Lifestyle

Wednesday 17 September 2014

It's time for Thanksgiving

Dinner's served: president George Bush serves US troops in Iraq their Thanksgiving turkey, while below, Declan Byrnes-Enoch celebrates with friends in Ireland

Christmas comes but once a year, so the poem goes -- but the next best thing is having Thanksgiving a month before, which is the case for Americans today.

In homes throughout the States, as the first snow of the season begins to descend, young businessmen will complete the long drive back to their family of birth, college kids will wait impatiently for the appropriate hour to visit their childhood friends, and later on in the day, tables will be set with the usual meal of turkey, cranberry stuffing and mashed potatoes, plus pumpkin pie for dessert.

"Thanksgiving for me is all about the food and family," says Kelly Arnold, 36. "I come from a large, close-knit family where I'm the youngest of 10, and two of my sisters were married to brothers so Thanksgiving was a huge deal in our house."

"One of my favourite traditions was that we went around the huge table and said what we were thankful for that year. It was an opportunity to get laughs, but more for being heartfelt and genuine."

Kelly and her husband Christopher moved to Dublin from the States in June to "revinvent themselves", she says, but they're both preparing to feel the pinch on being without her family for the first time.

"We lived in Florida away from my parents for 10 years," she explains. "Thankfully that allowed us to have a transition period where there were a few friends and family with us, so it's taken the edge off being alone in Dublin."

But she's certainly not alone -- there are approximately 45,000 expat Americans celebrating their biggest national holiday in Ireland today. Many are students who will celebrate it with the American contingent in their colleges, others might be here temporarily for work, in an American company that has organised a post-work Thanksgiving dinner.

For Sue Callaghan, 52, it's a tradition which hasn't lost importance despite her 32 years in Ireland. She moved from Buffalo after she met her Irish husband during a trip to Scotland -- "we went to find the Loch Ness monster but we found each other," she beams. The first two Thanksgivings -- or Turkey Days -- away from home were particularly difficult.

"I certainly felt isolated from my family; it was a terribly lonely day. On the first year, I plonked a chicken on the table and answered my husband's quizzical look with, 'It's Thanksgiving. Humour me'."

It's a simple mistake to make; there's a default belief that Western cultures are by and large the same. It's certainly not the case today, where most of us this side of the pond wonder what the point is of having two massive turkey-and-TV days so close to each other.

But Sue's found that over the course of her time here, Ireland's become more knowledgeable about the annual event, which takes place on the fourth Thursday of November.

"Back in the '70s when I first came, no one really knew what it was despite plenty of people having relatives across the Atlantic. But recently the landscape's changed: there are American programmes and TV channels which has helped to bring the culture over.

"They've even started to learn about its history in a local school, which shows you how far Ireland's come in such a short space of time."

What the teachers will explain is that the holiday dates back to 1621, the year after pilgrims arrived in Boston. After a rough winter, in which about half of them died, they turned for help to neighbouring Indians, who taught them how to plant corn and catch eels.

The next fall's bountiful harvest inspired the pilgrims to give thanks by holding a feast, in which both the Indians and the pilgrims took part. The idea of giving thanks to the food, forefathers and their community led to Thanksgiving being annually celebrated since 1863.

As Sue's ancestors were one of the first pilgrims over, it was always an important day in the calendar. Sue remembers her childhood Thanksgivings in New York with great fondness.

"There were never less than 14 people over for dinner, which we'd have after the football had finished. There would be an adults' table and a kids' table, and it was the biggest deal in the world to be upgraded."

For Declan Byrnes-Enoch, 22, the memories are still fresh since he has only lived here for three years. To him, the joy was less about the history than the present customs. "We don't get much time off from work -- there's no statutory holiday time and even with Christmas it's rare to have two days off. But at Thanksgiving, people would be off work on the Thursday and Friday, so everyone would make the journey back home.

"My family are half-Jewish anyway so we wouldn't really celebrate Christmas. That's common in the States -- Christmas is secular, but everyone celebrates Thanksgiving. It's the only true American holiday.

"Thanksgiving begins on Wednesday night when you'd begin your journey back to home. All my college friends would come back around then so while I'd spend a lot of the long weekend just drinking, eating and catching up with them until the Sunday, when you'd all split."

This year, he's planning a feast with his fiancée and flatmates. It's his first time cooking the enormous meal, as previously, he'd follow the 'women-in-the-kitchen, men-watching-American-football' tradition.

Kelly's gearing up for her first Thanksgiving in Ireland too.

"Chris and I haven't decided if we'll try to celebrate Thanksgiving, or just ignore it completely," she says. "We have made good friends since moving here so it is possible we can gather a fun bunch.

"But we sold our house and most of our possessions to finance the move here and as the cook, I'm not sure I can make do in my somewhat smaller and much less-equipped kitchen here.

"Perhaps that's just a cop-out," she ponders.

"Maybe I'm just afraid it won't be possible to capture the mood and feeling of an American Thanksgiving and don't even want to try for fear of disappointing myself.

"I'm not sure, but at the moment I'm inclined to blow off the whole thing and see Lucinda Williams at Tripod instead."

Sue, meanwhile, is continuing her recently acquired tradition of having a gigantic dinner for her family, her American friends and the asylum seekers that she works with in Athlone.

"It's wonderful to be able to show people of different cultures about the tradition of Thanksgiving," she enthuses.

"Because America's image has taken a beating internationally, it's especially important to remember that there are plenty of positive aspects to the country too."

Perfect Pumpkin Pie

Ingredients

For the pastry:

A sweet shortcrust pastry case

For the filling:

450g/1lb pumpkin flesh, cut into 1in/2.5 cm chunks

3 large eggs

3oz/75g soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ level tsp freshly grated nutmeg

½ tsp ground allspice

½ tsp ground ginger

10fl oz/275ml double cream

Method

1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

2. Steam the pumpkin until cooked, then drain any excess liquid. Pureé.

3. Whisk the eggs in a large bowl.

4. Place the sugar, spices and the cream in a pan until simmering, then lightly whisk.

5. Pour the cream mixture over the eggs and lightly whisk again.

6. Add the pumpkin pureé to the mix while whisking.

7. Once the mix is fully combined, pour it into your pastry case and bake for 35-40 minutes. It should puff up round the edges but still feel slightly wobbly in the centre.

8. Remove from the oven and place the tin on a wire cooling rack.

9. Pop it into the fridge and serve chilled.

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