Celebrating Thanksgiving in Ireland

Food is a central part of this annual American holiday. As Bostonian Stephen Lucek marks his eighth Thanksgiving in Dublin today, he offers some insider tips and recipes


When I moved to Ireland in 2006, I intended to immerse myself in Irish culture. I eschewed American bars, restaurants, coffee shops and social groups and instead focused on my new society. That was all well and good through the spring and summer, but as autumn set in, I started to miss America. Sure, the leaves change colour and fall off their trees here, just like in New England. Of course the Christmas decorations go up far earlier than they did “when I was young”. But as anyone who has seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles – the best Thanksgiving movie ever made; I will not entertain detractors – knows, Thanksgiving is hugely important to the American way of life.

I’m frequently asked about the comparisons between Thanksgiving in America and Christmas in Ireland. They are both extravagant turkey dinner occasions that last for several days. In America, however, Thanksgiving has virtually no religious connections, though this was not always the case. The ultra-religious pilgrims who left Plymouth, England, and landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts (what are the odds?) would have been au fait with feasts of giving thanks to their God. The 1621 Thanksgiving was a celebration of the settlers’ first harvest in the New World.

Though their relationship with the Native Americans was not always cooperative, or even humane, the 1621 celebration, by all accounts, seems to have been a lovely affair. Attended by both the native population and settlers alike, this was as much a harvest festival as it was a religious feast. Secular Thanksgiving celebrations became the norm as time went on, but an official national holiday to mark Thanksgiving was not observed until 1863.

Following the bloodiest year of fighting of the American Civil War, president Abraham Lincoln decreed the final Thursday in November to be a national day of thanksgiving. From that year onward, Thanksgiving has been an annual event.

With few exceptions (from 1939-1941, then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt held Thanksgiving on the second-to-last Thursday in November, the mad man!), celebrating the harvest, your family and possibly your god on the fourth Thursday in November has been an American tradition for 150 years.

Back to November 2006, when my parents wanted to visit me for the first time since my “big move”. I felt I had to demonstrate that I was a fully capable adult. “Of course you should come over for the Thanksgiving break. I’ll put on a turkey dinner for you and everything,” the words coming out of my mouth as quickly as the blood drained from my face.

Was this the same anxiety that the European settlers and the Native Americans felt in the lead-up to that mythical first Thanksgiving? Surely, the concerns of Age of Discovery settlers (not to mention the “discovered” native peoples) pale in comparison to a 26-year-old trying to find acorn squash at Dundrum Town Centre. The oeuvre of Thanksgiving art really hammers home the idea of togetherness and family (think Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want or The Waltons’ Thanksgiving Special) and rarely turns its attention to the first world problems of buying the wrong type of tinned milk for the pumpkin pie (a mistake one only need to make once).

This year will mark my eighth November in Dublin, and a few days ago I hosted my eighth Dublin Thanksgiving Saturday – a practical compromise of Congressional significance in my house. The crowd has certain fixtures; Heidi (from Seattle) and Phil (from Artane) have been to all eight dinners. We always have turkey & stuffing, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole.

The most significant event of my life occurred at this same time of the year. I had my first date with my wife just days after Dublin Thanksgiving #2 in 2007. By the time Dublin Thanksgiving #3 rolled around in 2008, the considerable workload was shared.

On this day, friends and family come over to celebrate how fortunate we all are to have each other in our lives. Not one person has crossed our doorstep on Dublin Thanksgiving and left with anything less than a full stomach. And not one person who has been to Thanksgiving is anything less than a close friend.

Some things have changed; the sneaky trip to the pub between dinner and dessert has been replaced by board games. And while my first Dublin Thanksgiving was a study in adaptation (potatoes mashed with a fork), stupid mistakes (I took a layer of paint off the ceiling cleaning up a Champagne explosion) and outside assistance (my mother smuggled her sausage meat stuffing in from Boston), the running gets smoother each year.

