This is Thanksgiving week… American Thanksgiving, I should say. This is, however, not just any Thanksgiving, but my first Thanksgiving out of the country and the 150th anniversary of when President Lincoln established it as the third national holiday (along with Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday). The holiday takes on a different feeling when you think of the timing; the end of the Civil War, the government trying to hold the increasingly fragmented nation together. How do you forge a lasting union for a nation of people with loyalties, cultures and traditions that span the globe? Part of the answer, apparently, was to give them a common tradition tying together families across the country in thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday of the year. The focus on food and family has become increasingly important to me, first when I moved across the States for graduate school, then trying to create new homes with Dave as we progressed through our impromptu academic tour of the Midwest, and now with Little Man in Canada. So here we are, looking for ways to create our own new identities, to create new family traditions, and to create a dual nationality identity for our son.
Thanksgiving, however, is anything but a simple holiday. The children’s stories of pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a nice turkey dinner are just that… stories. But the creation of Thanksgiving, the annual retelling of this fictitious meal uniting disparate peoples, is still a powerful tool today. For a fascinating study of the history (and fiction) of Thanksgiving, please check out Janet Siskind’s The Invention of Thanksgiving (click on the link to download a pdf of the article). You’ll never think of American Thanksgiving in the same way again… but in a good way. It’s powerful, and so is the resulting holiday.
For my personal purposes, not so differently from Lincoln’s, Thanksgiving has long been about creating a sense of home when “home” is not necessarily apparent. A sense of family when family is far away. A sense of belonging in a place that is still a bit foreign.
When living in upstate New York, this meant celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with Dave. Until we met I had no idea that Canada had a Thanksgiving; assuming that it was a uniquely American holiday. It is and it isn’t.
Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the 2nd Monday of October, not the 4th Thursday of November. It is a harvest celebration, without any stories of Pilgrims and Indians. The meal is mostly the same with turkey, stuffing and the sides. However, Canadians tend to avoid the dodgy green bean casseroles, with most Canadians I know being horrified by the dish. In Canada, Thanksgiving is a relatively minor holiday and is quickly eclipsed by Halloween. I didn’t quite understand this until moving to Canada this year. For all of my adult life, even when moving often, the idea of a Thanksgiving alone or uncelebrated was tragic.
One Thanksgiving when we were first dating, Dave was not going to be able to join anyone’s family dinner since he needed to stay in town to finish writing his Master’s Thesis. This seemed an abomination to me that someone would be home, alone, on Thanksgiving, with only the hope of an at best mediocre TV dinner to look forward to. So even though I was definitely going out of town to be with my adopted New York family for Thanksgiving, I devised a nice, stay at home version for Dave. All he would have to do was put things in the preheated oven at a certain time, take them out, reheat a couple of things, and he’d have his own pint-sized Thanksgiving meal. I think I even wrote out the instructions for him, down to the unwrapping of the carton of crescent rolls and how to form/bake them. After all, this Canadian obviously did not understand the importance of the holiday since he was willing to sacrifice it. Who knew how far his ignorance of the proper foods went? In theory, this should have been fantastic, or at least sweet. In reality, it has lived in our combined memory as well intentioned, but horrific. I mean absolutely disgusting and barely edible. He’s lucky that it was partially edible, since even the local pizza places weren’t delivering that evening.
Dave’s Thanksgiving meal was to be an oven-roasted Cornish game hen, mashed potatoes (oy!), gravy, sweet potato praline, balsamic vinegared brussel sprouts (double oy!), canned crescent rolls (hence the instructions) and I think a mini-pumpkin pie for dessert… but that might also have been burned in the oven. Of all this, the Cornish game hen was good, the crescent rolls were passable, and the sweet potato praline saved the day. The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, were raw. The brussel sprouts were disgusting. The pie, if it ever existed, has not survived in memory. It would take me a good 8 years to make passable mashed potatoes. After this (and other experiences) I was forbidden by friends and family alike to attempt mashed potatoes. In fact, just a week ago I made pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, and both Dave and I commented on the fact that I just might have learned how to actually cook them properly. I have no idea how a person who even then was a pretty good cook could not make mashed potatoes.
And while the brussel sprouts (yes, I can cook these well now too) were so bad that they don’t even deserve discussion here, I will share with you the one glowing beacon of the day; Praline Sweet Potatoes. These are now the one thing, no matter whose Thanksgiving I am going to, that I always bring with me. They are almost sweet enough to be a dessert, but have just a hint of a savory edge that pairs excellently with turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and the rest.
The pictures in this post are from my first Canadian Thanksgiving. They look the part and embody that sense of Thanksgiving that I think will likely be missing from our American Thanksgiving this year. We’re still fiddling with tradition, and straddling the line between nations. Say “Happy Thanksgiving” to a Canadian this time of year, and you get some very confused looks since for them Thanksgiving was over a month ago. There will be new photos of new traditions coming soon. In the meantime, no matter what we are doing I plan on keeping family close and tradition a bit loose.
Praline Sweet Potato
2 lbs. whole sweet potatoes (not from a can)
¼ cup milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 tsp. salt
Pepper to taste
½ cup brown sugar, packed
¼ cup butter, melted
¼ cup dark corn syrup
1 heaping cup of pecans, chopped
1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Pierce the raw sweet potatoes all over with a sharp knife and place them on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet. Roast the sweet potatoes in the oven until soft and easily pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes to an hour. In the meantime, butter a 2-3 quart shallow casserole dish and set it aside. Once the sweet potatoes are cooked through, allow them to cool until they are easy to handle with your hands. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
2. Tear the skins from the sweet potatoes and put the orange flesh into a large mixing bowl. Mash the sweet potatoes until they are creamy. Add the milk, egg, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Spoon the sweet potato mixture into the buttered casserole dish.
3. In a small bowl combine the brown sugar, butter and corn syrup. Pour this over the sweet potato casserole and spread it around so that all of the sweet potato is covered. Sprinkle the pecans evenly over top.
4. Bake the casserole uncovered for 45 minutes, or until it is set. The topping will still be slightly soft at this point, but it will harden as the dish cools. Watch the pecans towards the end of the cooking time. If they start to brown too much or burn, drape a piece of aluminum foil over top to slow the browning.
Click here for a printable version the Praline Sweet Potatoes recipe.