Monday, November 25, 2013

An American Thanksgiving: aka Whole Foods Saves the Day

Another checkmark on our list of London and Beyond Activities!

As soon as we knew that we'd be spending this year in England, I knew that having an American Thanksgiving dinner would be one of my essentials for an Autumn spent abroad. Not only is this an exciting cooking challenge for a newlywed who is learning to be comfortable in the kitchen, but I also thought it would be fun to share with our new British friends and fellow American expats alike.

I won't lie: I pictured a big, festive event with about a dozen people. This, of course, is highly impractical for a lot of reasons. First of all, our flat has only 4 chairs. Secondly, as a first-timer and someone who admittedly becomes a crazed perfectionist when hosting parties, that would have been more of a headache than it would be worth.

The Surprises
Joe got a Sunday off work and it coincided with an off-day for a co-worker he wanted to invite

Whole Foods, an AMERICAN grocery chain, has half a dozen locations in London and one of them is literally between the two grocery stores I frequent most often. This meant that I had access to several essential ingredients in my known American brands without having to look very hard. Libby's canned pumpkin, Carnation evaporated milk, French's fried onions (to which many an American ex-pat has searched for months without luck according to the expat and cooking blogs), and whipped cream in a spray can were all available with a simple visit to the store. I was also able to procure whole, fresh cranberries and Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. #winning

Marks & Spencer sells British butter-basted turkey breasts in 4 sizes. As an amateur, I do not feel quiet ready to take on a full-bodied turkey without my mom's presence in the kitchen if something goes wrong, so I was especially relieved at this couldn't-be-easier option for the main event.

our first time hosting a major holiday!

The Challenges
After finding the canned pumpkin and deciding to homemake a pie, I had no idea how difficult the secondary-but-still-necessary-stuff for this task would be to find. Brits make lots of pies, but they are of the savory, filled-with-meat variety, so the pre-made crusts I found were all savory. (They are also OBSESSED with mincemeat pies at this time of year. These and other British holiday staples are so disgusting I feel like I should devote an entire post to them in the future.) With my small kitchen and limited supplies, I did not feel ready to make a from scratch crust for the first time on Thanksgiving. I decided on a graham cracker crust and then realized that Graham Crackers don't exist in the UK. I googled alternatives (while standing in the cracker aisle at Sainsbury) and found that people in Not America use digestive biscuits instead (something that sounds gross but is really basically the same thing). Fine. Okay. Now for a disposable, alumin[i]um pie tin. No go. Those don't exist in our grocery store either. So then a trip to T. K. Maxx (not a typo) in Charing Cross to procure a pie plate. Nope. Three shelves-worth of spring form pans, but no pie tins. The best I could come up with is a tart tin with a removable bottom that is just a bit too shallow.... See the results:

This is when I realized that I forgot to include the eggs when I made it. Panic and an emergency Saturday-night trip to Whole Foods rewarded me with another Whole Foods save: a real pie plate!

Joe graciously labeled our dessert in case any non-Americans
didn't know what it was. Jane pointed out that
it really should've read "American pie"

As well outfitted as my kitchen is, I am still missing a lot of the stuff I'm used to using at home. This meant a lot of adjustments and flexibility on my part, a willingness to see multi-functionality in all of my kitchen supplies. For example:
     - Pumpkin Pie Spice does not exist in the UK = sub "Mixed Spice"
     - no rolling pin = use a potato masher to crush digestive biscuits for crust

     - no mixing bowls in the kitchen (no really) = use pots
     - I thought I ordered Cranberry Plum chutney with my vegbox this week, but it didn't come = make fresh

     - Abel & Cole sent pears this week and we have too many = add them to the Apple-Cranberry sauce

Thanksgiving is such a Big Deal in the American cooking calendar, that I was kind of intimidated at taking it on by myself. Joe was a lot of help cleaning and preparing and he's a fantastic host once people arrive, but realistically I knew I would be doing all the prep myself. I was happily surprised that it wasn't as overwhelming on the day as I'd expected. Instead, we spread out the necessary tasks over several days, making it all much more manageable.

