herald

Sunday 11 December 2016

'Why turkey is only for Thanksgiving in this Irish household'

I GREW up in what I always considered in many ways to be a steadfastly American household, and I credit my mom with first introducing our Irish friends and neighbours to real hamburgers, when all you could get here were the grim little oily mystery-meat offerings in the local chipper.

Every Saturday night, without exception, she made fat home-made ground-beef patties, loaded with melted cheese and all the trimmings, when hamburger buns were unheard of and we had to make do with the floury bread rolls inexplicably known as 'baps'. It made me a popular friend at age nine.

It wasn't the only traditional stateside fare we imported. I can't remember a simple meal of meat and potatoes. We had Swiss steak and Sloppy Joes, ham and butterbean stew or creamed beef on toast, all of it 'as American', as they say, 'as apple pie' - which was usually 'Danish style', open-face and criss-crossed with strips of iced pastry.

And yet, through all those years, it strikes me as odd now that we never once celebrated Thanksgiving. I was only really introduced to the custom of the family feast held on the last Thursday of November each year, when I moved back to America with my wife-to-be and we started our own family.

I remember asking mom years later why, of all the American food customs we had brought with us, Thanksgiving wasn't one of them. "You try getting a turkey in Ireland in November back in the 1970s," she shrugged. It wasn't just that, of course. For most of my childhood, we were a table of three. It would have seemed strange and extravagant to join in the national binge of our homeland so many thousand miles away, when much the same meal seemed to be repeated here at Christmas.

It surprised me to learn how very different, in fact, Thanksgiving is to Christmas. The keystone to 'The Holidays', it's a much, much bigger family affair. It's broadly secular, rather than a religious tradition, and most Americans will travel thousands of miles across country to be together at home on the day.

We were suspicious at first. Who, in their right mind, would want to take four days off in November to eat turkey, but only one day off at Christmas, only to sit down to steaks or a rib roast?

As for Thanksgiving food, our stomachs turned at the sweet, pulpy yams topped with toasted marshmallow served on the same plate as your meat; cabbage salads suspended in fruit jelly; creamy yellow corn mash casseroles with Christmas spices; stuffing with nuts and tart cranberries; sprouts with candied pecans; and pumpkin pie.

And how did all this fit in with the buckle-hatted pilgrims pictured on every paper plate?

We lived in America for almost five years and had two small children there as we gradually warmed to the idea of Thanksgiving. It was impossible not to get caught up in the quite genuine feeling of family togetherness once a year, even if the appeal of shredded cabbage in fruit jelly would forever baffle us.

LEFTOVERS

And so, one week on from our eighteenth consecutive Thanksgiving since returning to Ireland, we're only just scraping the last of the leftovers from the bowls still stacked in the fridge.

What started as the six of us sitting down to a nostalgic slice of America has grown into a full-blown family tradition, six table-settings becoming eight, then 10 and 12 as we began inviting friends to join us.

This year, we served 18 people, bringing in an extra table from the garden, borrowing chairs and starting to cook some of the dishes a full day beforehand.

Our Irish Thanksgiving has spread to two rooms, festooned with candles and fancy napkins, and it took almost half an hour to pass around all the different dishes we'd prepared, including, dare I say it, a rather suspiciously received bowl of hot, mashed yams covered in melted marshmallows.

I never did sit down to a Thanksgiving meal with my mother, though these past years, I've always called her in America afterwards to tell her what we made. "Mmm," her voice would crackle down the phone, "and did you put cranberries in the stuffing?" Or "How many kinds of potatoes did you make?"

This is our first Thanksgiving without her, even so many thousands of miles away, but I thought about her as we served up every plateful and everyone tucked in and chatted in the candlelight.

"What are you supposed to have for Christmas now?" chuckled someone through a full mouth.

I looked around at the steaming food, the full glasses of wine, the smiling faces, and shrugged.

"I make a great hamburger," I smiled.

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