This all-American holiday is not as traditional as you think
24 November 2019
Little kids in pilgrim hats or feather headdresses that would give politically correct people heart palpitations today – when I was in third grade, everything about Thanksgiving was warm and fuzzy. Such a great American tradition, steeped in friendship, harmony and the spirit of giving. Under closer scrutiny, however, this holiday is not everything it is cranked up to be.
When I first came to Germany, I celebrated Thanksgiving with American friends. The menu in my mind was very clear. Obviously, it had to be exactly what my mother had always prepared. Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. These were the elements for a true Thanksgiving meal and I was determined to meticulously recreate it.
Thus began the unraveling of my homespun harmony.
It started with my friend Rachel, who is Mennonite. For those of you unfamiliar with Mennonites, they are kind of watered-down Amish. They are very religious but less strict and don’t go for the whole Laura Ingalls Wilder aesthetic (i.e., bonnets, no zippers or horse-drawn buggies). Which begs the question: Without all the bells and whistles, what precisely is the point of it all? But in the spirit of Thanksgiving and our friendship, I forbore to ask her that specific question.
When pressed on what exactly her religion does entail, Rachel smiles broadly and just says: “We like to sing a lot!” Well, so do Methodists, I think, remembering the long list of hymns in the Sunday bulletin that we used to belt out when I was a kid. So does Elton John, for that matter, although his outfits bear little resemblance to what either of us wore to church.
A more unexpected characteristic of her religion came out at Thanksgiving as we discussed the menu.
“I’ll do the seven sweets and sours,” she said brightly. “Can you bring a pie?”
The seven what? This was clearly not part of the traditional menu. The only sour thing on our holiday table was the jiggly can of cranberry preserves that stood awkwardly in a dish, the rings of the can still visible on its side. Only my Dad ever dared slice off a piece from this red cylindrical blob. He even ate it! Of course, we’re talking about a man who made enough coffee to last an entire week, so perhaps his standards of gourmet dining should not be the bar for haute cuisine.
The cranberry preserves were on par with those compact Yule logs full of rather suspiciously bright-colored dried fruits (just what were those bright green bits, anyway?) that tasted like, well, logs! As far as the cranberry preserves goes, I once ventured to take a slice and poked it gingerly with my fork to see how it would quiver. That was the end of my cranberry adventure.
It was downhill from there. Rachel flashed her broad grin at me again when I told her about the canned cranberry preserves.
“Oh no!” She laughed at me as if I had told her we had frozen pizza for Thanksgiving, amused on the outside but aghast and pitying within. “We always make a salad of fresh cranberries, oranges, apples and walnuts!”
I decided not to elaborate any further on my family’s Thanksgiving traditions. Rachel, after all, is a woman who has been known to make her own mayonnaise (this is not a joke; I watched her do it. I didn’t have a lot going on at the time, OK?). Or as my old friend Charlie commented: She probably makes her own water (which she doesn’t – but I’m not entirely sure).
To my relief, I learned that Rachel also makes her pumpkin pies using canned pumpkin. Correction: She used to. That was before she moved to Germany. All Americans who move here are faced with a shocking discovery:
Pumpkin pie comes from pumpkins! It’s true. You take a pumpkin, bake it and scoop out the pulp and this is the basic ingredient for pumpkin stuff, to use what I believe is the official culinary term for pumpkin pie filling.
The more I thought about how best to duplicate the Thanksgiving holiday, the more anomalies I discovered. Not only did turkeys at the first Thanksgiving not have those built-in thermometers that pop out when they’re done – the early settlers did not eat turkey at all. Historians believe they dined on fish, shellfish and venison or basically anything they could get their hands on since they were such lousy farmers. So if we wanted to truly recreate the spirit of their meal, we’d just raid the fridge and eat whatever is left. On second thought, frozen pizza might actually be more appropriate. What they didn’t tell us in third grade is that if the Native Americans hadn’t taken pity on them, even more of the early settlers would have starved.
