An American in Durham: A Moveable Feast
A few weeks ago a friend passed me a birthday card to sign. I replied, “Of course I’ll give you my John Hancock!” immediately realizing that I could not have said anything more anti-British at that given moment. John Hancock was a founding father who signed the Declaration of Independence so grandiosely that the likes of Benjamin Franklin had to squeeze their signatures into the bottom margin. His name has now become a colloquial noun for anyone’s signature in the US. This article will begin with the same awkwardness I felt in explaining the history of John Hancock to my British friend.
Thanksgiving is an American holiday because Oliver Cromwell was not too kind to the Puritans, who decided their best option was to isolate themselves in an unchartered land mass. When they reached present-day Massachusetts, they did not anticipate how much snow, damp, cold and starvation they would have to endure. Unfortunately half of them died. Then, as the elementary school story goes, the Native Americans became unafraid of the Puritans and taught them how to plant corn and potatoes, hunt deer and rotate crops—all things that I’m pretty sure the Puritans could (or even should) have learned in England.
So after being in America for a year or so, the Puritans and Native Americans gathered for a three-day feast celebrating all the food they had to maintain them through winter. Fast-forward a few decades to the French-Indian War and the essential genocide of Native Americans at the hands of settlers and one wonders where all those fluffy, gracious feelings from the first Thanksgiving went.
Historical incongruences aside, Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. I find it to be uniquely un-materialistic, even if people have already begun their lengthy Christmas lists by this time. In my family, the food preparation takes place over several days. The turkey might be so large it cannot seek haven in the refrigerator after its spice rub, and so it must sit on top of the garbage cans in our cold garage. After eight hours of cooking on the day, including multiple recipe hiccups and delays, my family will sit down to a table where no one can find their silverware beneath the plethora of dishes. However it is sacrilege to touch any food, each person must pronounce one thing for which they are thankful before we “dig in,” quite literally, considering the heavy nature of Thanksgiving cuisine.
On Thursday, separated from my twenty-person family gathering in North Carolina, I endeavored to have a traditional Thanksgiving. Without a familiar kitchen, adequate pots and pans or the American grocery store it proved to be a mini project. I soon discovered certain cultural differences such as piecrusts. American and British piecrusts are not the same, the latter are what Americans would call tarts—flimsy and no match for pumpkin pie filling. But I couldn’t even make my revered Maple-Pumpkin Pie this year because pumpkin puree is not sold in England after Halloween. What do you do with it at that time, England? Do you slather your children’s faces with it for face paint? Do you make soup, or pumpkin bread? For what could you possibly use pumpkin at Halloween time that would warrant its absence from the market in November when it is so vital to the expatriate’s existence?
Pumpkin pie is the epitome of the American Thanksgiving—a perfectly autumnal dessert after turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and copious amounts of stuffing. If you didn’t feel like bursting before, the pumpkin pie is like the apple shoved in the pig’s mouth to sedate it. You may protest you’re full, but you’re not allowed to leave the table until you’ve had a one-sixteenth sliver of the pumpkin pie.
Even though I could not make my Maple-Pumpkin pie, my friends and I succeeded in making all the other dishes mentioned. I began cooking at half past one on Thursday and did not sit down for six hours, after which it was time to eat. The sage and thyme within the food wafted up into our nostrils, and everyone began to voraciously eye each dish, hoping to get the first serving. But I demanded that we go around the table to hear what each person was thankful for.
It was worth enduring their complaints and curses towards me; what issued forth were some of the loveliest sentiments I’ve ever heard. We mockingly ooh-ed and awh-ed over those who mentioned how quickly we’d become close friends. But inwardly, I think we were elated to be close enough to make it through a day many families don’t, and laugh along the way. I felt the familiar, surprising sense of calm that descends during this ritual. After everyone has been in a flurry, cooking for half a day or more, it is a poignant feeling to slow down and bask in the good vibrations of others before feasting—the meal transcends its physical effect.
Although I couldn’t be with my family this Thanksgiving, I was especially happy on Thursday to call my friends my Durham family. In more ways than one, they’ve helped to make new memories that mingle with the old to provide a new outlook upon the world for me. They are wonderful friends because, much like their approach to everything in Durham, they accepted my flighty plan with ardor, and it would not have been a success without them.