Thanksgiving has a different flavor in our house. But not as much of a different flavor as it would have if we let the Brits have their say. Their say? Why, of all holidays, should the British have ANYTHING to say about Thanksgiving? I ask myself that question every year. And every year, I conclude that it’s my fault for trying to spread the Gospel of Thanksgiving to a group who might be termed “Thanksgiving Infidels”.
Let me clarify that I didn’t wake up one November morning and decide I should host a Thanksgiving every year where Brits outnumbered Yanks by a wide margin (they insist on bringing in ringers such as mothers, cousins, friends to better their odds). As with most things, it was a slow and insidious slide downward. The slippery slope started when I married a Brit. At first, it seemed as if I was on to something. I almost had him convinced that a key Thanksgiving tradition was the custom of buying large expensive presents for your significant other. Then I went into business with another Brit who wound up joining us for every Thanksgiving. After ten years of our Thanksgivings, he’s still unclear on the concept.
“Let me get this straight. This is a holiday where all you do is eat, then lie around for four days?”
“Yup. That’s pretty much the routine.”
“So no presents. No obligations. Just show up and eat.”
“That’s the deal.”
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have wasted so much time on his education. He ended up marrying an American and she might have had better luck with that “large expensive present for your significant other” scam.
But I’m willing to forget my failure with the presents. The real battleground at our Thanksgivings is the food.
Years of a good economy and the rise of internationally ranked British chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have put to bed the myth of bad British food. (And take it from someone who lived in England in the Seventies, the food was never that bad once you got away from fast food and institutional cooking. It was simple with an emphasis on fresh produce, seafood and meat cooked better than anyone else can cook it.)
The problem with British cooking is British tradition. Or British obstanency. For a nation with an extremely limited collective palette, the British make up for it with a set of “food rules” more involved than the Magna Carta.
“Oh no,” my husband will say, “I don’t think you can serve carrots without peas. And peas must be minted.”
I’ve learned to give no quarter on these points: “Sorry, if those rules came from an Act of Parliament or an edict by Henry VIII, they are not applicable here. We fought a Revolutionary War to escape the Minted Pea Act.”
At our Thanksgiving, the first conflict is always The Battle of the Orange Vegetables. It should be noted that orange vegetables, unless they are carrots, are not something the British would ever contemplate eating — even if stranded on a desert island and needing an accompaniment to a boiled shoe.
Our friend Julian usually fires the first salvo. As a former divinity student at Oxford, he can argue and win arcane points such as how many angels on the head of a pin would not eat a bite of squash even if it meant eternal damnation. Julian leads the argument that orange vegetables should be banished from the table. But since orange vegetables — pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes — are pretty much the cornerstone of Thanksgiving, this is where I feel I need to hold the line.
I’ve tried disguising orange vegetables with huge amounts of cream, butter, cointreau, brown sugar. No luck. Now I just make it the price of admission and Julian grudgingly agrees to entertain one “obligatory orange vegetable.”
But he and the other Brits draw the line at pumpkin. As Julian’s wife, Vickie, says, “Pumpkin is a silly vegetable.”
The second battle line is the main course. My husband, Andy, usually leads this charge.
“I was thinking, maybe we could do something different this year. Let’s have a goose or wild boar or a pheasant.”
The answer has to be swift and definative: “Andy, the menu at Thanksgiving is non-negotiable. No substitutions. No ringers. No alternatives. Just what the Pilgrims would have eaten.”
This has caused a lot of research among the British set.
“I read that the Indians brought venison. Let’s have a haunch of venison.”
It’s been worse in the past few years when two Scots, Jan and Andrew, have joined our merry band.
“We have to have a single malt tasting.”
“I don’t think the Pilgrims had Scotch.”
“Sailing across the ocean with no Scotch? Didn’t happen. Scotch is traditional Thanksgiving fare.”
So a single malt tasting is now part of our Thanksgiving tradition. But after the main event. I was forwarded this recipe for British Turkey with Whiskey Glaze (shown above.) Thanks, but I won’t be serving it.
As you can see, this is how traditions are eroded, by being chipped at around the edges. We’ve held the line on the main course and sides, but the Brits are making serious inroads.
For the past several years, an amazing appetizer spread has been provided by Julian, including foie gras, caviar, smoke salmon and loads of champagne.
“This is great, Julian, but, of course, it’s not traditional.”
“Nonsense. This is what the French and Russian and Scottish Pilgrims brought. I researched it at the Bodlian Library last time I was there.”
I’m letting this one stand.
Somehow we’ve added in a cheese board after the main course that includes a selection of fine British cheeses including a Stilton.
Andy and Julian are united on this: “I read that Massasoit traded fifteen venison haunches for one English cheese plate once he’d tasted it.”
“Aren’t most Native Americans lactose intolerant?”
“Not the Wampanoag. I’ve seen their genomes mapped.”
How can you argue with the people that gave us the Barrister and the Inns of Court.
The latest incursion is the addition of custard to the dessert array. I have to admit my custard prejudice is profound having been set by the horrible, gluey, electric yellow stuff I was served in British college dining halls. In fact, on meeting my in-laws, my first fear, which I foolishly conveyed to Andy, was not that they wouldn’t like me, but that they’d serve me custard and I’d have to eat it out of politeness. Of course, at the first dinner there, Andy said, “Give her LOTS of custard. She loves it!”
My mother-in-law’s custard is excellent, as is our Scottish friend Jan’s. But I still felt I needed to make a stand for tradition.
“You aren’t eating the pumpkin pie and we have the pecan pie alternative, but you can’t put custard on it.”
Andy replied, “This is a semi-religious holiday. And to us, custard is a sacrament.”
I’ve lost that argument.
The one ray of hope this year is that my friend Susi, Rob’s wife, has stacked the deck with extra Americans by inviting her brother’s family. That still only brings us near to even with the British Legions. We could perhaps pull ahead if we counted children, although one child is the infant daughter of our two Scots. So there is some question whether she can be counted as an American, even if born here. At least she’s too young to scream for venison.
The final blow has been the movie choice. I’m sure most of us old enough to have had pre-VCR and pre-DVD childhoods remember the traditional Thanksgiving TV fare: a football game, then the yearly showing of Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz.
I tried to revive that tradition with a movie in our media room. Quickly, my choices were shouted down with requests for Ealing comedies, Best of Bennie Hill collections and finally, in the last several years, has standardized on Bond movies. I don’t even want to know what Massasoit would say about that.
So this year, Goldfinger.
Andy insists: “We have to have a Bond film. It’s traditional.”
“And how does Goldfinger figure into the Thanksgiving tradition?”
“Because Goldfinger is the perfect movie. It has everything fine cinema demands: Sean Connery, Q, gadgets, a kick-ass theme by Shirley Bassey, gold-dipped naked women, a razor hat weilding Korean bad guy and the best movie line ever: ‘No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to DIIIIEEEE!’ Besides, that’s what I’m thankful for. That I came from a country that gave the world James Bond. Not the country that gave the world orange vegetables.”
You know, I’m pretty liberal about immigration. I don’t believe they take our jobs, wreck our economy or flood our health care system. But when they start messing with our holidays like this. . . Does anyone have Rush Limbaugh’s number?