Thanksgiving Day 2012: An Ex Pat Celebrates Thanksgiving Day Abroad

Back in 2007, I sat down to my first Thanksgiving meal abroad: chicken stuffed with haggis. Not quite the traditional Thanksgiving menu, but on that dark November night in Scotland, it was the perfect substitute. Now a bit further south in England, this will be my fourth Thanksgiving outside North America – not including my first Canadian Thanksgiving celebration earlier this fall. Come this Thursday, my fellow American housemate and I will be preparing a feast for a gathering of friends (North Americans, Brits, and otherwise), who will somehow all squeeze into our narrow English row house.

I’d be willing to bet that Thanksgiving is by far the favorite holiday of expats. It doesn’t reach the bombastic patriotism of the 4th of July, but it is still a tradition that is inextricably tied to memories of home. As Thanksgiving remains a purist’s holiday — focused on food and family (and football, the American kind of course) — it is both easier and more difficult to recreate in a foreign country. Holidays centered on feasting are popular in nearly every culture, and as a primarily civil rather than religious holiday, Thanksgiving translates straightforwardly into foreign settings. But Thanksgivings abroad can also bring up bittersweet thoughts of missing out on family gatherings and Thanksgiving Eve at the hometown watering hole. Perhaps the most notable challenge of Thanksgiving abroad is finding the right food to recreate the comforts of home.

While most people would argue that finding a turkey is the top priority when preparing for a Thanksgiving abroad, I’d say that the most important item to locate (or import) is a can (or tin, for the Brits) of Libby’s Pumpkin Puree. Attempts at making pumpkin pie from scratch usually end up closer to something resembling a squash pie, and there’s something about Libby’s that always brings back memories of baking with my mom, rolling out pie crust, and stirring in heaping teaspoons of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger.

Of course, acquiring a turkey is a close second, and can be a daunting task, depending on your location. In the U.K. most turkeys are sold around the Christmas season, so it can take a few attempts to find a shop that has them available in November. As I did last year, I’ve ordered a 10-12 pounder from a local butcher in the town market, a shop that often hangs deer carcasses outside its doors and has plenty of sawdust on the floor to soak up any spilled blood – a far cry from the immaculate supermarket counters where I would probably get a turkey at home. I’ve had other friends pick up Butterball turkeys from military commissaries, or rely on university cafeterias providing special Thanksgiving menus for American students. In countries where turkeys are hard to come by, I’ve also heard of some creative attempts to form a substitute tofu bird.

But as any twenty-something who’s attempted cooking a holiday meal with less-than-stellar results can attest, we know that while the perfect feast would be nice, it’s the coming together that makes the holiday. While Thanksgivings as an expat can be poignant, they are never forgettable, whether you’re scraping together a meal or explaining the history of the holiday to new friends. A Thanksgiving celebration on foreign soil is perhaps a more accurate representation of the archetypal first Thanksgiving than any elementary school depiction of pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread. Sitting down to share food and conversation with people from different countries and cultures, and giving thanks for each other’s company – this is the modern equivalent of that first meal in 1621.