The View From Outside

Indeed, our fathers were very wise …

Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of writing about the differences between my own home and country and the one where I now live. There are many, many more than ever I could list, but perhaps one of the most notable is the celebration of Thanksgiving. We Brits don’t partake of that particular tradition, and we tend to look westward across the Atlantic at the “Colonials” and wonder just what it’s all about: turkey-with-all-the-trimmings is Christmas fare for us, and sitting down a month or often less before The Big Day Itself to feast on what appears to be a dry run for the Yuletide blow-out is peculiar indeed. It seems like just another holiday, just another day of the year but with another big feast to go with it—followed immediately by, we harrumph, a big shopping day. What nobody realises, because unless they have strong American connections, such as being in a relationship, is just how important Thanksgiving-tide is, how central to the American psyche and soul and heart. More so than Christmas, perhaps, this is the holiday, the celebration of the year, the time for family and friends to congregate and catch up.

Believe it or not, I do. It will likely seem strange to hear this from a dyed-in-the-wool Englishman, but every year since 1994 I have actively and deliberately partaken of my own small, private Thanksgiving celebration. Alone, of course, because, after all, what Englishman celebrates Thanksgiving …

It all began with a slice of pizza.

Back in 1994, I was a student on my first bachelor’s course and poor as the proverbial church mouse. Students then were supported largely by grants from the local education council of the town where they lived, although the government had started to bring in the student loan scheme which would eventually replace the “free money” funding system. I was in the middle of the transition period, with enough money for rent but absolutely nothing else: Parents or loans were now expected to make up the shortfall. And so it was that one cold, wet, and rainy Thursday evening at the back end of November I had gone round to visit a friend who lived in halls: Work was boring, sitting and talking over tea and Scrabble was a much more pleasant, if less profitable, pastime. After a couple of hours of setting the world to rights, some other friends of his turned up and suggested we watch a film and order pizza. Broke as I was, I wasn’t able to order anything and a combination of pride and self-reliance precluded asking to borrow money (we were all students, so nobody had much of that), so I sat in silence while everybody else got on with ordering supper. A while later, in the middle of the movie, the doorbell rang, and the film was paused while the serious business of passing out pizza cartons took place and eating began.

Sitting in a small room with five other people, all of whom are eating and you are not, can be a trying experience when you are satisfied; when you are hungry and tired, and the smell of several pizzas is filling the air, it becomes close to torturous. But the situation was as it was: I hadn’t ordered, so that was that. It wasn’t until after we’d turned out the lights and started the film again that the friend whom I’d gone to visit leaned over and asked quietly, “Would you like a piece?” My automatic reaction under such circumstances is to decline politely, but I’d known James for over a year and I knew he wasn’t just being polite. “Go on,” he prompted, “you haven’t got anything.” Thanking him, I took the smallest slice remaining and started in on it. And it was at that point, with strings of melted cheese streaming between me and my impromptu supper, that I recalled that an American friend of mine had said he’d be out of touch for a few days because he was heading home for Thanksgiving, and that this night, this rainy, wet Thursday at the closing of the year, was Thanksgiving itself. “So,” I said silently to myself, “that makes this my Thanksgiving pizza.”

It might seem silly to you who read this, you who are brought up from the cradle with this tradition, yearly baptised in the heady fount of turkey gravy and cranberry sauce, to read of such an anodyne meal being considered anything to be thankful for. But I was thankful; I had deep and genuine reason to be thankful: I was hungry, and someone had shown me genuine, unshowy kindness, because he was my friend. So what that it was a slice of pizza and not a turkey dinner? I can’t help but remember the scene from the animated Peanuts cartoon, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which the BBC showed once, long ago, in which Peppermint Patty, who has invited herself and all her friends around to Charlie Brown’s house for dinner, loudly rebukes him for the “meal” he has served of buttered toast, pretzels, jelly beans, popcorn, and sundaes. “What kind of Thanksgiving dinner is this?” she yells. “Where’s the turkey? Where’s the cranberry sauce? Where’s the mashed potatoes? Where’s the pumpkin pie?” And Charlie Brown disconsolately leaves the table and heads indoors.

But where, indeed. As it happened they were waiting for me two years later, while I was studying in Moscow (the one in Russia, not any others there might be). I was there for the autumn and part of the winter, and as Thanksgiving rolled around I started to read in The Moscow Times, the free English-language newspaper that also advertised events, of an all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving meal to be held in one of the big multinational-chain hotels on the far side of the city centre. $30 was a non-trivial sum, but my expenses were few and I could easily save it in the time I had. So, on the appropriate day I dressed the best I could and headed across the city on the Metro, disentrained at Kievskaya Station and climbed the stairs past tiles riddled with bullet holes, and headed into the hotel restaurant.

