Festive Feast: How to celebrate an American thanksgiving in London

Zoe Ettinger
Getty

“S***, is that the timer for the pie or the stuffing?” I think frantically. In my kitchen, covered in flour and with all my ingredients strewn about the place like a child’s bedroom, I am in the process of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for my friends. It will be my second Thanksgiving spent away from home in New York, and my first time cooking the entire meal by myself.

Before moving abroad, my typical Thanksgiving consisted of helping or watching my mother make an elaborate meal. She’d have everything planned out beforehand: pies and cranberry sauce made the night before, turkey de-gibletted, rinsed and stuffed before breakfast then onto mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and other side dishes.

The preparation was seamless, each dish coming together after the next and all warm and ready by the time the family sat down. I soon realise my naivety in expecting my own experience to have a similarly smooth cadence.

I begin the day by taking the bus to the nearest Sainsbury’s. I live in a residential area in Peckham and the little shops near my house simply won’t do for the feast I am preparing. I need a US-style superstore, something I’ve weirdly found myself missing living in the UK. Even though I know they’re terrible, the ability to buy a sweater, hiking boots, cheese and toothbrush all in one go is exhilarating.

Arriving at Sainsbury’s, I have a game plan. I have, probably for the first time ever, taken the time to write down an exact list of ingredients and how to quickly navigate the store to make the best use of my time. Like a mother-of-three, I move through the store with ease, getting everything I need for the six dishes I am to prepare.

Shoppers busily shop for last-minute items as Thanksgiving approaches (Getty)

My menu consists of: stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted brussel sprouts and butternut squash, kale salad, mushroom gravy and finally pumpkin pie for dessert. I know what you’re thinking, and I’m thinking it too. The immortal words of Mark Corrigan from Peep Show ring in my head: “No turkey?! No turkey, Jeremy you total fucking idiot!”

I have been vegetarian for nearly a year and I simply do not feel like handling a dead bird. I know it’s not exactly traditional, as pretty much every Thanksgiving cartoon I’ve ever seen, consists of a giant turkey, with a great big ironic smile on its face as it sits in the middle of a dinner table.

However, for me, following tradition isn’t what the holiday is about. After all, the true history of Thanksgiving isn’t exactly something to be celebrated. Though textbooks display a sanitised image of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native American tribe celebrating the harvest season with a great communal feast, it functions as a misrepresentation of relations between the two.

However, for me, following tradition isn’t what the holiday is about. After all, the true history of Thanksgiving isn’t exactly something to be celebrated

Though historians believe the Wampanoag and Pilgrims enjoyed a feast together, it was one of the only examples of harmony between Europeans and Native Americans. Many tribes believe that Thanksgiving masks the violent genocide of their people and, since 1970, protestors gather near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts to commemorate a National Day of Mourning.

This is why I believe that Thanksgiving is more about spending time with family and friends, rather than commemorating any historical event. This year, though I’m an ocean away from family, I do have some close friends in London, and I want to show them how I experience the holiday at home.

The turkey float at the 85th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York (AFP via Getty)

My game plan is to start with the pumpkin pie. It’s the first time I’ve ever baked anything so, needless to say, I’m nervous. Cooking for me is simple but, for some reason, baking has always been a daunting task. I think it’s the idea of something rising in the oven with the worry that it might suddenly explode.

Ready for the challenge, I put on a playlist of electronic music and start with the pie. The dough is easy enough to make, as I bought a packet-mix (I’m not trying to emulate Martha Stewart). I simply add water, knead and roll. Seemingly pretty simple, until it doesn’t fit in the pie dish and I have to re-knead and roll, which in hindsight definitely made it less crispy.

Then comes the pumpkin filling. It consists of a shocking amount of sugar, hence why pie is never featured on any weight loss plan. Along with canned pumpkin, eggs, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg (maybe I am Martha Stewart), I stir it into orange gloop. Things are really coming together now.

It is time to put the pie crust in the oven. But, no. The recipe is telling me to cover it with parchment paper and baking beans. What the hell are baking beans? I think back to Thanksgivings of yesteryear and I remember my mom putting little balls over the pie crust to weigh it down.

The mystery is solved but I am still without the magical beans. Of course, I turn to the beautiful genius of the internet. Yahoo Answers says I can simply use regular beans, and I rush to the corner shop and the materials are soon in hand.

