The simplistic Third Grade explanation for the Pilgrims’ journey is that they came here for religious freedom, the freedom to worship in a church other than the Church of England. I know better. They came to America for freedom from British culinary tyranny — for the freedom to have a proper Thanksgiving dinner. Being married to a Brit and surrounded by British friends, this is a battle I know. I fight it every year. It doesn’t help that each Thanksgiving, I somehow manage to have Americans outnumbered by Brits at my table.
It usually starts about a week or so before Thanksgiving:
Andy: Let’s do something different for Thanksgiving. How about a roast goose?
Me: NO, Thanksgiving is always about turkey.
Andy: Duck a l’Orange?
Me: No, turkey.
Andy: Shoulder of wild boar?
Me: No, it has to be what the Pilgrims ate.
Andy: How do you know they didn’t have a nice Beef Wellington?
Then the emails start flooding in from the Brits who always join us. And it’s always about changing the menu and making it more British. Given that the British have a traditionally narrow range of foods they can eat, most of which are brown, this presents some difficulty.
For years, Rob has been lobbying for apple pie and ice cream instead of pumpkin pie. My friend Vickie, also a Brit, backs him up with this justification: “Pumpkin is a silly vegetable.” Her chief objection is that pumpkins are orange. In fact, orange vegetables are a major sticking point with the British. The only orange vegetable they’ll recognize are carrots. Not squash, not pumpkin, not sweet potatoes. None of the staples of Thanksgiving.
Vegetables themselves are a sticking point, not being a favorite for British palates. The latest campaign is to demand all their favorite starches from past Thanksgivings. So currently, I’m fielding a blizzard of emails demanding stuffing, cauliflower au gratin, garlic mashed potatoes AND roast potatoes. All in addition to the squash or sweet potato that I’m insisting stay on the menu (which they will quietly feed to the dogs). I know they are hoping starch overload will crowd out any need for vegetables.
My friend Susi, Rob’s wife and one of the other lone Americans, has been able to get Brussels Sprouts in without too much protest. But when you roast something with bacon and truffle oil, you can usually get a Brit to eat it. I did have some success with succotash in past years, but I think the novelty of eating something mentioned in a Looney Tunes cartoon hasn’t worn off for the Brits yet. They’re still having too much fun yelling out “Thufferin’ Thuckotash”.
The real challenge is Julian. He’s a former Oxford divinity student, and as such, can argue endlessly about how many pieces of vegetable can fit on the head of a pin. (About how many he would let pass his lips.) So getting into a Thanksgiving menu debate with him is a dangerous activity.
Julian: I don’t see why we have to stick with what the Pilgrims would eat. They probably were living on hardtack and salt pork. The menu should be open and flexible.
Me: No, the Indians brought all the food because the Pilgrims were crap as farmers. They would have starved without all the orange vegetables and turkey the Indians brought.
Julian: But I heard the Pilgrims travelled around a lot looking for a place to settle, so I think Thanksgiving should include the best of Europe: fondue, white truffles, caviar, Chateaubriand, the finest cheeses of France…
Okay, Julian got me on the cheeses, so for at least six years now our Thanksgiving meal has been followed by the most exquisite and extensive cheese plate outside of a Parisian Michelin starred restaurant — courtesy of Julian. That’s supplemented by a new tradition started by our highland friend Scotch Andrew who leads the men in an after-dinner tradition called “Drink and talk Scotch.” (I know Scotch is the drink and Scots are the drinkers, but try telling that to the English. To them, they’re both Scotch.) Andrew’s wife, Jan, also a Scot, has been recruited into the conspiracy and now brings an authentic sherry trifle. Presumably to crowd out the pumpkin pie. And while American Thanksgivings usually include the viewing of a football game or the Macy’s parade, ours always involves the screening of a James Bond movie.
About the only point of tradition the Brits will agree on is tobacco. Lots of tobacco. In the form of big cigars. Rob says it’s an homage to Squanto, practically a sacrament. He’s threatening to bring a peace pipe this year.
Yes, things can get tricky for me even when I use the tradition argument. Julian turns it against me on the grounds that on Thanksgiving I should respect America’s democratic ideals and let the majority rule. With four Brits, two Scots and three Americans, you know how that vote is going to go. I try to posit that my mother, as the oldest, should have extra voting power. They counter by throwing in Jan and Andrew’s two kids and saying they really count as Scots. Andy’s even claiming, since Smooth Fox Terriers are an ancient English breed, the dogs are two British votes. I argue that we beat the British in 1776 and bailed them out of two world wars, so that ought to count for something. Julian counters that we inflicted the world with Britney Spears, Glenn Beck and Jon and Kate, so we should be stripped of all our votes based on heinous crimes against humanity.
It becomes clear at this point that I can’t win on logic.
“You can have whatever you want on Guy Fawkes Night and St. Swithins Day and whatever other obscure British holiday you want to celebrate. But Thanksgiving is America’s Holiday. So we’re having turkey and orange vegetables and pumpkin pie.
‘Cause I’m the American, and I say so.”