An American Thanksgiving in London
Turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, pilgrims with buckles on hats, the Macy’s Day Parade… Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, is about food, remembrance, family, eating and drinking. According to UK Office for National Statistics estimates in 2009, there were around 190,000 Americans living in the UK, with the vast majority in London. With so many Yanks holing up in the capital, The Upcomingthought it might be worth taking a look at how Americans in London celebrate Turkey Day.
The story goes that when the Pilgrims arrived in New England, they experienced hard times (as you’d expect) and they very nearly starved that first winter. Had it not been for the friendly Indian Squanto, who taught the settlers to grow maize and other crops, they would never have made it through the second. To celebrate, the pilgrims invited the Indians round for a turkey and cornucopia feast which became the first Thanksgiving. As with most holidays, modern Thanksgiving is largely an invention of consumer culture and it’s no accident that the Black Friday following is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Nevertheless, this harvest festival occupies a very warm place in the heart of many Americans, nestled right at the start of the winter season, heralding Christmas and the New Year to come.
For Americans abroad Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday because it’s largely concerned with getting together with as much of your family as you can manage, in your home, and eating as much as possible before entering a tryptophan-induced coma. On television there are parades, the national dog show, and at some point the president goes live from the white house where he pardons one lucky turkey, saving it from the block. After dinner (which kicks off anywhere between 2 and 5 pm) there’s the NFL game to watch, Miller to drink and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving playing on cable. While one might fly somewhere on holiday to celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving is rooted firmly in the home, and that’s where the trouble comes in. A ticket to the US can run upwards of £500; an appropriately sized turkey would scarcely fit in carry-on. What’s a wayward Yank to do?
There are, as it happens, social bodies to handle this sort of thing; expatriate groups online that organise get-togethers. Thus a London Thanksgiving outing can be a bit like a blind-dating scenario: singles and small groups show up at a pre-arranged venue with a Thanksgiving themed menu, and end up sitting together in little clumps to form sort of surrogate families – units of shared conversation, reminiscence, and consumption. We checked out two such settings at The Blues Kitchen in Camden and the Summer House in Little Venice.
Both venues were pleasant, though as different as night and day. Where The Blues Kitchen is dark and earthy; Summer House is light and airy. The Blues Kitchen offers traditional American fare regularly and the Summer House speciality is their fish and chips. Both put the expected turkey and stuffing on the menu, with similar sides (sweet potato, cranberry, and greens), but Blues Kitchen won the food battle, offering their generous helpings at a third less the cost and more traditional choices – like pumpkin pie, an absolute must for Turkey day. But while the Blues Kitchen was hands and fists over the Summer House for food, there was very little in terms of a social scene going there. The Summer House, on the other hand, steered the Americans (and their British consorts) together for pre-game drinks, and when it was time for groups to form up and sit down to dinner, the maître d brokered the deals, expertly ushering groups to the dining room, seating strangers with strangers, preventing singles from being singled out. Friendships were struck, conversation flowed, and it began to feel something like Thanksgiving.
It turns out that the food is actually a small part of this holiday in comparison with the social aspects. Feeling like being a part of something, being among friends, and relaxing in the midst of a society that is so much about restraint are the missing ingredients in an expatriate Thanksgiving. Managing to find a little island of America in the constant rainy grey of London can be as simple as chatting with someone from back home over a beer and a slice of pie. Reaching out and making connections is what makes a warm and friendly American Thanksgiving in London. Afterwards comes the anxiety of gift shopping and the hectic run up to Christmas, something we all share.
For further information on the London Expat American Meetup Group click here.