As you probably know, the English don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. O. Henry loves to tell people – it is a “purely American” holiday. In England, 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 looked over the Atlantic Ocean from Lands End, saw Americans celebrating their own Thanksgiving and said, “It’s not fair. Why don’t the English have 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 late in 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 usually someone is there to show you how to make a corn dolly of your own. 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 items from their pantries; or they contained things like carrots, and I used to think, “I bet poor people don’t like tinned carrots any more than I do!”
At the Sunday service after the fair, churchgoers give thanks by singing, praying, and decorating their churches. There are vases with autumn leaves, berries and flowers. Special tables are set up to hold baskets of fresh fruit, crates of vegetables, food of all kinds. After the service, this food is packaged up and given to people in need.
But there’s no family, no gathering of the clans at Harvest Festival. That’s the purpose of the American Thanksgiving. Christmas Day is the English gathering of the clans. That’s when we have turkey, sage-and-onion stuffing, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, Brussels sprouts, garden peas, Christmas pudding, brandy butter, mince pies and way, way, way too much sherry.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first connection with Thanksgiving was in 1990, when I was enjoying life as an expatriate in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, back when it was a true paradise of sun, sea and sand, before it became the Manhattan of the Middle East. I was working as assistant to the CEO of an American irrigation company, partnered with an English landscaping company in offices with (understandably) the most glorious and well-tended front gardens. Many people who lived in Dubai in its glory years (what we old-timers tend to call “the good old days”) will know the companies in question. They worked in tandem, and found fame when they helped to build the fabulous Emirates Golf Club, which was, if I recall correctly, the first all-grass golf course in the middle of a desert.
As we approached the third week of November that year, the American employees began to grumble. They were seriously disgruntled because all other US expatriates in Dubai were being given a particular Thursday off work. Apparently, it was even more important than usual because Persian Gulf was in the middle of the first Gulf War, otherwise known as “Desert Storm” or “Desert Shield” (depending on who you ask), and emotions were running high. The “Powers That Be” in our two companies agreed it wasn’t fair for the American folks to get a day off and not the English folks so the answer was “no”. I’m rather ashamed to tell you that the English expats were secretly quite pleased about this. I think you might call it “Thanksgiving Envy”.
The following year, the same thing happened. . . except that this year, those vile and disloyal “Powers That Be” decided 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.
Thanksgiving was now recognized by all Americans in Dubai, with petulant Brits holding down the fort in their absence. “Thanksgiving Envy. . .”
In 1992, I left Dubai shortly before Thanksgiving and found myself in Austin, the state capital of Texas. I was visiting a friend on my way to Los Angeles to become the next great English movie actress. I met up with a nice group of people, one of whom—let’s call her Karen—invited me to her family home for the Thanksgiving holiday. AT LAST, it was going to happen! I was to celebrate Thanksgiving, and see for myself what it was all about! I knew it was an honor and I treated it as such. I dressed up in all my finery and put on my best English manners. Karen’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. I shouldn’t have worried about “dressing for dinner” as everyone else was in jeans. They had the biggest telly I’d ever seen, like a movie screen. Everyone has one now, but in 1992, Karen’s family must’ve been among the first. The huge leather sofa and all the comfy chairs were lined up to face it and all the men were seated really close to the screen watching what looked like a kind of rugby match.
That was the moment I learned the real meaning of Thanksgiving. Football! It’s unlikely Squanto and the pilgrims had a big screen TV when they gathered together all those years ago, but no doubt someone threw an oval-shaped squash that someone else caught, and they looked at each other, nodded earnestly, and said, “This is how we should give thanks, and we shall call it football!”
Everyone in the family had brought something to the table, potluck style. After greetings and hugs, we gathered around to fill our plates. 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: steak and kidney pie, blood pudding, jellied eels, Scotch eggs, mushy peas, boiled cabbage, spotted dick—I know, I know. But I have to say, I wasn’t sure what to make of everything I saw on the table that day. I recognized the turkey, of course. This had been smoked, I believe, which was new to me, but I recognized the shape. I recognized the mashed potatoes. At that point, however, 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 stretch 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.
I tried not to make the “ohs” sound like “ews”.
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 itty-bitty spoons full of each vegetable. It was certainly the most colorful celebration meal I’d ever eaten. To be fair, I found out afterwards that the children had helped with the preparation, and they wanted to use the pink marshmallows and didn’t want to destroy the cylinder-shaped cranberry jelly. Nonetheless, I was in culture shock!
Then came the pie. Oh, the pie! To quote Homer Simpson, “Mmmm, pie!” I should really say, “pies” because I’ve never seen so many pies: pumpkin, pecan, coconut cream, chocolate, key lime, apple, blueberry, peach. In fact, if I remember correctly, there were enough pies for everyone at the party to have a pie of his or her very own.
Following the food, especially the pies, I lay slumped on a La-Z-Boy prepared to vegetate in front of the monster TV as folks always do on Holidays. Then I learned to my horror I was being taken to the UT/Aggie game at the Texas Memorial Stadium. Now, I have to tell you that I didn’t know what a UT was. I didn’t know what an Aggie was. And I thought football was soccer. . . but we won’t go into that. After many years in Austin, I now know the significance of the Thanksgiving football game between the University of Texas and Texas A&M. I can also appreciate 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. Then it was changed back. Now it doesn’t happen at all because of some conference or other. Anyway, that November day in 1992, 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 we could wave at people in passing planes. This was the point at which I discovered 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 all her guests with flasks filled with the tipple of their choice (mine was gin and tonic), 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 I was supposed to be supporting. Karen 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 believe 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 poor man’s Wonder Woman.
I cowered against the wall, a lost puppy waiting to be claimed. I didn’t know what else to do. Cell-phones weren’t common then—I certainly didn’t have one—and I couldn’t find anyone to ask. Eventually, as the crowds thinned, I heard a distant voice calling “Bernadette, Bernadette!” in a broad Texan accent. “Over here,” I whimpered, “over here.” Eventually a tall, shadowy figure with a cowboy hat emerged from the tunnel ahead of me, like John Wayne: “Come on, little lady.” I nearly sobbed; only my stiff upper lip prevented me from running into the arms of this complete stranger. However, if it hadn’t been for that extremely loud-voiced Texan, I’d probably still be there now.
I’ve never been to another live football game though my American partner is an avid supporter, and he’s made me to sit through hundreds on TV. However, I have cooked a few Thanksgiving dinners of my own. I’ve also cooked English-style turkey dinners. My late mother-in-law wouldn’t even try my roast potatoes. Mind you, she was from Louisiana and complained every time she was served potatoes in any shape or form since she believed the only real carbohydrate was 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 gave my Brussels sprouts a try and once or twice actually swallowed a couple by accident, and since I learned how to roast them too, there’s been no turning back. 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 marshmallows in cooking. And I’m sure that Squanto would agree.