Well friends- the third week of November is upon us and for any Americans both at home or abroad, your internal alarm clock is probably telling you to get the turkey out for thawing/brining/frying (choose your poison). Because this Thursday is Thanksgiving! And if you’re not at home in the USA right now, here are some tips for enjoying an Ex-Pat Thanksgiving.
what is all this thanksgiving malarky anyway?
The story that school children are told about Thanksgiving is that it is a celebration of the Pilgrims survival in the new world with the help of some friendly Native Americans who showed them how to hunt, farm and live in this new land.
But of course, as adults, we know that the real history of settler/native relations is a bit more murky than this. And consequently, I find this part of the Thanksgiving story a little hard to reconcile. Especially since the Native American, Squanto, who was so instrumental in teaching this settlement to survive, was himself the victim of being kidnapped and sold into slavery by an English sea captain. So I prefer to land on the more modern interpretation of Thanksgiving which is more about gratitude and sharing a meal with the people we love.
I know there is a perception amongst non-Americans that Thanksgiving is a bigger deal than Christmas and this may well be true since Thanksgiving is non-denominational and welcoming to all. In a time that seems fraught with sectarian disharmony, it’s nice to think of a celebration that includes everyone and is generally about gratitude and kindness.
an ex-pat thanksgiving
I have been an ex-pat for very nearly 20 years now. Sometimes I look back over that time and am surprised at how my much I’ve changed but then everybody changes over 20 years don’t they?
I remember my first year spent abroad at Thanksgiving and how it felt really important that all the family traditions be observed. So along with Mr Engineer and my fellow ex-pat Midwesterner friend Bridget, we cobbled together an Ex-Pat Thanksgiving Dinner with some unusual adjustments to accommodate some of the cultural differences. And hats off to all the friends who schlepped their way over to our house after a long day of work because we insisted that Thanksgiving absolutely HAD to be on the Thursday!
The highlight of that meal for all the Brits was definitely serving my grandma’s famous (infamous?) fruit salad with the rest of the meal. You’ll find the recipe at the bottom of this post and I suspect that all you non-American readers will find the thought of this distinctly pudding-ish dish appearing with the main meal to be somewhat perplexing!
So having spent the past two decades (nearly) celebrating this uniquely American holiday outside the US, here are my tips for other Ex-Pats looking at how to modify Thanksgiving to suit their own circumstances.
1 Be flexible about the day
An Ex-Pat Thanksgiving does not need to be held on a Thursday. Learn from my own experience. After the first year, we moved our Thanksgiving to the weekend. Feel free to be flexible to suit your schedule and the schedule of the people you are inviting. In general, we have found that the following Saturday works just as well. And from a cooking perspective- it gives you a little breathing room for dinner prep!
It’s not a law that you can only be thankful on Thursdays 😉
2 shake up the menu
As with any occasion in my house, the food is the first and most important thing that we like to plan. Mainly because we love to eat. And cook. And eat.
However, I am a vegetarian and the rest of my family aren’t really very keen on turkey. So we have mixed up our menu over the years. Mr Engineer did cook Turkey last year when we celebrated Thanksgiving with our good friends and lovely neighbours. However, we mixed it up and served the turkey sliced for a ‘Make-Your-Own-Sandwich’ Smörgåsbord.
But our Ex-Pat Thanksgiving menu includes some of my own family traditions (the aforementioned Grandma’s Fruit Salad). And we enjoy new traditions that my family have adopted over the years. Like a cheese board for pudding, alongside the pecan pie of course!
The point is- cook what you like to eat and what you like to serve your guests. And don’t be afraid to short-cut. SPOILER ALERT- Most Americans make their pumpkin pie with tinned pumpkin. There. I’ve said it.
3 invite the locals
In the past, I attended Ex-Pat Thanksgiving dinners with other Americans and it was a lot of fun. But the best Thanksgiving dinners are with the locals. People are so excited and interested to receive an invitation to what certainly feels like quite an exclusive American event. I think my English family are bigger fans of Thanksgiving than I am sometimes. And bizarrely, after an adjustment period of precisely one year, they embraced the fruit salad paradigm with aplomb. And demanded that it actually be served with the savoury food because that’s the tradition.
Don’t be afraid to include friends and neighbours from your new environs. You’ll find that people will bite your arm off for an invitation!
4 don’t be sorry to give thanksgiving a miss some years
Yes, this seems contrary to what I’ve said above. But when you live in a place where the rhythms do not include all the build-up to Thanksgiving, it can feel a bit much to fit the big celebration in.
So give yourself permission to NOT do Thanksgiving. Or to celebrate Thanksgiving Lite. We’re doing that this year. Funnily enough, Mr Engineer was the one insisting that the Thursday be marked in some way. So we’ll be having a meal that is special to us and then cooking a modified Thanksgiving meal on Saturday. Before we head out to hear our friend’s gospel concert which I am totally looking forward to! See- it’s good to shake up Thanksgiving a little bit!
Whatever you are doing, enjoy your Thanksgiving celebration and the special time spent with family and friends. No matter where you are!
And now for Grandma Mabie’s Thanksgiving Fruit Salad
** NB- These days I am able to source a good many American ingredients here in the UK, especially through Ocado. If you are desperate to give Pumpkin Pie a try, you can find tinned pumpkin at Ocado. I use Ocado for my weekly shop but if you prefer the bricks and mortar variety, you can also find it at Tesco. (This post was not sponsored by Ocado but I am a big fan).
Stay tuned for Wednesday when I tell you the history of Pie Day.
Grandma Mabie's Thanksgiving Fruit Salad is a staple on my family's Thanksgiving table. And that means the Thanksgiving table back home in the Midwest or my Thanksgiving Table here in the Garden of England.
It's definitely a sweet treat but has been a tradition in my family since before I was born and always served with the dinner. Quirky? Yes. Tradition? Definitely!
- 2 cans fruit cocktail in juice
- 1 can pineapple chunks in juice
- 1 can mandarin orange segments in juice
- 1 jar maraschino cherries
- 1 tub whipping cream
- 2 bananas sliced into coins
- 1 pack mini-marshmallows
- The Night Before- Drain the fruit cocktail, pineapple chunks, mandarin segments and maraschino cherries in a colander.
- Cover with clingfilm or a tea-towel.
- Leave to drain overnight -- NB- If you do not follow this step, Grandma Mabie will appear to you with her waving finger of judgement. According to her, this is the ONLY way to make her fruit salad and avoid a separated sloppy mess. You have been warned 😉
- On The Day- Give the drained fruit a little shake to see if there is more juice to come out and leave it for a few more moments.
- Whip the whipping cream with a stand mixer (Kitchen-Aid all the way here!), an electric hand-mixer or go totally old school and use good old fashioned elbow grease and a wire whisk. Beat the cream until you have stiff peaks.
- Add the drained fruit to the cream, gently folding it in. Reserve some maraschino cherries to decorate the top if you wish.
- Slice the bananas into coins and add to the fruit and cream mixture, gently folding it together.
- Add the bag of mini-marshmallows and fold into the mixture.
- Gently transfer the fruit salad to a serving bowl, decorating the top with cherries if you wish.
- Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
This recipe is completely customisable. If you love pineapple, add an extra can. If you are like me and loathe bananas, leave them out. If you are a hard-core 'from scratch' cook, by all means use fresh fruit instead. I always go for the tinned variety because it reminds me of my grandma and the undoubtedly post-war nature of this recipe.
This recipe is equally at home on the dinner table or on the dessert table. You choose. If you have leftovers, just pop them in the fridge and enjoy them the next day.