Friday, November 22, 2002
Thanksgiving at home in Ulster
The year that Jimmy Carter was elected president, my husband Jonathan and I were living in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, in a little town on the very northern tip of the island called Portrush. It was a career move for Jon, odd as that sounds. He was working his way up in a family textile business, and had been assigned to be part of a management team to shore up a tottering cotton spinning mill in Ballymoney, twelve miles down the road from our little stucco cottage. I had left a teaching job in high school English behind, for this adventure.
Nobody in the U.K., it seemed, thought Jimmy Carter would be elected. This was probably because nobody had any idea who he was. Betting pools were heavily favoring Gerry Ford, despite our warnings that Americans liked an unknown quantity, especially if it meant a clean break from the pain of Watergate. Ulstermen lost a good deal of money when Carter won, and the BBC sputtered for days about how Americans could always be depended upon to do the unpredictable.
Taking advantage of the moment, and of the general fascination in Ulster with all things American, Jon and I decided to hold an election party for our Ulster friends and combine it with Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving, a distinctly American feast, is a great excuse for a party with a lot of foreigners: there is plenty of food and a pervasive feeling of good cheer and gratitude for the earth's bounty. Certainly, we thought, Ulster could use a holiday like that.
We set about decorating the house, hanging red, white, and blue crepe paper everywhere and renaming every room for some part of the White House: our dining room became the State Dining Room, our parlor the East Room, the W.C., of course, the Oval Office. We made a little heart that said, "Amy" and tied it around the cat's neck with red, white, and blue ribbon. Jon concocted a lot of silly games, designed to help the "president" choose his cabinet: a bean bag throw for the Secretary of Defense, Fictionary for the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and a lot of others laced with irony and tongue-in-cheek humor. Jon knew that, once we were all rather well-lubricated and feeling full of dinner, these would be a hoot.
Dinner was more of a challenge. You can always get a turkey in the U.K. at Christmas, but the nice prepared fresh or frozen ones didn't hit the shops until the middle of December. I found one in our local butcher shop, with most of its feathers still on, hanging head down in the window. Danny, the butcher, was a grand guy, who had helped me with all the different names for meat cuts when I first arrived. On my first day in his shop, I had expressed admiration for the speed at which he could wield his cleaver, remarking that I would probably cut my hand off if I tried whacking away at such a pace. He held up his left hand, which was missing parts of two fingers. "We all go through an apprenticeship, lass," he smiled, and then laughed when he saw my face. Ever after that, he would greet me with "Ah, the American lass. Chop, chop!"
Still, Danny always had an extra sausage, or something on "special, for ye to taste, lass." There wasn't a mean bone in his body. He saw my consternation when I approached the state-of-nature turkey, and told me he would clean it for me if I could handle the feathers. I agreed, and that afternoon I learned to pluck a turkey.
I had an old cooker in the cottage, with a box on the side that ate 50 pence pieces in return for keeping the gas going. It wasn't insulated, so it would heat the whole kitchen when it was on. This was an advantage, as the house had no central heating, and a disadvantage, because it would char the tops of any pie I tried to bake. After some rehearsal, I discovered that I could bake the bottoms and filling of the pies, and then put the tops on later and finish them. I was also afraid that the turkey wouldn't fit in the oven, but it just made it. I knew, of course, that the turkey would take nearly all night to cook in this thing. Accordingly I got up at 2 a.m., stuffed the bird, and wedged it in.
Harvest vegetables were not as much of a problem, as anything that grows below the ground does well in Ireland. We had twenty-inch carrots and parsnips that were as sweet as sugar, turnips the size of pumpkins (indeed, in Ulster the turnip is the vegetable of choice for jack o' lanterns), and plenty of other root vegetables. I had to go all the way to Belfast to find cranberries, but I bought out the small supply, and found nuts, gravy in a jar (I didn't think I could face gravy after improvising nearly everything else), cheeses, and even some grapes from Spain.
Because there was no cornmeal to be had (and no one seemed ever to have heard of it), I also bought twelve boxes of Kellogg's corn flakes. I crushed them with a rolling pin and combined them with flour to make corn bread, cutting the sugar and salt in the original recipe. The result wasn't a bad imitation, and the addition of some canned pumpkin (a real find) gave it some body.
Jon and I dressed in blue jeans, plaid shirts, and red bandanas, with nametags that labeled us "Jimmy Carter, Peanut Farmer and President" and "Rosalyn Carter, First Lady and Georgia Belle." We gave "southern accent" instructions to all the guests, and even though we shared a lot of laughs at the Carters' expense, we were able to enlighten our friends a little about the new president, the American election process, and, of course, the Thanksgiving holiday. The meal was a great success, and our friends were delighted with the cornbread and the other foods that they hadn't tasted before.
After dinner, while the games were in full swing in the parlor, complete with a lovely peat fire in the smoky old fireplace, I went out through the dining room to refresh somebody's coffee, and heard a strange, loud sucking sound. I located it on the sideboard, and discovered that the cat, Pookah (a.k.a. Amy Carter), had managed to crawl completely into the turkey cavity. With only his tail visible, he was blissfully eating his way out. This put a real dent in the leftovers, but I like to think of it as a final compliment to the cook.
We were a long way from home and it was a long time ago, but Jon and I agree that Thanksgiving Day, 1976, ranks as one of the warmest and most American celebrations in our lives.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito