Thanksgiving in London
I remember my first Thanksgiving in London. My husband (then fiancé) was living here and I had just been placed on a furlough scheme from the airline where I was a flight attendant. I had earned a promotion in January of 2001, but due to the 9/11 attacks, Continental Airlines (like others) had to place a large number of staff on indefinite leave. I had taken the opportunity to join an MBA programme in London and move here to be with the love of my life.
Please note: all of my blogs are written in UK spelling style, not the USA. So that means I add “u” where it might not need to be, and swap “s” for “z” because that is how the Brits spell words. It doesn’t mean I don’t know how to write, I’ve just adapted to my new country. Also, “marshmellow” is spelled “marshmallow” here in the UK!
In 2001, London wasn’t overrun with American candy stores like it is today. (see some of my YouTube videos for virtual visits) Today, I can go to my local Tesco grocery store and there is a rather large section of American candy and junk food. Back then, I wasn’t so lucky. While there was a large population of Americans living in the Chelsea area, I lived in Blackheath, which was far remote from there.
I wanted to impress my future husband with a proper festive meal. After all, this would technically be our first Thanksgiving together alone. We had previously spent the holiday with family, but this was our first solo flight. Our kitchen was tiny. We had a very old gas stove, which was probably considered modern by London standards. It was white, with a very scary lighting apparatus that you had to strike and hold near the pilot light. This stove is the reason my husband has vowed that we never have gas appliances again. Nothing ever happened, but it always filled him with worry.
Our rented apartment came fully furnished, and that included kitchen items. We had one medium sized pot, one small pan, one large pan, a scattering of basic spoons and spatulas, and some cutlery. How was I going to make such a feast in such a small space? I felt like Alice in Wonderland, trying to fit into a tiny kitchen and produce a meal that would feed all of the deck of cards. But the mission was tantalising, and I accepted it!
Thanksgiving has a set menu that we like to abide by: turkey, gravy, stuffing (dressing), jellied cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with marshmellows, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie. Over the years, I have added other items and extra casseroles because my husband adores them and they help out when it comes to leftovers needing some bulk. That year, I was sticking to the basics, but I also added a salad.
My local grocery store was a Sainsbury’s and as we were in late November, the stores were packed with Christmas items and ingredients that could easily double as Thanksgiving foods. Naturally, I was prepared to not find certain items and have to substitute as best I could. The first was cranberries. Ocean Spray didn’t have a large selection in London back then, and I had to “settle” for real cranberries. I should also mention that this was before smartphones, before we had a laptop, and we did not have broadband or wifi everywhere. My internet time was only had at the easyEverything Internet Cafe (owned by the easyJet people) at Charing Cross, which was a good 40 minute journey from our Blackheath flat. Googling a recipe in the store on “how to make cranberries from scratch” was NOT an option. I bought the cranberries, picked up an orange, and knew I could probably just wing it.
The green bean casserole was also a challenge. Green beans we use in the states were thick and hearty. Most of the time they were canned, but sometimes we would grab a bag of frozen ones. In England, I found French green beans were the rage. The frozen ones looked the best, but they were skinny like a Frenchman who survived on a diet of cigarettes only. They had these stringy bits to them. The fresh green beans were also skinny, and I had to cut them myself, taking the top and ends off and cutting in half. A can of mushroom soup was easy enough to find, but the fried onion topping was impossible. No fried onions? How did these people survive, I wondered? I ended up searching around London for a few days before I came across a small container in a shop in Chinatown. Today, these fried onions are “all the rage” and are sold in large bags in the Indian sections of the grocery stores.
Stuffing in my house was always Stove Top. My husband also grew up with the famous red box stuffing, and it is really nice that we share this weird favourite. Stove Top was not a London favourite on this first Thanksgiving, so naturally I showcased my flair in the kitchen by making stuffing from scratch. It was delicious. However, over the years, we have gone back to Stove Top. One reason is that the American stores (like Partridges in Kensington) stock up for Thanksgiving with the intent to target the expats who live here. They charge about £5 a box (which is almost $7!) but it is worth it. Also, at one point in our marriage, my husband proclaimed, “I want Stove Top! You can ‘go gourmet’ at Christmas, but I want to eat some memories!” I couldn’t agree more, and since this just makes cooking this meal even easier, we go with it.
Sweet potatoes with marshmallows are my thing. I eat them for breakfast for a few days after Thanksgiving, and I sometimes look forward to this more than the big meal itself. I was so annoyed with the lack of marshmallows on offer. British sweets (candy) often feature marshmallow-like items, but back then they didn’t sell plain marshmellows. I honestly can’t remember what I did on that first Thanksgiving, but in years since, I have tried all types of marshmallows and have always felt they just didn’t do their job. The texture here is grainy, like the sugar hasn’t been dissolved enough before they formed into squishy squares. When possible, I have opted for American store marshmallows that have been imported, but most of the time they are sticky from the journey. I guess they don’t travel well. In recent years, some stores have started selling “American style roasting marshmellows” (which are sold at Aldi or Lidl) and these are the best option.
The turkey itself was easy -- we skipped turkey altogether. London was prepping for Christmas, so they were abundant. We were young and didn't have too much money, and the price of a turkey was near £55. That year, we opted for a fresh duck from Borough market for £25. Over the years, I have bought fresh turkeys from butchers, Borough Market, and specialty stores. One year, I spent a ridiculous £90 for a special breed turkey. This year, we are going for a small frozen one. Turkey is great, but really we are here for the sides!
Finally, I remember that first pumpkin pie. I laugh as I write this. There was no canned pumpkin in London in 2001. (now, it’s easily available at all grocery stores) I had to buy a pumpkin, gut it, slice it, roast it, blend it to a puree form, then start the actual pie recipe. There was no pumpkin pie spice. I had to make my own. Naturally, I made my mom’s famous pie crust recipe, but there was no Crisco so I had to use some random product that was just called Lard. This was my Little House on the Prairie moment. I felt like I had somehow been transported back in time. “Living abroad is hard,” I exclaimed. The pie turned out perfect. It was the best tasting pie. Or maybe it was just tasty because it had taken so much time. I’ll never know.
When we were ready to eat, we pushed this little table that came with the flat next to the windows. It had two small flaps that you unhooked to make the table bigger, which helped it convert from a one person table to a two person table. The food could barely fit, so we opted for “buffet style” serving. We didn’t have enough dishes for serving bowls, so lots of cereal bowls were used to hold items. I had recently framed a photo of my husband’s mom and he asked if we could move it to the table with us. She died when he was 7 years old, and his request to move her to the table just underlines how much of a sweetheart he is and why I love him so much. We held hands and said a prayer over the meal. We both grew up in Texas churches, and prayer at meals is what we have always done together. Then, just like kids waiting for the big moment, we sat down and dug into this incredible feast.
I can’t help but tell you how delicious the food was! I am a good cook, and over the years I have made dishes to take to someone else’s house, but this was my first full Thanksgiving meal. In a foreign country. Without all the ingredients at my fingertips. No mobile phone to call home to ask for help. And no internet!
Our flat came with a standard London-sized fridge. That means a short mini fridge that fit under the kitchen cabinet. I didn’t have enough room to store the pie. Since it was made with so many fresh ingredients without preservatives, it went mouldy in two days. This first Thanksgiving together in London by ourselves was so special, and it is a significant part of our wonderful journey living abroad.