I saw an impressive flock of wild turkeys take flight in Northern Illinois on a visit there a few years ago. It was breathtaking to see turkeys actually fly. If one of the oversized domesticated birds ever tried this, it would just fall over, break its beak and, if someone with a smartphone is standing nearby, make a great YouTube video.
Thanksgiving didn’t even become a holiday until a bunch of ladies (who probably called themselves something else, but let’s not give them the satisfaction of using their name) petitioned President Lincoln to pass it into law. So rather than being a hard and fast tradition, it is largely a fictional institution.
Nor is Thanksgiving purely American. In Germany, for example, they have Kirchweih, a religious festival commemorating the dedication of a church held in late October in Bavaria. Produce is brought into the church and placed at the altar to give thanks. Many African countries also have harvest festivals.
Another bubble burst.
My husband’s Aunt Helma was thrilled when we invited her over for a Thanksgiving meal (note I did not say traditional). She looked forward to a sumptuous spread, complete with a big bird in the middle of the table. What she didn’t realize is that because we had all become vegetarians, we weren’t serving meat, but a concoction made of tofu called a tofurkey. Despite the fact that this word sounds like a silly curse, it refers to a rounded dome made of tofu that is supposed to be a perfect substitute for the turkey. In case you’re curious, it wasn’t. We had proudly created one for our holiday meal as proof of our eco-sensibilities (and lack of taste buds. Sorry, tofu.). It wasn’t until we overheard her years later describing this meal that we realized how surprised and disappointed she had been that she hadn’t gotten the real thing.
In Germany, Thanksgiving has had a huge impact, but not because of any black-hatted religious protesters thanking the locals for saving their butts. No, the honor goes to Black Friday. German retailers have joined the fray with special sales the day after Thanksgiving. Most Germans are not aware of what the occasion is, nor do they care, but that doesn’t stop them from diving headfirst into the pre-Christmas season specials.
The tradition of sitting down to gorge on food has now triggered a feast of consumption. Because the rest of the year, let’s face it, there just isn’t enough food or merchandise available, is there?
In my childhood, the extensive meal preparations were shouldered by my mother, who for some reason did not delegate most of the work to us kids. Instead, she tried to do everything herself. Only when she had reached her emotional breaking point would she ask for help. A tightly lidded pressure cooker, everything seemed fine until she reached the boiling point and exploded.
You might wonder why we kids never offered to help. That’s a very good question, which I am unfortunately unable to answer since my teenage brain has morphed into a much kinder, more empathetic adult one (at least that’s what I’d like to think). Instead we tiptoed warily around our mother, not wishing to ignite the fire of her temper. My Dad always retreated a safe distance to his favorite corner on the couch in the living room, hidden behind his newspaper in the hope that this would protect him.
Amid the frenzied food preparations, I would emerge from my teenage bedroom, pad quietly towards the kitchen and use sign language to my sister: “What kind of a mood is mom in?”
She signals back with a throat-cutting gesture with the right hand and a yikes gesture with the other: “Angry! Be careful!”
Aha. Tread lightly, then. Say nothing, glide into the kitchen and search furtively for a meal-related task to start work on before she discovers you and indicates with a loud rush of exhaled air that you should’ve been up here helping before, dammit, can’t you read my mind?
As it is now, I’m content to go to work as usual on Thanksgiving Day, a day like any other here in Germany. At some point during the day someone aware of my American heritage will send me a Thanksgiving cartoon. I’ll open up the e-mail and say “Oh! That’s right – it’s Thanksgiving!” and get back to work. On the weekend I’ll host a pseudo-Thanksgiving with friends, with or without any of the standard holiday fixings. I not only faithfully use Rachel’s cranberry salad recipe; I have passed it on with much fanfare to countless others over the years.
Unfettered by any cultural norms as to what should or should not be eaten, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get together and give thanks for family, friends and peace. And for not having to eat cranberry preserves.