It was November, we had been here for about 10 months now and I was still learning about the differences between my familiar culture and my new one. I couldn’t believe my eyes seeing the enormous turkeys filling the cooling places in the supermarket.
I pointed it out to my husband: “How does that even fit in an oven?” Not knowing that American ovens are a lot bigger than the Dutch ones. (We lived in a partially furnished apartment and only had a toaster oven.)
The abundance of sweet potatoes, a vegetable so unknown to me. It looked ugly, but upon Googling it, I discovered the taste is ‘fall-like’ and sweet, high in fiber, and according to the recipes I found people eat it with maple syrup, brown sugar or the worst yet, marshmallows!
Hmm, I though. If this is already a sweet root vegetable, why add more sweet to it? So many new things to learn.
Pumpkin pie. Seriously, pumpkin pie. I knew pumpkins from the Charlie Brown movies. I kind of knew you could eat it; I had heard of pumpkin soup. But pumpkin in a pie? It dazzled me.
Green beans and mushroom soup. Never in my life would I put the two together. Ask any random stranger at an international airport what the connection is between green beans and cream of mushroom soup. If they know, they must be American. Because I think the rest of the world will raise eyebrows at you.
What did I know? I was a Thanksgiving orphan: a person from another culture with no roots or family on this continent.
Not the feathers, and the googly eyes and general anatomy of the turkey, but the connections. Why the turkeys, why the pilgrim hats, the sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, the pumpkin pies?
So I did my research. I learned about the first settlers, dying of starvation in this new land, with a different climate, different soil and different produce. I learned about the helpful Natives, lending these poor pilgrims a hand, get them started, teach them about the corn, the sweet potatoes, the squash. Together they celebrated with a meal, a harvest meal. I’m sure they didn’t have cans of mushroom soup just yet, or marshmallows, but I got the point.
Slowly, but surely the pieces fell into place.
And living in this wonderful community where I wasn’t the only one who had never heard of Thanksgiving, the invitations started to arrive. Because, as we learned quickly, Thanksgiving nowadays is about two important things: Food and Family. And for those of us living here, very far from family, the Thanksgiving Orphans, other families would open their homes to include us in the tradition.
I brought an apple pie. A Dutch apple pie. To me it looks a heck of a lot more appetizing than the brown pumpkin pie (that, quite honestly, reminds me mostly of the kind of pies I found in the grassy pastures among the cows where I grew up).
The table was set beautifully. I felt right at home, knowing we weren’t the only ones that had no clue about this All American Holiday. I talked to a post-doc from India, and shared a glass of wine with a girl from France. Apparently, the typical Thanksgiving meal is served around 3pm, which to me seemed a very odd time to eat. Maybe this has something to do with the football game on the television, I haven’t figured this one out yet.
But we were in a warm house, with candle light and people from all over the world, and the hostess served an enormous golden looking bird: the turkey! There was stuffing that actually had been inside the cavity of the bird, and a bowl of stuffing that never touched the bird (because I learned that it might gross some people out). There was that typical green bean casserole, complete with the cream of mushroom soup, the orange sweet potatoes, drenched in maple syrup (but thankfully not topped with marshmallows), mashed potatoes and of course the cranberry sauce.
People ate, drank and were merry. I loved being part of it. It really made me feel grateful. And so I had my words ready when the host unexpectedly announced we all should say something we were thankful for.
Years later, my husband and I have returned the favor multiple times. We have invited international post-docs and students to our home for a Thanksgiving meal. We have studied the Martha Stewart recipes and my husband has perfected his turkey grilling skills. My kids helped me pick fresh cranberries and this is still the highlight of our meal.
And even although I will usually make a pie, we never eat it as dessert and it is not going to be a pumpkin pie. We will have it on Thanksgiving day, with our mid-morning coffee as would be considered ‘normal’ in the Netherlands. We also won’t eat at 3. Dinner is at 6 in my house. And that green bean casserole? Nope, never made it. I love green beans much better if I roast them with some almonds and garlic.
I feel thankful that the ‘natives’ took us in, that they helped us feel right at home here on an island in Maine. And I hope the people in Maine will keep repeating this wonderful tradition, to folks from all over the globe.