Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s hard to translate in ways Brits will understand — a sort of pre-Christmas Christmas, but with more food, no presents, some alcohol-fueled political arguments, and maybe a little bit of (American) football if you really want to lean into tradition. While the table will be a little less crowded this year, that won’t stop expats in London pining for their favourite sides and pies.
For Americans, the holiday is centred around the dinner table as a way to communicate the importance of gathering, and the experience of communal eating. As recently noted in Sourced, the feast tradition is a practice of feeding and engaging in community. As part of the hospitality industry, restaurant workers have devoted their careers to this practice and have spent a grueling year trying to stay in business. For expats like myself who have been working in London’s restaurants during the pandemic, the chance to celebrate with friends we’ve gathered away from home feels particularly significant.
Celebrating Thanksgiving abroad always tests the boundaries of tradition. In a friendship-altering clash on Ladies of London’s second series, holiday nostalgia had expats pitted against each other. The tipping point: an argument between a restaurant-hosted Thanksgiving or a more domestic affair in a private home.
The scene was overblown to suit the needs of the inveterate reality TV viewer, but it wasn’t completely unwarranted. After Thanksgiving was federally mandated under the Holidays Act of 1870, nationally distributed cookbooks and ladies’ magazines directed towards the American housewife began to feature Thanksgiving menus and hostess guides. The Thanksgiving table was intended to mark the winter holiday season with a “truly American” tradition that centred on the American home, leading to a sense that there was a “right” way to celebrate.
Trying to enforce tradition in the year of social distancing and lockdowns feels like a losing game. 2020’s travel restrictions will keep expats from travelling back to the States. but that doesn’t mean we won’t be celebrating; and while those celebrations may look different from a “truly American” tradition, most of us will be celebrating – safely – however we can. To that end, there will be plenty of Zoom dinners and pumpkin pies eaten straight from the tin. London restaurants like Honey and Co. and Darby’s have even stepped in to do the cooking, if the prospect of roasting an entire turkey seems daunting, a move reinforced by the holiday’s increasing popularity in the U.K.
“It’s kind of fascinating, Thanksgiving is one of the only American traditions that is actually all-encompassingly American,” says Jeanne Kessira, an expat from New York, food anthropologist and pasta maker at Ombra. “It’s a massive country, and each region and state have their own cultures, but to have a day where almost everyone is celebrating and coming together around good food that’s basically different iterations of the same menu, is kind of incredible,” she says.
Kessira explains that the origins of the holiday are riddled in controversy — and are part of a dialogue on colonialism that was covered up, and then used as a handy tool to create the image of the “ideal” American family. “But the secular and accessible nature of the holiday have also laid the groundworks for that image to be reinterpreted in a myriad of ways — and participating in the tradition is a way of making you feel like you’ve managed to assimilate, especially for foreigners looking to establish roots,” she says.
The Thanksgiving table is both a performance of American culture and a demonstration of how fluid that identity can be. She notes that Thanksgiving was a way for her family to embrace their new home after immigrating to the U.S. from France: “It was something our household readily adapted as one of those American rituals that made us feel like we fit into American society.”
Adapting Thanksgiving traditions to one’s heritage invariably means creating new traditions. And the same holds true for Americans in London improvising their celebration – safely – while making sense of their surroundings. Some of us may endeavour to make the whole spread or try something new like Taiwanese turkey rice. But without the ability to physically gather, there may be a need to cut back on the most important part of the Thanksgiving meal. No, not the turkey – that’s really just there for show (and leftover sandwiches). The real appeal of the Thanksgiving feast are regional sides.
Where I’m from in California, the side of choice is predictably salad, but my family also incorporates a cornbread dressing with breakfast sausages and almonds borrowed from my great-grandmother’s midwestern tradition. My father’s family in South Dakota has taught me about the glory of Snickers salad. The combination of chopped candy bar, green apples and Cool Whip really pushes the definitive boundaries of a salad, but that’s the joy of the Thanksgiving table – it doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to taste opulent. And while roast potatoes aren’t a conventional Thanksgiving side in the U.S., their popularity in the U.K. – and the meal’s resemblance to a roast dinner – mean that they’ve become a staple.
Kessira, like many expats, usually spends the holiday back in the U.S., but when she’s abroad the holiday doesn’t get forgotten. When celebrated outside the States, the holiday becomes a time to gather the family you’ve accumulated away from home. “It’s mostly been non-Americans who don’t fully get it, but love the occasion all the same,” says Kessira of her experience.
In years past, celebrating abroad has been a way for me to show appreciation for all the people who have made London home to me and my family. This year I’ll be recreating my fond memories of Thanksgiving cooking by selling pies to other Londoners for their celebrations, and will make a scaled down, sides-heavy menu.
Kessira will be celebrating the holiday in a way that speaks uniquely to her life in London and time in the professional kitchen: “This year I’m making a Thanksgiving lasagna, trying to get all the components of a traditional meal into different layers between sheets of pasta, inspired by my time at Ombra.” Sounds like an epic leftover sandwich.
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