From turkey and trimmings to marshmallow disasters, Nick Lezard lets us in on his own Thanksgiving experience
It is said that one of the dafter questions an American can ask a Briton is how they’re going to be spending Thanksgiving. I’ve actually never been asked this question, but if I had been, as a child, I’d have said “well, we’ll probably be having roast turkey and all the trimmings,” for my mother is American. And as my father’s birthday falls in the last week of November, we would combine the two events, which seemed to make a fair amount of sense.
That said, there was always something a bit alien about it. I had a vague mental image, created by the illustrations of the articles I skipped in educational magazines like Look and Learn, of seventeenth-century English settlers landing in Virginia and being served a nice dinner by friendly native Americans, who didn’t want to see these people starve. The food was, of course, indigenous to the area, hence all that weird stuff like sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. And turkeys; weren’t they American in the first place?
I became increasingly sceptical as I grew older. For one thing, as I learned more about American history
I became increasingly sceptical as I grew older. For one thing, as I learned more about American history, I began to think that the natives, who, last time I checked (Saturday afternoon cowboy movies on the telly) were being shot from their horses at a staggering rate by what seemed, even given the standard one-sided nature of the narrative, to be invasive colonisers; and if they had given the settlers all those yams or whatever then they were either hopelessly naive or incredibly unfairly treated. Thanks for what, exactly? Your land? Here, have some smallpox-infested blankets.
A streak of anti-Americanism entered my soul, later to be bolstered by Watergate, Vietnam, and a few years after that conflict ended, songs like the Clash’s I’m So Bored With the USA. I was also being educated at very traditional British institutions and in the 1970s it was unwise to mention, let alone stress, any foreign part of your make-up.
But it was my Dad’s birthday, except when it wasn’t (Thanksgiving is held on the fourth Thursday of November. My father’s birthday was the 26th. Close enough).
My mother had a voice and an accent that could carry over the length of Hampstead Heath. And whenever she picked me up from school, loud and in furs, I would die of embarrassment.
And another thing: my mother wasn’t only American, she was, and remains, wholly exotic. English mothers were, in my experience, all from Hampstead and had identical hairdos and quiet demeanours. My mother, on the other hand, an ex-opera and -musical star, had a voice and an accent that could carry over the length of Hampstead Heath. And whenever she picked me up from school, loud and in furs, I would die of embarrassment. I’m not exaggerating. I actually died every time, until I told her I’d be getting the bus home in future.
That said, I had problems enough with the feast on its own terms, without taking any historical or geo-political concerns into consideration. For one thing, there had to be a symbolic distance kept between the Thanksgiving dinner and the Sunday roast. (Which we always had.)
The turkey wasn’t a problem. Children are greedy little sods, and are generally supportive of roasted fowl, the bigger the better. What was a problem were the sweet potatoes and other bits and bobs that marked the occasion as peculiarly American. Also you had both mashed and roast potatoes, and one year she even tried doing that thing with marshmallows, the details of which remain buried in traumatised memory, but which resulted in my saying whatever the ten-year-old’s equivalent of “what the fuck?” was.
Dessert was always pumpkin pie, made from the internal organs scooped from the Hallowe’en pumpkin. (To this day, I have a strong suspicion that my mother was solely responsible for the importation of this custom into the British Isles, and when people mutter about the increasing Americanisation of winter festivals, I know who to blame. For that matter, I also suspect that she had the first car in England that wasn’t brown. Which did at least make it easy to find at Brent Cross car park.)
….the whole of December seemed to be spent eating turkey, in various permutations or disguises
My mother isn’t a bad cook, so her pumpkin pie was pretty tasty, but I could never get the hang of sweet potatoes. To this day my heart sinks when I see them as the default carbohydrate on a menu. But there were other tensions. Because turkeys are huge, and because you have to have them at Christmas too (absolutely no one cooked goose in those dark days), the whole of December seemed to be spent eating turkey, in various permutations or disguises, and after a while people would get fed up with it. I think my father suffered particularly: as if having his party taken over by his wife wasn’t bad enough.
But in my mother’s household, the tradition persists. Aged eighty-something, she became a little too frail, so I took over the cooking duties. I shall be doing it this year. I am not looking forward to the turkey, and only a little bit towards the pumpkin pie (which my mother will be making, I don’t have a clue). But there will definitely not be sweet potatoes. Or, for crying out loud, marshmallows.
Nicholas Lezard has been a freelance writer since God was a boy. He writes the Down and Out column for the New Statesman, and lives in Brighton.
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