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Time to talk turkey and Thanksgiving

IT'S Thanksgiving, the American national family holiday, characterised by a mad dash across that continent by tens of millions, usually by way of a series of missed or delayed airplanes, through snowstorms of biblical proportions, all for a single gut-busting feed around a table, crowded with arguing relatives who are giving their embarrassing Christmas pullovers a first outing.

It's the stuff of a myriad of Hollywood movies about dysfunctional families: weeks of expectation, all leading up to one great big get-together, a prospect that invites all manner of gruesome culinary disaster, the centre point to a complete breakdown of familial relations – and we've celebrated it every year in our house since the first of our children were small and we lived in the States.

"In America," I point out, as someone who grew up in the country, "Thanksgiving is more important than Christmas."

"More important than CHRISTMAS?" says the youngest.

"At Christmas," I tell her, like a teacher in a class, "you don't have turkey for your Christmas dinner. You might have a huge steak, with baked potato and corn on the cob. Turkeys are for Thanksgiving."

"Thanksgiving," grins her older brother, "is turkey Armageddon in America."

"You get to have steak for Christmas?" continues the little girl, ignoring him.

"Actually, we'll just be having turkey again," I tell her out of the side of my mouth, "so it's not something we need to worry about."

In fact, I think to myself, we'll probably be having turkey every day from now UNTIL Christmas, judging by the size of the bloated, headless thing floating, still uncooked, in a laundry bucket full of brine out in the utility room, which we keep forgetting about and scaring ourselves with.


"So, why DO they have turkey at Thanksgiving?" asks the youngest, still considering the whole topsy-turvy way Americans do things.

"I don't know," I shrug, "perhaps it's because back in the time of the first American settlers, it was the only thing they could hit with their big, weird cone-shape guns. That's probably where the expression 'turkey shoot' came from. Turkeys were easy targets. They just moved the slowest."

"Like the dodo," grins the middle teen.

"So, why," chirrups his sister again, "are turkeys not extinct like dodos?"

"I guess turkey doesn't taste quite as good as dodo must have done," I tell her. "Or dodos were even bigger and slower."

"Did you know," continues her older brother, resident expert on poultry mass murder and all other things statistical and revolting, "that the American President actually PARDONS one turkey each year out of the tens of millions they kill?"

"Yeah," chimes in the middle teen helpfully, "after it tells him what kind of weather there's going to be for the rest of winter."

"That would be Groundhog Day," I correct, "which is after Christmas, is to do with predicting spring and has nothing whatsoever to do with Thanksgiving. It's a completely different movie, in fact."

As it happens, I'm now trying to find a film online for us to watch that would help to get us all into a Thanksgiving mood and sort of explain the spirit of the whole thing. "It has to do with pilgrim settlers and the Indians," I murmur, as I squint into the computer screen and the teens take turns poking their heads around the doorframe.

"How about Apocalypto?" suggests the eldest.


"Eh, no," I tell him. I read down through a list: "How about Hannah and her Sisters?" I call out, "Home for the Holidays? Or The Ice Storm? All great Thanksgiving films."

"And very authentic," says the eldest, dryly. "No doubt they'll explain everything we need to know."

"You'd be surprised," I tell him.

"How about . . . that one," says the youngest teen, peering in from over my shoulder and motioning with a dishcloth: "Thankskilling," he reads out, "a homicidal turkey axes college kids on Thanksgiving."

"Eh, that would also be 'no'," I say, scrolling down the screen quickly. "Ah. Here we go, Planes, Trains and Automobiles," I announce. "Probably the all-time best, must-see Thanksgiving movie comedy."

"Speaking of movie comedy," says my wife suddenly from the kitchen, "don't forget you'll all be on film before we eat. I want each of you to have something ready to say, so be ready. You've been warned."

It's a relatively recent addition to our Thanksgiving dinner ritual – going around the table with the camera and filming each of the children having to say something that they're thankful for. Like the holiday itself, it's not a religious thing, just another way to put people on the spot.

"I would also like your final votes on vegetable dishes," adds my wife.

Every year the kids each have to pick a side dish from a list of traditional American Thanksgiving fare that some might consider a little unconventional. Mashed yams with melted marshmallow topping, and soupy green bean casseroles topped with crispy onion pieces, share equal space on the dinner plate.

"I've suddenly thought of something I'm thankful for," mutters the youngest teen.

"Oh?" my wife and I both say at the same time.

"Yeah," he says, miserably, "I'm thankful there's turkey, so there'll actually be something I can eat."

"Ah, see?" I tell him. "Now you're getting it. THAT'S the spirit!"