Friendsgiving: A New Holiday

I really wanted to focus a post on celebrating American holidays abroad. Sometimes the similarities between England and the United States make me forget that our traditions can differ broadly in some cases. For example, there’s no July 4th celebration here, and we don’t have a Guy Fawke’s bonfire night. Here in Britain, post-Halloween, the retail stores deck the halls with boughs of holly, Christmas lights, and presents galore, but unlike in the United States there is no intermediary holiday: Thanksgiving. As I watched my American college emails roll in with subjects like “Need a Ride to the Airport” and “Dorm Thanksgiving Dinner”, I looked to my calendar and realized that, of course, we don’t get any time off for Thanksgiving in England. Thankfully I didn’t have any classes on Thursday.

The Americans in the flat–  Keisha, James, and I–  wanted to share the Thanksgiving tradition with our British flatmates and friends. Though they did know about the holiday, there were quite a few aspects of it that were very foreign to them. We decided to call ours “Friendsgiving”. Here are a couple of good things about England not celebrating Thanksgivingt:

A. The grocery stores were open as normal.

B. The stores weren’t ridiculously packed.

James, Nicola, and I were able to get away with doing our Thanksgiving dinner shopping the morning of the big day. We walked to a nearby supermarket: Sainsbury’s. It’s one of the largest supermarket chains in the U.K., but it is slightly different to Safeway/Vons or Lucky’s/Albertson’s (I’m not sure which ones you have in New York). There are two types of Sainsbury’s: Sainsbury’s Local and Sainsbury’s Supermarkets. Here’s a description of each one.

Sainsbury’s Local
These are halfway between a gas station type of convenience store and a normal grocery store. There are some fresh bakery items, basic fresh fruit and vegetables, grab and go sandwiches and salads, and most of the normal aisles in a store (baking, cereal, etc.) but in a much more condensed version. There is a Sainsbury’s Local across from Queen Mary, but you pay a price for convenience. Your grocery bill will run higher at Local since the reduced selection means they can choose to carry only the more expensive version of almond milk, or the more expensive of two peanut butters, or possibly not run the same weekly ads as the larger version. So I only go here in an ingredient emergency when I’m cooking.

Sainsbury’s Supermarkets
Supermarkets really vary in size. They can be anywhere from 10,000 sq. ft to 100,000 sq. ft. We have a particularly large one about a 15 minute walk to the west of campus. There is also one in the giant Westfield Mall to the East of us, but it’s slightly smaller. The one to the west has a clothes, household, and electronics section, which the store to the east lacks. So I guess one is more “super” than the other. Even with the large selection it can be hard to find familiar foods.

Black beans, such a basic staple, aren’t available in cans like the rest of the beans, but only in cardboard boxes, and they only have the organic version. The smaller supermarkets don’t even carry them. Maple syrup was also surprisingly hard to find. Just remember to bring your shopping bags, because as of this past October, you have to pay 5p (about 8 cents) for each shopping bag, something that California implemented a few years ago.

Now that I’ve got some context out of the way, let me go back to our story. Nicola, one of our British flatmates who was going to help us cook dinner, wanted us to tell her the story of Thanksgiving. In America, the story of the pilgrims and Native Americans is told so many times. But none of our British friends knew it. So James and I took turns telling about the settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 and how they celebrated the harvest on Thanksgiving Day with the Native Americans, etc. (you know the story!).

The three of us split up the grocery list and began exploring Sainsbury’s for everything. I never realized how difficult it can be to celebrate Thanksgiving abroad if you’re a vegetarian, like many of my flatmates. Back home we have so many alternative turkey options, like “Tofurkey”. Here, we had to do some research before we found a loaf of vegetarian turkey that you could slice. That’s it. One option. And if we hadn’t been at the superstore we would have never found it. I even had trouble finding turkeys for us non-vegetarians. Since it’s not Christmas quite yet, I guess there’s not really a need to have so many turkey options in stock. I opted for some turkey breasts, as I was way too lazy and unexperienced to cook a full turkey.

