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If an American asks you what you’re doing “for the holidays”, he or she is talking about Thanksgiving, which is almost upon us. When they’re going off somewhere for a week or two in the summer, it’s their vacation. Thanksgiving can be a tricky one for Brits in the U.S.
Although we grew up with Harvest Festivals, that really only entailed taking a few cans of baked beans to school or to church. Apart from Christmas and all the trimmings, there is nothing quite like the American Thanksgiving for us and we often underestimate the gravitas of the event.
It’s a huge time of family togetherness in the U.S.; my college girl is flying 1,000 miles home, the in-laws are coming in from another state and my American husband has been menu-planning for weeks. (He has long since taken over the reins of this one in case I forget some traditional dish or otherwise mess up.) Many of my friends host more than twenty family members for Thanksgiving dinner. In short, like Christmas in the UK, it’s a time when dysfunctional families all over the country try to play nice and avoid mentioning last year’s drunken outbursts.
Thanksgiving brings out the worst in perfectionists and Type A personalities, as Martha Stewart barrages the nation with strict instructions for the perfect turkey and how to transform your napkins into ears of corn. Houses are often trimmed with seasonal decorations such as dried out gourds that, to the uninitiated, look positively indecent.
Most Americans have a stock of Thanksgiving horror stories, examples of which you can find at the Gawker web site. Family members vie to show off their special dishes, to the point where there is always far too much food and everyone is living off leftovers until Christmas.
Non-Americans may find themselves invited to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving. As a guest on such an occasion, you should always ask if there’s anything you can bring, and then pray that you recognize the answer. If anyone mentions biscuits or gravy be aware that they’re not the same as British biscuits and gravy. American biscuits are not a sweet snack, but more like unsweetened scones to go with dinner. Gravy is usually thicker than the British version and, in the south in particular, more like a white or Bechamel sauce.
Although a Thanksgiving meal is somewhat like a traditional Christmas meal, you won’t be eating chipolata sausages or thick, rich pudding. As well as the turkey, you’ll probably encounter the famous Green Bean casserole, which is a questionable combination of green beans, canned mushroom soup and canned crispy fried onion rings. (I know.)
If you’re lucky, you’ll get someone’s generations-old family recipe where not all the ingredients are canned, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. Other menu items include mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or yams (which can also come topped with marshmallows), corn casserole and cranberry dressing. The dessert is usually pumpkin pie, pecan pie (in the South) and apple pie although family and regional traditions make for a wide variety of options.
If you’re a Brit attempting to host a Thanksgiving celebration, I recommend doing lots of homework first. An Internet search will bring up thousands of web sites walking you through every aspect, and there are more than a dozen phone hotlines you can call up in an emergency. Turkey company Butterball promises – “No question is too tough for these turkey talkers, and they are ready and excited to tackle any challenge you throw at them. Give them a call at 1-800-BUTTERBALL or send them your question.”
Oh and by the way, although Brits tend to stress the Thanks in Thanksgiving, most Americans put the stress on the second syllable – Thanksgiving.
What are your plans for the holiday?
Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.