By Sarah Pridgeon
Thanksgiving is a funny old time when you’re a newcomer to this nation: it’s a holiday that has no real counterpart back home. Turkey and stuffing is never a bad idea, but the concept of saving a date to be grateful seems to have escaped the cantankerous natives of England.
Of course, I can see why a celebration about being rescued from starvation by the inhabitants of a brave new land might not apply to us. We represent the people who stayed behind, jealously guarding our well-established wheat fields and muttering under our breaths at the audacity of it all. We are not the brave few who fearlessly settled this strange and unwelcoming land.
Even so, I find it hard to believe that, in all our centuries of sailing about the place, we never once accepted a pineapple from an island dweller. After all, we once created the largest empire in the history of the world and did it almost exclusively via boat, but we aren’t known for packing anything more useful than a teabag. Surely we could get into the spirit of things if we wanted to?
I suppose we do celebrate the Harvest Festival back in Europe, but it could hardly be considered a holiday. In theory, it involves a community effort to collect food for those in need. In practice, most of us answer the call by digging out whatever tin cans have festered all year at the back of the pantry, never quite making it onto the dinner table.
I imagine that the people on the receiving end of this “charity” regard Harvest Festival as the season of prunes and spiced cockles. Personally, this is not something that I would be particularly thankful for.
This made me feel like a bit of a cheat when my first Thanksgiving rolled around. I felt I was anticipating cornbread under false pretences and was half expecting someone at the table to whip the mashed potatoes out of my hand. What had I to feel grateful for, I wondered? By the time I made the long voyage to the New World, there was a Burger King waiting for me at the airport.
I also had no idea what to expect. I knew there would be turkey and I’d heard a lot of vicious rumors about marshmallows being applied to yams, but once again familiarity was my foe. As Thanksgiving was such a traditional date on my husband’s calendar, it didn’t occur to him that it might not be quite so obvious to me.
I then realized that I did have reason to consider myself part of the celebrations. I come from a long line of Burnsides, a family that has strong, deep roots in Scotland but seemed to have largely died out. No longer do they roam the highlands in their clan’s bespoke tartan.
But when my dad did some sleuthing, we began to suspect that they’re all over here. The Burnsides of the world have long since upped sticks and made a home in the New World – and now, just like my ancestors, so have I.
(As a side note, I did consider going double-barreled when I got married. This would have made me Sarah Pridgeon-Burnside, which translates to mean “Keeper of the Pigeons by the Side of the River.” This is possibly the most specific second name of all time.)
And even if this country is more civilized than it was in the days of the Mayflower, I can still claim that I was saved from starvation by its natives. The only difference being that it was my new family who welcomed me with food and celebration.
Never one to miss out on a hearty meal if I can avoid it, I decided to throw myself into the celebrations wholeheartedly. I was, after all, very grateful indeed to have been accepted into the fold.
My first task was to help my six-year-old niece prepare the yams, despite my overall suspicion of combining sweet potatoes with the white things that float in hot chocolate. I gamely set about slicing them, while my niece sprinkled small amounts of sugar over each layer and larger amounts in the direction of her mouth.
I then helped her prepare the whipped cream, which once again seemed to involve me brandishing the more dangerous pieces of kitchen equipment while she kept a tight hold on the sugar bowl. She tasted the cream with great diligence at every stage of proceedings. It was several hours before she stopped running in circles.
The fated hour arrived and with it the elaborate dishes. The table was covered what seemed like far too many delicious treats to eat at once, but I was prepared to give it a go.
I piled my plate high with my aunt’s famed company potatoes and the turkey that my dad- and brother-in-law had been administering to all morning behind firmly closed doors. I added heaps of green bean casserole, creamy mashed potatoes and stuffing, the hallmarks of mom-in-law’s delicious cookery. I even tasted the yams I helped to make, though my suspicions were quickly confirmed.
Too full to move, I swayed on my chair as the desserts were brought out, and oh what desserts they were. Grandma-in-law makes a sour cream and raisin pie like no other, I’m told, and I’m quite prepared to believe it. Even pumpkin pie, the idea of which I’d always found disconcerting, went down very well indeed.
I ate until I felt sick, then napped for a while and came back for more. I played games, shared stories and enjoyed hours of content camaraderie with my family, who never seemed to question whether I ought to have been there. I was, to put it mildly, very thankful that day.
The food was wonderful, the company even more so and I couldn’t help lamenting how much everyone back home was missing out on. I think we’d greatly benefit from an opportunity to tell our loved ones that we’re grateful to have them with us, and to hear them tell us the same. Especially if that was followed by company potatoes.