I’d like to think, given that I’m at least moderately well-travelled and accustomed to foreign ways, that I’m slightly immune to culture shock. The sad truth is that it gets everybody, one way or another, and just when you think you’re finding ways to counter it, the world throws you another curveball and you’re flat on your back again, looking up and wondering where that one came from. And that’s now. I was a green 21 back then, back in my salad days and only lightly tossed in the bleu cheese dressing of cynicism with which I am now liberally coated, and so the sight that met my eyes is one that will live with me forever. Come with me now as I try to describe what I saw.

Imagine, if you will, a room roughly the size of the McNeil Room in the Union, or perhaps a little larger; darkened, lights low and intimate, a little over half the space set with small circular or medium-sized square tables and the remainder taken up with a serving counter. It is quite the counter: Each section is a good 10 or 12 feet long as it begins about halfway down the left wall and meanders across the room in five steps of a square wave, so that it terminates at right angles to the back wall. And on this counter is bounty like I had never seen: the entire left wall segment and part of the back were just desserts. And when I say “just desserts” I don’t mean “‘just’ desserts,” because these were puddings and sweets and compôtes and jellies (sorry, Jell-O) and tiramisù and trifle—and, of course, the pumpkin pie… On the next section were vegetarian dishes, and these are notable for how little they had been touched. Not that I gave them much consideration: Besides the turkey, which they were beside, they paled into merest insignificance. But before the bird, and adjacent to the bird on the opposite to the greenery, were all the trimmings and more: six flavours of stuffing, mashed potato, yams, carrots, vegetables, “dinner rolls” (whatever they are), cornbread (ditto) … And beyond them, the starters … I’m afraid at this point my memory fails me from sheer and utter sensory overload, and the only two I can remember, which I sampled, were the New England clam chowder and the fried Cornish hen wings.

But the turkey. Oh, the turkey. Huge and fat, it sat on the chef’s carving board, its perfectly-tanned exterior almost aglow as it radiated waves of smugness at its own perfection into the room of holidaying ex-pats. And it was huge—and huge is the only word for it: it would have fitted only with difficulty into the largest of home ovens and, for any mere mortal not blessed with a restaurant kitchen, would have taken many hours of diligent and careful roasting. The chef carved from its breast to order, wielding the carving knife with the delicacy and precision of a master butcher and taking slice after slice of sweet white meat from the breast to set it on plates brought to him by a long line of people. And, as the white meat dwindled, I naturally expected the darker meat to go next: There was plenty left, after all, as only a couple of cuts had been made on it by people who obviously preferred the fuller flavour. I was wrong. When the second breast had been all but carved away, a sous emerged from the kitchen with another turkey, the same size as the first, placed it on the counter and carried away the first bird which was still covered in perfectly good meat, and the carver started again. And each time the breast was exhausted, out went that bird and in came another: over the course of my (prolonged, value-maximising) dinner I think I saw three new birds brought out.

That was quite the meal, quite the experience. I wish I could say that it was the first in a long line of similar meals and similar experiences, but regrettably it wasn’t. Most of my Thanksgivings since then have been simple affairs, making my meal out of whatever I had in the house at the time: a cheese sandwich one year, a bowl of vegetable soup and some crusty bread another year. But it was never about the food. Well, not really. Yet, as year succeeded year, and I in my own way drew ever closer to this country— to the point in being, as I would say, “involved” with someone from this side of the pond for a good many years—one wish that grew in me was to be able to enjoy the “traditional Thanksgiving,” to be among friends on that day, if only once, to experience the fullness and joyfulness of that most quintessentially American of events. And this year, due once again to the kindness of friends, that wish will be granted. To my friend and his family: Thank you.

I wish I could put into words how Thanksgiving makes me feel, why it has such personal importance and resonance, but when I try, words fail. I suppose, ultimately, it’s about giving thanks, plain and simple, for what we have, not merely in terms of physical sustenance but also the great intangibles of life. In lieu of my own words, I’m going to turn to some from my childhood. At the English public school (that is to say, a private, fee-paying, limited-entry school, not one run by the state), each of the two lunch sittings began and ended with the saying of a short grace by someone on the High Table. Various members of staff and senior Boys had their own preferred favourites, some longer than others, but the most commonly used was simple, straightforward, and to the point, and said everything that had to be said: For good food and good fellowship, let us give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving.