Monday, October 12, 2009

Thanksgiving, Cultural Identity and Me

It’s Thanksgiving Monday in Canada today, and nearly everyone will be celebrating with a big turkey dinner. When I was a kid growing up in Canada, I loved Thanksgiving. I have many fond memories of Thanksgiving with my family, and they are especially poignant for me now as my parents passed away less than two years ago.

I’ve always tried to keep Thanksgiving in England, although I must admit it is challenging. First of all, whole fresh turkeys are non-existent here in October. Even my wonderful butcher can’t get one for me. He did say he could get me a sort of turkey roll thing, made up of the best bits of more than one turkey, but I really didn’t fancy that at all. Apparently the turkeys are not very good at the moment as they are all being fed up for Christmas. If you get them too early they are kind of stringy. Good news for the turkeys I suppose, but not for me. Of course, that was after he suggested I might be mixed up, as wasn’t Thanksgiving in November?

That happens a lot over here. Many of people seem to think that Canada and the US are pretty much the same country and have exactly the same holidays – something that upsets both Canadians and Americans alike. Don’t get us wrong, we like each other well enough, but it would be kind of like suggesting to an Englishman that he was Scottish or Irish. It’s not true and it kinds of winds us up.

So after explaining that Canadians and Americans do actually celebrate Thanksgiving during different months, I did what I do every year and ordered the biggest chicken they could get for me. I will refer to this chicken as the “turkey” and for just this one day my family will indulge my delusion. After all, it will taste fairly similar to a turkey, and be served with the usual Thanksgiving fodder – mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, stuffing and vegetables. I’ve even found some canned pumpkin to make some pumpkin pie. You can get it in the odd supermarket over here, usually ones in areas that have a high population of ex-pats.

Most British people don’t understand pumpkin pie, and I admit, it is an acquired taste. I also, possibly controversially, firmly believe that pumpkin pie is best made from canned pumpkin and not by hollowing out a fresh pumpkin. I remember one British friend who went to an awful lot of trouble to get pumpkin pie one year when we were going to his house for dinner in October. I was incredibly touched by the gesture and very grateful. The only thing was, the bakery that had made the pie had used a fresh pumpkin to make it. For some reason, pumpkin pie made from fresh pumpkin just does not taste like pumpkin pie to me. You see, we had some amazing cooks in our family, and all of them - to a woman - agreed that canned pumpkin was the only way to go. So pumpkin pie made with fresh pumpkin tastes very strange to me. Certainly it is probably the more evolved culinary choice, but I remember I struggled to eat the pie my friend had bought. It seemed so savoury to me, and was spiced very strangely. However, I will always be touched by his thoughtfulness, and of course I never said a word.

In my family, pumpkin pie was always served with whipped cream – and we kids thought it was the best treat if we were allowed to squirt the cream from an aerosol container. One year, the person who cooked the family Thanksgiving dinner whipped actual whipping cream as a special treat. We kids were heathen enough to be disappointed! Thankfully I can get aerosol cream here, and I will use it today in memory of our childish lack of any culinary pretension whatsoever – although I must confess that I would never serve it to guests, and my own tastes have evolved so much as to make me admit (although the kid in me is loathe to) that freshly whipped cream does taste better and have a better texture. I know some people do prefer Cool Whip non-dairy whipped topping with their pumpkin pie, but I definitely cannot get that here and a whipping cream versus aerosol cream versus Cool Whip debate is not something I want to be responsible for starting. That could be very dangerous indeed.

I must admit, it is easier to celebrate Thanksgiving now than it was when I first arrived in England twenty years ago. Although they are not widely available you can get most of the familiar North American brands if you look hard enough. There’s Stove Top stuffing (admittedly at an extortionate price, but hey, it’s only once a year), Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce, and as I said before, canned pumpkin. Heck, I even found Pillsbury Crescent Rolls in the supermarket chiller cabinet the other day – not that they are anything to do with Thanksgiving, but I’m pleased that more and more of my favourites are starting to cross the pond.

Of course, now that I have lived pretty much half my life in England, most of my cultural identity is British. I was naturalised nearly fifteen years ago, and I no longer even possess a Canadian passport, although I am entitled to one if I ask nicely. My husband and son are British (although my son does officially have dual nationality) and it was easier, and indeed something I desired, to allow myself to be assimilated. Dual nationality isn’t something I think about much, and for convenience I prefer to refer to myself as British. However I have never forgotten where I come from. It is a place I am proud to say I grew up in - and on this one Monday in October – well, my name is April, and I’m a Canadian.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody.