This essay was originally written on 27 November, 2010. Names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty, except Mary’s name, because Mary really deserves some kudos.
I had pretty low expectations for Thanksgiving. Classes were scheduled for the big day, it’s not really my favorite holiday to begin with, and here in London, the only real recognition the very American celebration gets is a sudden proliferation of turkey and cranberry sandwiches. What I was most definitely not expecting was the most outrageous, unforgettable Thanksgiving of my life.
It started modestly enough. In the morning, I went to class; on the door of my flat’s kitchen was a note from one of the other residents, a native Londoner named Alan. Alan wanted to let us know that he and a few friends would be getting together for Thanksgiving, and that we were all welcome to come and bring some food or drinks or friends. The co-organizer of this event would be Eva, Alan’s Slovakian girlfriend, who (like Alan) had lived in the United States for a few years and (like Alan) considers herself an honorary American.
I returned in the afternoon to find our sink stoppered up and two birds floating in the water. Closer examination revealed one to be a chicken and one to be a duck. On Thanksgiving afternoon, Alan had gone to the supermarket to find a frozen turkey, discovered they were sold out, and bought all the other birds available instead. I checked the time, 3:30, and chuckled. There was no way they were going to thaw in time for dinner.
That afternoon the FedEx man visited with deliver a package which made me a very happy man. Think, reader, about the foods you love most. No, not the foods that make you smile. The ones that make you close your eyes, pound the table out of sheer pleasure, and roll your head back as all the muscles in your neck relax into bliss. Such a food are my Aunt Jean’s pumpkin cookies, generous dollops of pumpkin and nutmeg batter slathered with cream-cheese frosting. And that FedEx box held a whole tin of pumpkin cookies, just for me. I could have eaten the whole thing then and there, but instead I decided to do a noble deed: to make somebody else thankful.
I knocked on the door of my French neighbor, Sophie. Someone else answered: her friend Valerie, newly arrived from Paris and with no knowledge of the English language. We said hello a couple times, and I pointed at the cookies. “Cookies…from family…try?” She took one, but didn’t eat it. I decamped to my room and transported myself to pumpkin-cookie bliss.
Meanwhile, Alan and Eva were doing nothing to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner.
At 6:30 I headed over to the kitchen, where Alan and Eva were finally examining the birds and making an unsurprising discovery. They were still iced over. Of course, this problem took a while to identify (“Are you telling me I have to stick my hand up its butt?”), and required a phone call to Alan’s mother to solve (“You can put a whole chicken in the microwave?”). As the chicken was eased into the microwave, I pulled out my own raw materials and got to work.
I had resolved to make guacamole for the Thanksgiving feast. Mexican food is not very well-known in England, and a Texan grows nostalgic for it after a while. I became especially homesick in the chips (or, rather, crisps) aisle of the supermarket, where the tortilla chip shelf was nearly empty of options. There were “hot chilli” flavored Dorito corn chips, “tangy cheese” chips, and, inevitably, curry-flavored chips. Exactly two bags of plain tortilla chips remained. I grabbed one and made a grateful exit.
The guacamole production went pretty well. I didn’t have Serrano peppers, so I tossed in some red pepper flakes, and didn’t have any lemon or lime juice. But Sophie had told me that she had some lemon juice, so I went back to her door and knocked. No luck: she and Valerie had seen the defrosting chicken in the microwave and immediately dashed to the grocery store to buy their own dinner. I sat in the kitchen and fine-tuned my guacamole via large amounts of taste-testing.
Meanwhile, Alan and Eva were pouring out two glasses of wine and planning the side dishes. Every five minutes or so, Alan opened the microwave and reluctantly stuck his hand in the chicken’s butt, feeling for ice and making basically the same butt joke every time. Eva was frantically slicing carrots, celery, and other vegetables, occasionally taking time out to explain something to Alan.
“This is celery.”
“I know what it is, I’ve eaten it before.”
“Okay, just checking.”
“What the fuck is this?”
“Oh. I thought I was going to smoke it later.”
Eventually, Eva got saddled with the chicken-checking duties. As she thrust her hands inside the bird, Alan grabbed her wine glass and held it to her lips. I thought this was a romantic moment. It was ruined when Eva, hands washed, opened a stick of butter. “What kind of butter is this?” she asked, pulling the stretchy, squishy block in different directions with her fingers. “It’s Anchor Butter,” Alan explained, “they’re a really good brand.” “No,” Eva repeated, “What kind of butter is this?” Her fingerprints left major indentations in the deformed stick.
The chicken went into the oven at 7:45. It took two tries, because on the first try the oven rack had not been moved down and the chicken’s legs got stuck in the broiler unit. Still, we were making progress. Dinner would be served in a few hours! I wasn’t sure I would want to try it, so I headed off to my room, sliced two pieces of bread out of a loaf I’d picked up at a farmer’s market, and made myself a killer sandwich. Salami, chorizo, turkey, fresh lettuce, onions, French whole-seed mustard.
