I’m sure most everyone in the United States is already getting excited about Thanksgiving. It’s not long now till the fourth Thursday in November. Growing up in Canada, I always thought that Americans had it right when it came to celebrating Thanksgiving. Although the holiday weekend was a big deal in Canada, we only got one day off school, not two. We did have big family dinners, but it seemed to me that the ones in America looked much more exciting. We had parades as well, but who could compete with the spectacular balloons of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York?
So I never felt that passionately about Canadian Thanksgiving. As the Canadian ancestors in my family tree travelled to America on the Mayflower (but later fled to Canada as United Empire Loyalists), I liked the pilgrim story. It was much more interesting than dusty old explorers Martin Frobisher and Samuel de Champlain celebrating with the Indians. This opinion made me very unpopular with patriotic teachers in primary school. I did love the family get-togethers and Thanksgiving food, and of course, I was grateful for all the blessings I had, but it wasn’t until I left Canada in 1989, that I suddenly realised how much I loved Thanksgiving.
I came to this realisation because Thanksgiving just didn’t seem to exist here in England. The first year I lived here, the second Monday in October came and went, and no mention was made of Thanksgiving. As my fiancées family had lived in the United States for several years I nurtured the faint hope that they might celebrate Thanksgiving in November, but that didn’t materialise either. I never said anything, because I was at the point in my life where I didn’t want to stand out. I was the new kid on the block – okay I was the immigrant – and hated to mention anything that made me seem any more foreign than I already felt.
But as a married woman two years later, I decided that we would celebrate Thanksgiving, and we would celebrate it the second Monday in October just as my family always had. Unfortunately I had no idea just how difficult that was going to be.
My first stop was, of course, the grocery store. Finding the usual Thanksgiving ingredients seemed like it would be fairly easy in Autumnal England. Potatoes were readily available, and vegetables of every description lined the shelves of the produce department. It was not until I got to the meat department that my problems began. I looked everywhere for a turkey but there was none to be found. I went to the butcher counter to ask the man himself. After I made my request, the butcher looked at me as though I had asked for something very exotic, like maybe ostrich or boar.
“Turkeys?” he asked.
“Yes, please, “ I replied.
“You won’t find fresh turkeys this time of year, only at Christmas. You might find a frozen one though”. He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.
Three grocery stores later and I was still in the same boat. No one had fresh turkey and the frozen ones were clearly left over from Christmas 1985 (this was 1991), totally frosted up and unappetising. There wasn’t a Butterball to be found. You should have seen the butcher’s face in the store where I asked for those! “Butter’s in the dairy section,” was only the beginning.
In the end all I had for my first Thanksgiving dinner in England was some potatoes, vegetables and some very dodgy looking packaged stuffing. Not only that, but my request for cranberry sauce had been met with utter confusion. Ocean Spray wouldn’t make it over here for several years after that.
So in the end I cooked a chicken. The stuffing tasted rather strange to me and without the cranberry sauce, well, as far as I was concerned, it could have been any old Sunday lunch. There was not even any pumpkin pie. It was very disappointing.
Over the years I coped by either arranging to be in Canada for Thanksgiving or by smuggling jars of cranberry sauce and packages of Stove Top stuffing back in my luggage after our Canadian summer vacations. But if it was Thanksgiving in England, it was always chicken.
The past five or six years have been so chaotic for us I hardly even thought about making Thanksgiving dinner, except the times we were in Canada with my Dad and Mom. But their deaths eleven and ten months ago respectively suddenly made me crave the Thanksgiving tradition again. It was important to me to celebrate not only Thanksgiving itself, but also the happy memories I have of them at Thanksgiving.
This year, cooking Thanksgiving dinner was a little different. I still had to cook chicken, but the rest of the ingredients were much easier. I managed to find a supplier of Stove Top stuffing here in England. Okay, it makes my hair curl paying the equivalent seven dollars for something I could have bought for $1.99 in Canada, but for a treat, it’s worth it. And I found proper Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce here too. We finally got Ocean Spray products about seven years ago, but this year I even found the sauce with whole berries like I used to buy in Canada – oh joy! And my son helped me make the dinner. While he peeled parsnips I shared my secrets for a homemade Butterball. If you buy a big chicken, lift the skin up off the breast and slide a few pieces of butter in underneath you get an effect not unlike a Butterball turkey. I also showed him how to make a pumpkin pie using Libby’s Tinned Pumpkin – in my opinion, the only way to go. But that’s another column.
And when we sat down to steaming plates heaving with juicy chicken (which I insisted on referring to as turkey), stuffing, mashed potatoes, roast parsnips, leeks and gravy it was with glad and thankful hearts. We rejoiced in our blessings, toasted absent friends and family, talked about happy memories and celebrated Thanksgiving as never before.
So spare a thought for friends and family abroad when you next celebrate Thanksgiving. Remember that sometimes it isn’t easy to keep to traditions and think how much you’d miss them if you couldn’t. It even makes listening to the same old stories for the seven hundredth time or keeping Great Aunt Mildred out of the sherry seem like fun. Wherever and whenever you celebrate, I wish you many blessings, and a very Happy Thanksgiving