We took the bus back home since we had quite a few groceries.

Then the cooking began! Let me show you the Thanksgiving dinner menu we came up with:

  • Starters
    • Spinach, Avocado, Cranberry salad
    • Homemade Artisan Bread Rolls
    • Fruity (non-alcoholic) Cocktail
  • Sides
    • Sweet Potato Casserole
    • Mashed Potatoes
    • Honey Bourbon Glazed Carrots
    • Green Bean Casserole
  • Sauces/Misc
    • Gravy
    • Cranberry Sauce
    • Stuffing
  • Main
    • Vegetarian Turkey
    • Thyme Roasted Turkey Breast
  • Dessert
    • Pumpkin Praline Cheesecake
    • Apple Pie
    • Vanilla Ice Cream
    • Giant Gingerbread Cookie

People started arriving at 4pm, though of course we hadn’t finished the cooking as scheduled. So our guests pitched in and helped us set the table and place settings and finish the final touches on the apple pies before popping them in the oven. Overall there were 11 of us at the dinner, plus a couple friends who popped in and out to say hi. It was a very crowded kitchen and table. But none of us went hungry.

I’d like to share with you my British friends’ reactions to some of the dishes as we passed them around. They were a little confused about what in the world a Green Bean Casserole is. We explained it is green beans combined with cream of mushroom soup and those crunchy fried onions on top, then baked (except we also added cheese to ours). They liked it and believed that it was a legitimate dish. Gravy and cranberry sauce aren’t unusual here, though it was a little hard to find cranberry sauce in the store at first (it was down a weird aisle).

Everyone was very impressed with the Quorn Vegetarian Turkey (Quorn is the brand). Truthfully it tasted better than my real turkey breast. I am not an expert in cooking meat, though. I was very happy the turkey breast was edible!  The bread rolls were warm out of the oven as we started eating, which went well.

Now we come to the interesting part: Sweet Potato Casserole. EVERYONE thought we were pranking them. The entire night all the Americans and I tried to convince our British friends that yes, roasted sweet potatoes with some form of marshmallows on top is indeed a legitimate dish. They could not understand how it was a side dish and not a dessert, with such an odd flavor combination. They were horrified: “Sweet potatoes…and…marshmallows????“. We were able to convince most of them to give it a try, but some were just too freaked out. I think they still don’t believe it’s a real dish.

After dinner we moved onto dessert, which was uneventful—  normal desserts, even by British standards. The fun came after dinner. One of our guests, Michael, disappeared after dessert. None of us knew where he had gone. Thirty minutes later he entered the kitchen fresh back from the supermarket with some Christmas Poppers. We do technically have Christmas Poppers in the U.S., but I don’t think it’s a popular tradition as it is in the UK, and I’ve only ever had them once. Think of them as toilet paper tubes filled with little gifts (sort of like plastic pinata-type filler toys), wrapped in wrapping paper. They have excess wrapping paper on either side. You stand in a circle with all your friends, cross your arms one of the other, and hold on to one end of your popper, and one end of the popper of the person next to you.

On the count of three, you both pull as hard as you can. The goal is to be the person left with the larger piece and the prize inside.

Go visit my album for this week, which is a three-minute long video explaining the tradition and showing our flat partaking in the tradition. It’s quite fun to watch.

All of them came with little paper crowns which we wore and really funny jokes. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean.

I should, at this point, come to the conclusion of my very long tale of Friendsgiving. It was wonderful sharing an American tradition with our British friends, as they’ve shared and explained so many of their own traditions to us. It brought us closer together, and made us thankful for the friends that we’ve made, and made me even more thankful for the family that I’ve found in my flat. I also learned to not take anything for granted. Something as simple as Sweet Potato Casserole is an alien dish to a non-American. So I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and someday I recommend sharing the tradition with someone who has never celebrated it before!


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