On Thanksgiving


UPFRONT:AS YOU READ THIS, I’m still in recovery. Two days ago was Thanksgiving, and the way the Americans do gratitude, it’s a relief it only gets expressed once a year. The problem with adopting a foreign feast like this is that one lacks the cultural coding that makes it so digestible to seasoned Thanksgivers.

From an Irish perspective, it comes at the wrong time. We’ve become accustomed to our own festive chronology: just as the ubiquitous Valentine heart morphs seamlessly into the Patrick’s Day shamrock, so it has always come to pass that the Halloween barmbrack gives way to the Christmas blow-out. Shoving a whole other holiday in between fairly boggles the Irish mind. And given that Christmas takes up a good six weeks these days, it’s hard to know how to accommodate the interloper. Sure the Christmas lights are already on – where would you find a window?

Then there’s the date, or lack thereof. What with Thanksgiving falling on the last Thursday of November every year, it appears to require the kind of calendrical calculations we normally save for Easter. It’s hard to pin down on an annual basis, especially when you’re trying to shove it in between premature Christmas parties but before the Advent calendar kicks off.

The point is, one should be very careful importing holidays with which one has no historical attachment. It’s fooling with the natural order of things – we are not, historically speaking, thanksgivers – and it’s best to accept that once and for all, and focus on complaining about what we don’t have rather than being grateful for what we do have.

Added to that, there are no Thanksgiving songs, there’s no great Thanksgiving story apart from some confused narrative involving Pilgrims and Native Americans all getting along suspiciously well, and that’s not to mention the lack of presents. In short, a feast that’s all about the eating does not transpose easily to a drinking nation.

Not that it ever stopped yours truly, mind. My first Thanksgiving took place some five years ago when I decided to pay tribute to the cultural heritage of my American flatmate by inviting the whole neighbourhood for Thanksgiving dinner. I thought it was only fitting given that we were both living away from home, and therefore far from the traditional comforts that such celebrations carry. I thought she might miss her big-haired American family and their spacious wooden house. Besides, I had watched the telly long enough to know more or less what it involved: mainly young, attractive professionals heading home for the weekend to slam doors and sleep with the neighbours. How hard could it be?

That’s the problem with American films: they foster unrealistic expectations in a person and hoodwink her into thinking she, too, is an American thirtysomething with big white teeth and romantic problems that can be resolved in 90 minutes.

As a Thanksgiving virgin, I was more than naive despite considerable exposure to family-based sitcoms and Woody Allen flicks. Luckily, I got the first rule: food is central to the drama. So I recruited a friend of no mean culinary talents to help me host my first Thanksgiving. She proved very useful getting the turkey in through the kitchen door, and with a bit of special rearrangement, we even managed to cram it into the oven. What we couldn’t agree on was whether the pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving lore were meant to be savoury, neither of us ever having laid eyes nor lips on the American delicacy. So we asked an American guest to provide the pies and banked on savoury: sure whoever heard of a pumpkin tart (Cinderella notwithstanding)?

Pumpkin pies, as we discovered when they arrived, are sweet – more akin to apple than shepherd, as it turned out. The result was 14 people eating dessert for main course while they waited for the slow-roasted, oversized turkey from the underpowered oven. We did serve it up with cranberry sauce in the shape of a can, but there was no light relief from the unexpected flatulence of a dozing uncle like you’d get in the movie version. We finally called it a day once our teeth stopped ringing, while the Americans present gave thanks they’d be celebrating at home the following year.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson. But I do love a good holiday feast, and once the American paramour came on the scene, I started Googling pumpkin-pie recipes quicker than you can say Martha Stewart (as far as I can see a layer of frozen pastry base and some Libby’s pumpkin-pie mix in a tin is all that’s required for a home-made version).

Turns out I’m not the only one. There’d been such a rush on pumpkin-pie mixture round these parts in the run-up to the big day that a tin of Libby’s on the Thanksgiving blackmarket was worth more than a city-centre semi-D.

Last year, a colleague came to my aid with a cracking sweet potato-pie recipe (also sweet – it’s all in the name, peeps). But this year, I was painfully aware that to crank out a pie or two and crack open a tin of cranberry jelly does not a Thanksgiving make: without the hot neighbour and a porch to smoke on, it’s hard to recreate a proper TV network holiday.

But there’s still something appealing about a feast that has nothing to do with nationhood or religion, and everything to do with good manners. Getting together round the dinner table to say thank you for whatever floats your pilgrim boat is no bad basis for a feast day.

And it’s only 11.5 months to next year’s Thanksgiving, so you’ve plenty of time to get prepped. Remember: all you need is a sprawling dysfunctional family, a dypso aunty and some Libby’s in a can. And though it goes against the national grain, chances are if we all stopped whingeing for a second, we’ll find that what with the Christmas lights on Capel Street, a hard-working Civil Defence and the end of Jedward’s X Factor run, we’ve plenty to be thankful for already. fionamccann@irishtimes.com