There have been surprises, like the year of the snowstorm (2011), the year the corkscrew broke (2009), the year we used an electric carving knife (2008, and only 2008). Adaptation to a new country, stupid mistakes and outside assistance are the hallmarks of America’s favourite foodfest . . . and some would say America itself.

Corn Bread Muffins

These are more stodgy than the average bread roll, so cut them in half before serving. Thanksgiving dinner is a marathon, not a sprint. Cornmeal (or maizemeal, more commonly) can be tough to get a hold of. You don’t want to use coarse maize that you would use to make polenta. Most Asian food markets will have East End brand maizemeal. This is exactly what you want.

6 oz maize meal
16 fl oz buttermilk
8 oz plain flour
1.5 tbsp baking powder
0.25 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt (fine grained)
2 oz soft light brown sugar
2 oz granulated sugar (white or brown is fine)
3 eggs
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp unsalted butter

The night before you intend to bake these muffins, combine the maizemeal and the buttermilk in a large bowl. Stir them together, then cover with cling film. Leave this mixture on the worktop overnight. This sounds odd, but the buttermilk won’t seep into the maizemeal properly if you leave it in the refrigerator.

The following morning, melt the butter in a milk pan (if you use salted butter here, omit the 1 tsp of salt elsewhere in the recipe). When it is fully melted but not coloured, turn off the heat and add the honey. Stir these together and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes. While you’re waiting, set the oven to 160C (150C for fan-assisted ovens, Gas Mark 4) and grease 12 muffin tins with butter or margarine.

Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and bicarb of soda. Try to keep the salt away from the rising agents. Then stir in the sugars, mixing well. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the eggs. When your butter mixture has cooled, add to the eggs.

With a large wooden spoon, add the wet mixture to the maizemeal and buttermilk and stir well. This is your only chance to get the lumps out. When you have a smooth mixture, use a soup ladle to fill your deep muffin tins nearly to the top. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, but keep an eye on them. A clean toothpick is the only surefire way to know that they’re done.

Allow to cool in the tins for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Leftovers can be wrapped in tin foil and frozen for up to 6 months.

Cranberry and Port Sauce
This is a traditional sauce that’s been in my family for four generations.

300g fresh cranberries (if you use frozen, defrost beforehand)
100ml ruby port
100g white caster sugar
50ml smooth orange juice

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and give a few gentle swirls. Heat on high until it bubbles and nearly boils, then turn down to a medium heat, shaking the pot every now and then to keep the sugar from burning. Keep an eye on the liquid, as this can dry out quickly. After about 20 minutes at the lower heat, the cranberries will start to pop. Put a lid on the pot and remove from the heat. Allow to cool and congeal for about 5 minutes before moving to a serving bowl. Serve cool.

Turkey Brine
I am a recent convert to the brining world. It really keeps the moisture in while tenderising the meat before cooking. Moreso than the other recipes for Thanksgiving, this one is a work in progress, so try out different aromatics and spices to your own tastes.

3 litres cold water
3 litres vegetable stock (if using stock cubes, add less salt)
200g kosher salt
100g granulated sugar
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp allspice berries (get these in the Asian market when you’re getting your maizemeal)
2 tsp chopped fresh ginger
6 bay leaves
14lb fresh turkey

In a large stock pot, combine the stock, salt, pepper, sugar, allspice, ginger and bay leaves and heat on high until it boils. Turn down to medium and stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Allow to cool completely.

Place the turkey with its giblets removed in a large brining bucket (yes, I have a dedicated brining bucket, you can get them in food supply stores nationwide). Pour in the cooled mixture and top up with cold water (about 3 litres, but make sure that you cover the bird).

Seal the bucket with its lid and put in a cool place (if your refrigerator can handle it, great, but I usually leave it in an unheated garage which never gets above five degrees in late November) for 24-48 hours. Check on the turkey every now and then and top up with water, if it needs it. Halfway through, turn the turkey over so that the legs and breast get equal time at the bottom.

Two hours before roasting, remove the turkey and rinse it thoroughly, inside and out. Pat dry and leave at room temperature until ready to cook. Roast as you would normally.

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