Stuffing hasn’t always been my favourite holiday dish, but this one is otherworldly. It’s secret? Two whole sticks of butter. Butter makes everything better

Disaster avoided and crust in the oven, it’s on to the kale salad. There’s not much to say here, other than to make kale good, one must add lemon, olive oil, garlic and a hefty amount of grated parmesan cheese. It’s best to let the kale sit in the dressing for a while, which softens it a bit.

The main event is to be the stuffing. Stuffing hasn’t always been my favourite holiday dish, but this one is otherworldly. It’s secret? Two whole sticks of butter. Butter makes everything better. After melting two in a pan with chopped veg and garlic, the whole rich aromatic mess is poured into a casserole dish over ripped peasant bread. After 45 minutes in the oven, it’s golden brown perfection.

While cooking the stuffing, I’m peeling potatoes like a madwoman. My first guest is to arrive in 20 minutes, and there’s still two dishes to go. Whether you’re in the US or UK, mashed potatoes and gravy are a mainstay of any hearty family-style meal. I choose a mushroom gravy recipe and get cracking on both.

The sliced mushrooms are swimming in butter, and potatoes are on the hob. That’s a new British word I’ve added to my vernacular, hob. I’d never heard it before I came here. There’s so many little differences I never think about that now seem totally normal to me. Before coming here, I don’t think I’d ever heard the following words and phrases: ‘fancy a cuppa?’ ‘I’m chuffed!’ ‘that’s a doddle’ ‘gaff’ ‘geezer’ and ‘innit’. Now these words seem second nature to me and, though I’d likely not use them myself, they’ve become bog-standard (well, maybe once).

I’m reaching the end of my cooking journey by this point. I’ve peeled the brussel sprouts and put them – along with the pre-sliced butternut squash – in the oven, dressed with just a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. I love roasted veg so I like to let it shine on its own.

The last thing to do is wait for the potatoes and finish the mushroom gravy. The recipe tells me to add a quarter-cup of flour and I eyeball it out in the one giant measuring cup we have for the house. I add it along with stock to the mushrooms, and it looks sadly lumpy. I stir as much as I can, but little flour lumps are stuck to the mushrooms and it seems they’re keen to stay that way. But I try it and it tastes pretty good, so I’m hoping the guests won’t be too disappointed.

Looking back, the lack of measuring cups is likely the reason the pie came out a little off but I’m not going to be too harsh on my first attempt. There’s always next year.

Just as the timer for the potatoes goes off, my friend Sam texts me he’s knocking at the door. I can’t hear him as the kitchen is a loud cacophony of my phone alarm and electronic music that’s really starting to stress me out. I’d suggest a more relaxing playlist for cooking than techno-house club sounds of the 1980s.

What we feel most grateful for is human connection and sitting among friends (Getty)

Sam arrives just in time to help me mash the potatoes. By this point, my energy has dwindled and I’m feeling that trying to heave myself over a masher will be the end of me.

Thank god, he’s also come with a bottle of wine and not a moment too soon. I finally get a chance to sit down and pour myself a glass. All that’s left to do is wait for the other guests and put everything on the table.

It sounds trite, but what we feel most grateful for is human connection. And sitting amongst friends, I feel lucky to have it

While he’s mashing away we talk about our jobs as young journalists, and all the uncertainty that holds. He’s just started a new position, and I’m going to have to head back to the US soon, as my visa’s running out. But we’re both happy to be writing, doing what we love, and having friends and family that support us.

The last guest arrives and we all sit down for the meal. Somehow everything comes together and is (mostly) delicious. As we’re laughing and talking about our days, weeks, lives at work and the typical topics of conversation, I ask everyone what they’re thankful for. Everyone takes a moment to think, including me.

The question has always vexed me in the past because, for some reason, being thankful is a hard feeling to quantify. Am I thankful that I am alive and healthy? Of course I am, but it’s hard for me to comprehend. I’m fortunate enough to say it’s the only reality I’ve ever known, so can I truly understand what it means to be thankful for it? In my experience, I’ve found that you can only truly appreciate something when you realise what it’s like to lose it.

We all start saying what we’re thankful for and I notice a pattern. For each person, what they’re most thankful for is someone else: their parents, friends, girlfriend, boyfriend etc. It sounds trite, but what we feel most grateful for is human connection. And sitting amongst friends, I feel lucky to have it.

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