For 19 years I had a Thanksgiving much like any other. In my grandmother's basement, we layered tablecloths across the ping-pong table, the only thing big enough to bring together the 20-plus of a big extended family. After parades and football, we lined up to pile the meal onto melmac plates. A "simple meal," Rachel Laudan calls it, designed for a "national celebration embracing all citizens" (and plenty who aren't).
That is, the one bird who feeds the many. Crimson fruits, miraculously ripe with life after many fields have died back for the year. And pumpkin-turned-pie as a final benediction for the annual ritual.
But on my twentieth Thanksgiving, I was a student in England. Just past the Gothic arches of a Cambridge hall, waiters greeted American guests with sparkling glasses of bubbly on silver trays. The talk was of philosophy and literature. Absent was the dysfunction that Thanksgiving often brings out in a people who know each other too well. There were no arguments, political or otherwise. It was literally another world. And yet, there was the bird, and the berries, and the pie. Wherever on Earth celebrants might find themselves, on the last Thursday in November, the ritual tastes endure.
A Taste of Home
In 1863, as a gesture to heal a country suffering from civil war, President Abraham Lincoln officially established Thanksgiving as a national holiday. But not just in the US. In his declaration, he invited "those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands" to celebrate as if at home.
But the longing for the foods that now define Thanksgiving had already begun among expats a good hundred year earlier. When Benjamin Franklin returned to England in the middle of the 18th century, he wrote back to the colonies to request large shipments of cranberries (as well as cornmeal and buckwheat) "for since I cannot be in America, everything that comes from thence comforts me a little, as being something like home." By 1880 Mark Twain, was still feeling the same. In A Tramp Abroad, his 'bill of fare' of all the foods he missed from home of course included "Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style" and cranberry sauce. And in World War II, for Americans in Italy or North Africa, Janet Clarkson, aka The Old Foodie, tells us that turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie were firmly established as the necessities for Thanksgiving on foreign soil.
Today in those places where the American influence is strong, even locals are taking on the holiday. A few years ago the UK grocery store chain Waitrose began to offer Thanksgiving delivery slots, originally in areas with high concentration of Americans: military bases and universities. But then in a survey they found that one in six Brits celebrates Thanksgiving, with 30% of people in Coventry and 25% in London cooking up the traditional meal. They now report that November turkey orders (as opposed to Christmas when Brits traditionally serve turkey) are up 30% from last year.
And like Franklin, as an American living in England, I begin checking the shelves for cranberries as soon I know the October harvest came in in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. It's never too early for relish — or tarts or quick bread — and that taste of the cold northern U.S. And in following the Franklin craving, I'm not alone.
An American Cook Abroad
Judy Witts Francini leads food tours in Italy, where she's lived for several decades. She relies on American friends to bring cranberries — as well as pecans that are serious spend in Europe. When she started making Thanksgiving for friends in the 1980's, "Italians did not eat turkey on a regular basis." However, her local poulterer "had a farmer that raised animals including turkey, so I would go a month early, order it, and it would be killed and cleaned for me and brought to the market." But why go to all the trouble of getting the ritual just so when you find yourself in place where the everydayness of meals is rare? "Italians think Americans only eat junk food," says Francini, "and for me, Thanksgiving is one of the only big meals we do in USA, so it's a good sample of how we do a huge family spread for a holiday."
Likewise, Penang-based food writer, Robyn Eckhardt, told me that Thanksgiving had always been special to her because it's "a holiday for people who like to eat." So when she found herself in China several years ago, she still wanted "the whole shebang." She insisted on having turkey, even if it meant paying $90 for one, and, of course, "cranberries for me were an essential part of Thanksgiving."
But for some Americans the ritual is more than those foods. It's the spirit. And for them, the best way to experience Thanksgiving is to forgo the Franklin option. For cookbook author Marlena Spieler, "the best way to celebrate Thanksgiving was meeting up in Paris with a friend who flies in from America and we spend a week running around the streets in delight, eating roast chicken in iconic bistros." It's "not the most classic Thanksgiving menu," she admits, "but the most Thanksgiving of feelings."