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.]