After I wrote Tuesday’s section of this post, we set a trap, closed off the spare room, and caught nothing. As I type, Wild Thing’s tearing the room apart (I just heard a small avalanche; it sounded like paper mixed with broken crockery). Any minute now she’ll check the cement mixer and see if the mouse bedded down there. I expect it moved into the kitchen, though, or the living room, before we closed the room off. On Saturday we have a bunch of people coming over for a delayed Thanksgiving. Last year a mouse crashed the party and provided no end of entertainment. I’m hoping it doesn’t turn out to be an annual event.

Wednesday 4 p.m.: The spare room has a floor. I hadn’t known that. Everything that used to be on the floor is now piled on top of something else and looks frighteningly well organized. If you don’t look too closely. But what matters is that there were no traces of mouse or rat. What Wild Thing found was a set of wings. (Smudge is known for leaving wings, or the heart and lungs. What can I tell you. He’s a fussy eater.) I don’t want to think too hard about what Wild Thing heard and what the story of the kill was, although I’m sure Smudge would be not just happy but proud to tell the tale, in full detail and bleeding color.

We hope to get through our mis-timed Thanksgiving party without a mouse this year.

For the Americans reading this, hope you had a fine and mouseless Thanksgiving.

Planning Thanksgiving in Cornwall

We’ve started planning our Thanksgiving party. The guest list is limited by the size of our house, which is a shame because we’d love to add more people. And since there’s no competition—no one says, sorry, but I have to go to my brother’s this year—almost everyone we invite is available. And it’s an American holiday, which gives it an element of cool here.

Our tradition, both here and back in Minnesota, is that we cook the turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie (usually; back in Minnesota, as D. got older he became a very good cook and he brought the pies), and we ask everyone to bring something. Which is where it gets interesting.

Pumpkin pie--with a neater crust than I make. Photo by the Culinary Geek from Chicago, courtesy of WikiMedia

Pumpkin pie–with a neater crust than I make. Photo by the Culinary Geek from Chicago, courtesy of WikiMedia

The first time we invited we invited M. and J. to our Thanksgiving in Minnesota, was the first time I understood how rigid the traditions are. J. isn’t from the U.S. but she was the cook in the family, and as they told the tale later, M. said “No, you can’t bring that” to everything J. suggested. Macaroni and cheese? No, you can’t bring that. Chocolate cake? No, etc.

So this year, a different J.—an American—told me she’d have to explain to P. that just because root beer floats are American doesn’t mean you can have them at Thanksgiving. I looked at the list of what people were bringing: leek gratin, cauliflower cheese, quiche. Don’t bother, I said. We’ve given up the battle.

The only traditional elements of the meal are the ones we make—turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. And baking powder biscuits, which weren’t traditional in my family, but Wild Thing’s from Texas and will never say no to biscuits. The rest is all stuff that would get us all deported if we tried it in the U.S.

So we’ve evolved our own traditions, one of which is the meal isn’t traditional. A second involves me, the vegetarian, cooking a dead bird. Which hardly even strikes me as strange anymore. A third—one we’re trying to break—is that I make cranberry sauce and forget to set it out. A fourth is that we have to have at least one dessert that isn’t pumpkin pie, because although pumpkins grow here they’re considered a squash and people are, um, let’s say hesitant about eating it as a sweet. But we do have to have it. That’s tradition for you. Besides, a few of us like it.