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Sizing up Thanksgiving



Sizing up Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving table. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

When it comes to food, everything in the USA is Big, from the portions to the choices. And Thanksgiving is a Big Experience for a couple of South African-French travellers.

From the moment we stepped off the plane, we were confronted with the problem of size. We wanted to buy two small coffees at Newark Liberty Airport, just to regain some energy after the transcontinental flight. What we got was two enormous buckets of dark brown liquid vaguely resembling coffee.

Was this really the smallest size available, Alain asked in astonishment, only to be met with complete incomprehension.

Even without the communication complications of masks, most Americans would probably struggle to understand his French accent. They didn’t fare much better with my South African, so after a few days I started shouting through my mask whenever I ordered anything in a shop. If they didn’t understand me, at least I’d make sure they could hear me.

By now, 10 days into our road trip, we’ve abandoned the search for a decent-sized cup of coffee. We simply order the smallest cup, which is still massive (and is called “regular” without a hint of irony) and share it between us. And we don’t stare in bewilderment when asked which flavour coffee (caramel, cinnamon, hazelnut, even pumpkin flavour, believe it or not, because of the season), which type of milk (skim, half-half, full cream, vegan, soya, almond), which type of whatever. We quickly shout “Black! No sugar!”

It is not my first visit to this Big Country, but the last time I was here was in Obama’s first term, and a lot has changed since then. Except for the enormous food portions, which seem to have become even bigger in my absence, and the variety of unhealthy stuff on supermarket shelves that is still increasing.

Looking for something as simple as natural yoghurt or plain digestive biscuits inevitably turns into a treasure hunt among countless brands of “flavour-enhanced” yoghurts or biscuits with chocolate, icing sugar, nuts, caramel, peanut butter, until I want to howl like the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and not for the same reasons.

Pretzels in Manhattan. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

To stop myself from howling I start humming my new theme song each time I enter a supermarket (and on a road trip of a few thousand miles you get to know a lot of supermarkets), to the tune of “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” from the musical My Fair Lady. “Why, oh why, can’t the Yankees just leave well enough alone?”

I hope you don’t get the impression that I’m not enjoying the experience. On the contrary. For me travel has always involved the tongue and the taste buds, and wherever I go I’ll try the local food specialities. For better or for worse.

As the French epicure Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” I don’t know if he said this before or after he travelled in America, but I do believe food is still the best way to understand the culture of any nation.

So in New York we’ve been stuffing ourselves with pretzels and hot dogs from Manhattan’s famous street food stalls, and bagels with cream cheese from Kosher delis. In Atlantic City we tried curly crab fries and shellfish chowder and New England clam chowder in a gambling den. (Even though we were somewhat south of New England, and didn’t gamble.) Our budget is too restricted for gambling pleasures, and we don’t believe in Lady Luck, but we’ll always find a way to splurge on food.

Hotdogs from a street food stall in New York. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Because Alain shares the cartoon character Homer Simpson’s love of doughnuts, we’ve had to stop at more than one Dunkin’ Donut outlet on our way south. At first I acted all Mother Superior, looking down my nose at this over-sweet and deep-fried American staple, but by the third stop I gave in. Just a teeny weeny bite, I thought, to help me understand American culture.

Well, now I understand why Americans get addicted to doughnuts.

As we drive south to Mississippi and Louisiana, I’m looking forward to the rich music culture of these states as much as to their rich culinary culture. But before we could taste Cajun food and soul food in the Deep South, we were fortunate enough to experience that other great American tradition called Thanksgiving, with family and friends.

American addictions. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

We didn’t reckon with Thanksgiving when we booked our flights to New York. We’d been waiting for so long for the Americans to open up their borders for vaccinated European travellers that we simply jumped as soon as we heard it was finally happening. So we landed here barely 10 days after the borders reopened and less than a week before Thanksgiving. We picked up a rented camper van in Jersey City, looked at the date, and were suddenly faced with the possibility of spending this uniquely American festival alone in a car on a camping site. Or eating turkey sandwiches in a deserted diner.

Thanksgiving leftovers enjoyed in our camper van. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Edward Hopper, here we come, was what we thought.

But Thanksgiving is about being thankful, after all, and I’m deeply thankful that my South African friend Micheline invited us to spend the day with her family in Washington DC as soon as she heard we were in the vicinity. And my cousin Ingrid decided on the spur of the moment to offer us a dress rehearsal for the Big Eat, so to speak, when we dined with her family in Connecticut four days before the festival.

We soon realised that Thanksgiving is the kind of meal for which your stomach does indeed need some kind of rehearsal.

My only previous Thanksgiving experience was almost 25 years ago while spending a few months at the University of Iowa’s International Writers Programme. The 30 authors from all over the world were invited en masse to a huge MidWest farm with a huge dining room and huge heaps of food wherever we looked. I don’t remember the taste of anything, just the size of everything.

Thanksgiving sides: Corn pudding and root vegetables in the middle, cranberry sauce top left. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

This time it felt completely different, because I was with family, with old friends, with my beloved travel companion of the past two decades, and that was already enough to make the food taste great. My cousin’s meal on the Sunday night before Thanksgiving Thursday might have been impromptu, but it had all the essential ingredients: the turkey, the gravy, the thick cranberry sauce, the creamy mashed potatoes, a bowl of beautiful orange and yellow root vegetables, something green in the form of Brussels sprouts with bits of crispy bacon, and a corn dish. Plus some sweet pies for dessert, of course.

A very successful dress rehearsal. Now we were ready for the performance.

The Beast, aka Thanksgiving Turkey. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Micheline went all out on the actual Thanksgiving Day, spending five hours cooking and basting the biggest turkey I’d ever seen. It was a 17-pound bird (the weight of three human babies! I couldn’t help thinking) that she dubbed The Beast. It took two of us to lift it from the oven to the kitchen counter, where it took pride of place among all the side dishes, from the cranberry sauce and the gravy to the pièce de résistance (apart from The Beast), which was the corn pudding baked according to a recipe that her American husband’s family had been passing on from one generation to the next.

We crowned it all with two home-baked pies, apple and pumpkin, with fresh cream on the side.

Apple pie and pumpkin pie. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Golly gee whiz! By this time I was sprouting corny American exclamations like a kid in a Fifties movie. As if Thanksgiving was performance theatre, after all, and I’d been rehearsing this role all my life.

Best of all was that there was so much food left that the following day we could continue another great tradition, this time from South Africa, when our hostess gave us a reusable ice cream tub filled with turkey, cranberry sauce and corn pudding as padkos. We enjoyed a lovely leftover meal in our camper van on the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway between Virginia and West Virginia, and I knew that “cold turkey” would never sound like a negative phrase again.

In fact, cold turkey is a quintessential American taste on the day after Thanksgiving, and yet another food experience that I am thankful for on this road trip. DM/TGIFood

The author supports Ladles of Love, an NGO feeding the hungry and providing healthy food in Cape Town. You can support them here LadlesofLove.


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  • A great article – thank you! Just this week I made a cranberry cream cheese salad for a book club Christmas lunch – a recipe brought back from my American host mother’s kitchen after a year as an AFS exchange student 51 years ago. I remember being disappointed that their Christmas meal was so much more low key than ours – Thanksgiving was where all the stops came out.

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