Meanwhile, I could hear the first guests arriving. Alan’s voice said, with his typical honesty, “Oh, have you brought a bottle of wine? You shouldn’t have.” Sophie and Valerie returned from the grocery, so I conducted emergency surgery on the guacamole to add the lemon juice before presenting it to an eager crowd. Well, mostly an eager crowd: the two Frenchwomen thought it tasted absolutely amazing, and I’m pretty sure Valerie started looking at me a little differently, if you get my drift, but a Turkish guy named Oz absolutely hated it. “I just think guacamole is disgusting.” The two French girls started cooking chicken in a pan, and somebody pointed out that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Eva, already slightly tipsy, corrected this: “No, there are too many women in the kitchen. Men never know how to do anything, so you can boss them around, but women always know how to do everything perfectly, so if they disagree they have to fight. One time the women in my family were cooking Christmas dinner, and we had a fight over the recipe so the whole time nobody spoke.”
At that point my parents called so I ducked out of the room and had a long, wonderful chat with them. When I returned, an English girl named Mary was making mashed potatoes, and the guacamole was going fast. We passed some time (actually, a lot of time) watching the Dallas Cowboys on an American guy’s cell phone, before – miracle of miracles – dinner was ready. This was probably at about 10. I grabbed a skeptic-sized portion of chicken and a more generous helping of the mashed potatoes. The chicken was perfectly fine. The mashed potatoes were the best I have ever tasted. Mary, if you’re reading this, come back and visit any time. Mom, I’m sorry, but it’s true. Mary’s potatoes reign supreme.
A short, stout Englishman spoke up. “OK, I have never been to a Thanksgiving dinner before, but I think you are supposed to say what you are thankful for.” This met with a murmur of agreement from everybody, but then an American girl interrupted. “Technically I’m a native American so I’m supposed to be a little pissed off.” The man I thought was her boyfriend (though, later, he kissed her and this inspired stunned catcalls and a loud “can we talk for a minute?”) responded a bit drunkenly, “Yeah, but you guys would just be eating buffalo.”
I thought I should interject in the girl’s defense. “Dude! Buffalo is amazing. If we were eating buffalo right now, that’d be so awesome.” She agreed with me. “I know! Like buffalo wings!”
Everybody was starting to look a little whiter than usual. No, wait. The room was getting hazy. I turned to the oven. The duck, now taking its turn, was producing alarming quantities of smoke; the fans were on full blast and Alan opened the window to let smoke escape into the nearly-freezing November night. Oz the Turk made a helpful suggestion: “Throw it the fuck out the window!” I decided not to be around for the fire alarm and decamped to my room.
When I returned, the conversation about football had turned to the subject of Peyton Manning. The drunk American guy stood up, showed off his muscular arms, and said, “Look at this. I would rather stab Tony Romo in the heart than touch Peyton Manning.” Eva, exhausted from all the cooking, grabbed an unfinished bottle of white wine and chugged it all down. The French girls were nowhere to be seen. I complimented Mary generously on her mashed potatoes, which she explained were an old, secret family recipe. She started listing all of the compliments her mashed potatoes had gotten over the years, like she was reading the potatoes’ résumé. Then there was a dull thud sound and a sharp clank.
The oven door was open. The duck was lying on the vinyl floor, its vegetable stuffing spewed out in a fan across the tiles in a pool of juices. Off to one side sat the baking pan and, above it, oven gloves still on, stood Eva, who immediately went from Happy Drunk to Angry Drunk, shouted, “This is what happens when people don’t fucking listen to what I say!” and collapsed sobbing against the refrigerator.
For a moment we all stood in silence. A Christmas Story flashed through my head. Sobriety struck a few people like a thunderbolt. Oz the Turk jumped into action. He dashed over to Eva, put an arm around her, and said, “No, no, it’s okay.” He leapt over to the duck. “There won’t be any germs. Guys, help. Everybody get up, come over, we’re going to put the duck back on the tray and back on the oven. It needs three or four minutes to cook and then it will be ready to eat.” Nobody got up. He put the duck back on the tray and into the oven himself. “What? What’s wrong with putting it back in the oven?” I sprang up and dashed to my room for paper towels. I gave them to a thankful clean-up crew member and then slipped like either a coward or a smart person back out of the kitchen.
For the rest of the night I can only record what I heard from my room, namely three shouts, in this order: a guy saying “Shit, let’s just go,” a girl screaming “Are you peeing in the closet?” and another girl hissing, “Is this Alan’s room? Oh, I wanna go through it!” After the food coma had properly set in, I went to sleep.
Was it the best Thanksgiving ever? No, certainly not; your family needs to be there for it to be the best Thanksgiving ever. But it was undoubtedly a classic, and possibly the Thanksgiving I will remember the most. Despite being in England, despite ingesting my turkey in cranberry sandwich form, despite spending dinner surrounded by raucous drunks, despite seeing half the feast end up on the floor, I had a truly authentic Thanksgiving Day. I ate well, got to talk to my family on the phone, had a chat with one of my best American friends, and did the good deed of letting someone else eat one of Aunt Jean’s sacred pumpkin cookies.
But the bottom line is that Thanksgiving is not about turkey, or football, or having a big celebration. It’s about being thankful. And, munching on a pumpkin cookie, preparing for class the next morning, and listening to the American guy being shouted at for kissing a girl other than his girlfriend, I remembered yet again that I have many, many things to be thankful for.