Festive Eating: American Thanksgiving

This month our very own newsletter editor Kristen Frederickson shares what American Thanksgiving – which falls on the fourth Thursday in November – means to her


Growing up in the American Midwest of the 1970s and 80s, with a mother who positively loathed cooking and did as little of it as she could, Thanksgiving was naturally a bit of a good news/bad news scenario. The good news was that we got together every year of my childhood with my adored maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, and a smattering of cousins, who all shared the kids’ table, complete with paper plates and Kool-Aid, in the kitchen whilst the grownups shared wine and real silverware in the dining room. Eventually we all ended up together in the ‘living room’, as Americans call their lounges and sitting rooms, scattered on furniture and the floor, telling family stories. It was the best possible day.

The food, however, was another matter. There was the obligatory roasted turkey in all its unwelcome, dry splendour, having had the daylights cooked out of it for many, many hours. There were dried ‘au gratin potatoes’ from a Red Betty Crocker box, having been rehydrated with milk and then promptly dehydrated again in the same oven as the turkey. There was Stove Top stuffing, also from a box, nothing more or less than croutons and seasonings, to which was added boiling water. There were canned green (grey) beans suspended in canned Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and topped with dried onions. This feast was brought to a close by a store-bought pumpkin pie and Ready-Whip, a sort of whipped dairy product in a squirt can.

It didn’t really matter how dire the food was, because Thanksgiving is quite a perfect holiday, a chance to see everyone you love on one day, watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television, play Monopoly with the cousins, listen to parents and grandparents reminisce about Thanksgivings past.

As I grew up, however, it dawned on me that food could, and probably should, be better than my childhood had allowed. And yet you don’t want to mess with tradition so much that the spirit of the day is lost. Over the years, I’ve found dishes to echo the past, whilst celebrating what great food can be. The dry turkey gets brined for two days and cooked till just done. The potatoes are fresh, thin-sliced, baked with shallots, cream and Gruyère. The stuffing is a glory of torn-up Italian bread, cream, fresh sausage, fresh sage, garlic and mushrooms. The canned beans have morphed into a dish fresh from the sauté pan, the thin French beans tossed with lemon zest and butter. Because I am a rubbish baker, I choose from among my guests who makes the best pies, and that chosen one is always happy to provide.

Guests are no longer parents, grandparents and cousins, because we left America behind for London many years ago. Our Thanksgiving guests now are our daughter’s British friends and their parents and siblings (every British person I know loves the idea of Thanksgiving), and American friends who are also far from family. Instead of the afternoon of the fourth Thursday in November (the meal has to take place in the afternoon in order for everyone to drive back home in the evening), the celebration moves to the following Saturday afternoon so everyone is home from work and school. We each have three dried, colourful corn kernels by our plates, and one by one we name three things we are thankful for. We all eat far too much, but are still hungry for turkey sandwiches late in the evening.

Traditions are the glue that holds us together, and after all, food tends to be the most traditional thing about all our celebrations. Life evolves, though, and our Thanksgivings have, too. Happy Turkey Day, all.