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Getting the hang of it

Thanksgiving — one of those damned colonial mysteries

November 1st, 2010

BY CATE GARRISON

No matter how long you live there, a foreign country remains mysterious. Even when the language purports to be the same as your mother tongue, some little turn of phrase or cultural reference, or just the accenting of an unexpected syllable, can send you rushing to the reference library in your effort to acculturate.

thanksgiving.jpgThe basic, innocent pleasures of everyday American life hold terrors for the immigrant. The indecipherable dishes listed at drive-through (“thru”?) restaurants, plain sailing for the native, can scare the living daylights out of the newly landed stranger as disembodied voices call for split-second choices among incomprehensible offerings. “Er, um, a twenty-piece bucket, please!” once yelled my uprooted eight-year-old in a panic to conform. How could I know he was about to receive a score of chicken legs in a plastic container? At least he fared better than his five-year-old brother, whose fearful, dry-mouthed response on the same occasion was a frantically whispered “Hello, wall!”


Traditions are worse. Christmas may be a piece of cake (ho ho!), especially for ex-patriot Britons who take on a yuletide glow of superior, Dickensian authenticity amid history-hungry Yanks. Thanksgiving, however, is a different ball game (by which I mean it’s certainly not cricket). Everyone around you knows the form, but no one’s telling. We’ve heard of it in England, and we hold the Pilgrim Fathers somehow accountable. But we’ve never taken it seriously; after all, it smacks of throwing off the foreign yoke. We assume, perhaps, that our own chapel harvest festivals have some ancestral bearing on the case and that sometime in autumn Americans, having gathered their vegetables into barns, sing a communal hymn or two and eat a pie-and-pea supper afterwards.

“I’m glad you’ll be here for Thanksgiving,” said my recently acquired American husband one mid-November morning several years ago. “It’s my favorite holiday.”

“Why?” I inquired, all innocence and naiveté.

“Oh, you know. Everybody together and a lot of nice food.”

“Sort of like Christmas, you mean?”

“Not really. Turkey, of course. But otherwise…not exactly.” And he left for work.

Subsequent fact-finding marital conversations, though shedding little light on the Thanksgiving mystery, contained heavily loaded words and phrases: “My mother used to…,” followed by “black-eyed peas,” “wild rice,” “pumpkin” and, of course, “corn.”

In Britain, when we talk of cornfields we picture undulating meadows of a knee-high, yellow cereal crop. I swear I always thought cornflakes were made of wheat, not maize. Here I feel like Old Testament Ruth standing amid the aliens. By popcorn in Albion we mean Butterkist, tiny packets of a tooth-shattering, toffee-coated confection. Though now I’m an old habitué, my visiting compatriots still goggle at those gigantic, oily paper movie-house drums that reek perpetually of flatus. And what of corn bread, cornmeal, cornstarch?

Ears of corn, admittedly, I recognize. But how to find a pot that’s big enough to cook a dozen at a time, even though everything American is larger than seems proper? For my first Thanksgiving, jangling my little English chattels, I cooked the blighters two at a time and served the last ones up with dessert.

At the time when dessert should have been served, that is. Squash to me is what you experience in an overfull bus. Pumpkin belongs to fairy godmothers and Cinderella; it provides the basic materials for golden coaches, not puddings. But “my mother used to…” worked its own potent magic — homemade pie was the order of the day. My husband’s only recipe book helpfully called for one pound of pumpkin purée; gamely, I dragged fields and supermarket parking lots for a specimen weighing in at less than ten. At home, I stood my acquisition on the kitchen table and made a defiant cup of tea.

Two days later, the unbreached vegetable still glowered at me in all its orange balefulness. I remembered a time when I lived in France and decided to cook brains, in imitation of the local inhabitants. The red-veined grey matter stared at me from a bowl of acidulated water for three whole days before I poured it down the toilet.

Strange though it seems, after a while the skin of a pumpkin uncannily begins to resemble cerebral cortex. One morning, I attacked. Have you ever tried to peel a pumpkin with a potato parer? It’s inadvisable; the blisters you raise make it difficult to thrust a dagger into your husband’s mother’s heart.

I did manage to save some of the flesh, once I’d washed off the blood (from my cut fingers, not my mother-in-law’s thorax). The stewed pumpkin tasted watery, so I eked it out with cream, sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon. My husband said it was OK, but not very American. The dog, however, liked it a great deal — it was his first Thanksgiving, too. In recent years, I’ve happily discovered cans.

But that first American November, I had determined to do everything myself. Our invited friends, their offers of help rejected, insisted nevertheless on bringing “dressings” and “hotrolls” (all one word, stress on the first syllable). As for the first, being pretty sure we didn’t need sticking plaster, I assumed they meant things like vinaigrette; I washed oodles of lettuce. I had no idea what a hotroll could be, though I didn’t admit it. But in my pre-Thanksgiving shopping, I bought plenty of bread buns (two words, equal stress on both) in case we ran out of food.

Carbohydrate load would be a euphemistic description for the brimming baskets served up on the day itself. Needless to say, I also prepared three kinds of stuffing for the turkey. Well, six kinds of stuffing/dressing are better than none. And who cares if the salad goes naked?

I cooked the wild rice for 15 minutes — ccccrrrunchy! I didn’t soak the black-eyed peas. The turkey wouldn’t fit into the stove, so we cut it in half and cooked it in shifts; second helpings were ready at midnight. I burned my (cut) fingers trying to peel the hot, baked sweet potato and couldn’t mash it properly; people said they didn’t mind the lumps. I added chocolate to the pecan pie (“My mother didn’t…”) and forgot to freeze the ice cream (electric switches in America operate the wrong way round, just like the traffic).

I still don’t quite know what Thanksgiving is all about. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism for keeping Santa Claus temporarily at bay. Or perhaps, in its chaotic overconsumption, it’s really a dry run for Christmas, without the presents. But I must admit, even that first year had its good points. We drank many bottles of fine wine. The dog didn’t choke to death on turkey bones. And Thanksgiving is still my husband’s favorite holiday, though he swears next year he’s coming to your house.

As for me, Thanksgiving ecstasy gets easier to simulate as the years go by, but I still get through by gritting my teeth, thinking of England and counting my blessings when the insinkerator has eaten the last of the leftovers. Now that misty, mysterious November has given way to a jollier, friendlier month, I give thanks that the hot and cold turkey terrors are behind me. At last I can pin my stocking to the mantelpiece and start my annual countdown towards plum pudding, the Queen’s speech, the Boxing Day lie-in, the highs of Hogmanay, the dusty taste of Black Bun and all the familiar features of an orgy I can understand. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Food Issue, Garrison | Link to this Entry

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