Confessions From Hosting Thanksgiving Abroad

Photo: Meredith Olson.
Meredith Olson, pictured speaking at the head of the table, reflects on the fulfilling experience of hosting her first Thanksgiving as an expat living in London.
On Thanksgiving afternoon last year, I decided to stick the turkey in the oven to maximize counter space for the chopping, peeling, and stirring still to come. That was when I discovered, with horror, that the turkey and its flimsy disposable roasting pan did not fit in the oven of my London flat.

The thought of not being able to offer the main dish to the 10 guests arriving that evening was mortifying enough that I refused to accept the possibility of failure, so I gave the bird a mighty shove forward. Buttery raw vegetables that I’d placed in the bottom of the pan to add flavor to the gravy toppled onto the floor. The turkey himself listed perilously as I crouched in front of the oven trying to support the distended pan, not slip on the spilled vegetables, and not burn myself on the swinging oven door.

It crossed my mind that perhaps this is what I deserved for trying to celebrate Thanksgiving abroad.

I was born in London to American parents who moved here in 1980 and ended up staying for a decade before moving back to the States. Their first year in the U.K., they tried in vain to acquire ingredients for a proper American Thanksgiving — but, lamentably, the turkeys were all reserved to be butchered for Christmas.

More than three decades later, I was able to easily get most of what I needed. For one, the butcher didn’t even blink when I requested a “20-pounder,” though I probably should’ve given the weight in kilos. He even sold Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, which I greedily snapped up as though a whole horde of Americans was going to suddenly descend to swipe the cans from my hands. I obtained, at extortionate prices, Libby’s Pumpkin Puree. Great Britain’s fantastic dairy sector did not disappoint, and even improved upon, all the dairy that went into the food.

The supermarket chain Waitrose estimated that one in six Britons celebrated Thanksgiving in 2014.

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Perhaps the most noticeable difference between my parents’ attempt and mine, 34 years later, was that the Brits now embrace the reverence of the custom. They can tease Americans (and, by God, do they ever) for so many things, but they understood Thanksgiving to be culturally crucial, beyond all the jokes about overeating and never-ending American football games and crazy families — and they reveled in it right alongside the Americans. In 2014, the supermarket chain Waitrose estimated that one in six Britons would celebrate Thanksgiving, perhaps due in part to the 200,000-strong American expat community in Britain.
Photo: Meredith Olson.
Australian Anna and British Billy show their willingness to rep American attire on Thanksgiving.
Just like our nation’s First Thanksgiving celebrants of 1621, we expat Americans had arrived in a land far from home (ignore for a moment that it is the same land from which our forefathers fled) and we yearned for a sense of belonging. Through sharing a meal with those who had already mastered living in this foreign land, we hoped to make friends and learn how to survive the cold winter (metaphor!) in exchange for sharing our precious U.S. trade goods (Triscuits, Velveeta, Funfetti, etc.).

All of this had encouraged me to host my own feast abroad. Having just moved to London in September, I worried I might not even have enough friends to invite to a Thanksgiving dinner, never mind that I’d never been individually responsible for anything more rigorous than mashing the potatoes. But I forged ahead, eager to replicate the atmosphere of my family dinner. I vowed to serve my new friends a taste of perhaps the only cultural tradition that leads people to don their most forgiving pants (sorry, Brits: trousers) with stretchy waistbands and bask in the cocoon of family gratitude and warmth before their weird uncle starts flinging inappropriate one-liners.

I set about finding a ragtag group with whom I could systematically overeat and give thanks. My first priority was providing expat Yanks with a somewhat authentic experience, so I invited six Americans who were friends from home or were friends of friends garnered through the timelessly useful “I know someone in London; you should be friends!” introduction.

We all seemed brightly elevated, brimming with food and wine, but also with a feeling of being home, no matter how distant our true home was.

I suppose I should’ve stopped at seven people total, but my hunger to demonstrate America’s magnanimity through overambitious hostessing led me to additionally invite a (vegetarian) Australian, a Scot, and two Englishmen.

When, in the interest of providing all with a homey experience, I consulted the other Americans about what Turkey Day dishes they considered de rigueur, I realized that I had inadvertently fanned the flames of an internecine debate. Opinions were strongly split along the North-South and East-West divides, and several of the ever-powerful “But That’s How My Mom Makes It!” trump cards were played.
Photo: Meredith Olson.
The makeshift holiday table.
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I had to tread softly, or else risk another holiday side effect: simmering rage over something totally innocuous. As incentive, I also had a vested interest in triumphing as hostess…and in getting a Thanksgiving meal with my own ridiculous preferences (like no whole cranberries in the sauce — I refuse to explain).

I decided that in order to be fair to my compatriots’ desires and to truthfully show the by now very excited Brits and Aussie how a traditional Thanksgiving was meant to be, I stripped it down to the bare basics: cornbread, but no whole corn pieces in it and no jalapeño butter. Green beans, sautéed with garlic instead of a casserole with French’s Onions. Turkey, not subjected to having stuffing shoved up its backside. The aforementioned mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes, sans marshmallows, to give the two vegetarians a consolation prize for the spot on their plate that might’ve held turkey. Gravy. Cranberry sauce. Pumpkin and apple pies.

The seasonal touches were makeshift (I absolve myself of the shame of owning a tablecloth that doesn’t cover the entire table, and of not owning proper napkins at all). I picked rosemary from the garden and tied a sprig to each disposable napkin; I swiftly constructed place settings by cutting up sketching paper. This was pared down and perfect, or so I hoped.

After I’d solved the turkey problem by flattening the bird as much as possible and folding up the sides of the aluminum pan so it fit in the oven, the evening hour finally arrived, and so did all the guests (whew!). A Scottish guest brought a fine whiskey, one of the vegetarians made sumptuous chargrilled asparagus, and a Virginian friend brought serious homemade cornbread, a Southern specialty. Others came bearing wine, beer, side dishes, or ice cream.
Photo: Meredith Olson.
Seatmates Christina, from New York, and Ian, from Devon, get to know each other.
Through a quirk of comfort, nostalgia, and what I can only presume is an innate understanding of the L.L. Bean and J.Crew catalogs, the eight men attending wore either plaid shirts or sweaters (sorry, Brits: jumpers). There was genuine excitement in finding your place card and meeting your fellow Thanksgiving enthusiasts, proudly (or gamely) strutting about in an American flag hat or wrapping yourself in a blanket of the Stars and Stripes and, at last, filling your plate and waiting for a simple prayer of joint thanks. We all seemed brightly elevated, brimming with food and wine, but also with a feeling of being home, no matter how distant our true home was.

I expected Thanksgiving would be different so many miles away. What I didn’t expect was to feel so at home within a new sort of family, created out of affection and gratitude.

I can’t wait to do it again this year.
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