As we could reasonably only accommodate 6 people, Joe and I each invited a friend plus a partner. We own 7 dinner plates and 6 dessert plates total. Our dining table has 4 chairs. We may be able to fit more bodies in our flat, but we could not serve them dinner. I invited Tammela, my American friend from school and her German boyfriend Fabian. Joe invited his coworker Kieran and his girlfriend Jane, both Brits. It was the perfect blend of people who know what to expect on Thanksgiving and people who don't.

The food came out awesome! Tammela brought sweet potato casserole (her mother's recipe) and scratch buttermilk biscuits to finish out the traditional menu. I was excited that everything was mostly hot at mostly the same time and everyone was eager to try all the dishes, even the ones I would totally think were weird if I hadn't grown up on them (green bean casserole??). And we didn't completely run out of anything except gravy before people had a chance to take seconds. I consider that a win!

a blurry pic but you can see our pop-up paper turkey, Tyrone, at the end of the table

all the essentials and it tasted like home!
After dinner we played games for hours. I was relieved that everyone got on so well and the conversations flowed so easily. (Joe was surprised I had even worried about this and he was right.) With 6 people from different backgrounds and experiences, it was fun to hear the variety of perspectives on issues but then come together on the humor of Cards Against Humanity. Some of the night's topics included:

- What is a graham cracker? (which became What is a s'more? and involved an in depth description of how graham crackers are perforated so that you can break them into perfect squares)
- Biscuits: savory versus sweet
- Michelle Obama's arms
- dealing with letting agents in London
- the experience of being a foreigner (anywhere)
- customer service (particularly the overzealous kind in America and the non-existent kind in the UK and Europe)
- accents
- cuddling: it's a trap!
- cling film

This is what a group selfie looks like with a big camera and a wide-angle lens....
This year I have a lot to be thankful for, so even though Joe balked at my idea that we go around the table and all share our gratitude, I'll share some here.

I'm thankful for the health and safety of those who mean the most to me, something that was far from guaranteed this year. With serious scares for both Joe and my mom in the last 6 months, I have been reminded not to take these people for granted.

I'm thankful for the love and support of our friends and family, near and far, especially those we don't get to see often but can always count on to be there for us when we need them. Many people travelled great distances to celebrate our engagement and wedding with us and it has been humbling to have those people make us feel so important. 

I'm thankful for the extremely close friendships I have cultivated over the last twenty-plus years of my life. One thing my closest friends have in common is the longevity of our relationships and I am grateful for the mutual understanding, acceptance, and respect that comes with that kind of shared history.

And of course, I'm thankful for the opportunity of this year abroad and everything it entails. I'm thankful for the chance to take a year out of my career to study literature and remind myself why I love what I do. I'm thankful for the many travel experiences we get to have and how they will enrich our lives. I'm grateful for new friends who open our eyes to different ways of viewing the world. And mostly I'm thankful for this year to be here with my husband, doing all of it together. 

Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. This one is by far my favorite additions to your blog! I am confident in your cooking skills and that you were actually watching and listening all those years you hung out in the kitchen with me. I'm impressed with your ability to bend, adapt and go with the flow, since that wasn't always the case when you were growing up. I'm comforted in seeing how you have made a real home for yourself and Joe with so little that is actually yours and how you've managed to pull off one of the most hurried and stressful holiday events with grace and charm. Everything looks perfect and I'm sure this is one Thanksgiving you will never forget. Only one thing will be missing this year from my table and that will be you (and Joe, so that makes two things). Love you, Mom

    1. Thank you, Mom!! I definitely picked up more than I realized from watching you now that I'm having to do this on my own. Also, did you notice Tammela's sweet potatoes? Spring. Form. Pan. They have the same problem we do...