Tag Archives: Canadian Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in a Foreign Land

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.

Two cousins in a crib.  The "pricelessness" of family at Thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib. The “pricelessness” of family at 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dave's Mom's gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

Dave’s Mom’s gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

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.

I don't have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

I don’t have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

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.

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A Corn Maze and the Making of Fall Traditions

When Dave and I first started dating I was surprised to learn that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving also; though their holiday is a month earlier (on the second Monday in October).  I’d always thought of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American holiday, but in fact it is not.  The importance of the Thanksgiving meal, however, does vary greatly between the two nations.  In Canada, or at least on Vancouver Island, there no displays in stores, no Thanksgiving-themed commercials, no chatter about getting together with family, or trying to figure out long distance travel to get home for this one evening.  Instead, all the focus seems to be on Halloween, complete with fireworks.  Our cats will not be amused…

With this difference in Autumn celebrations, I feel out of sync with the season.  Halloween seems on time, but the fact that Thanksgiving is already over leaves me feeling like I’ve missed out on something important.  We had a great Canadian Thanksgiving, and we will be celebrating American Thanksgiving come the end of November, but in the meantime we’re trying to carve out some new Fall traditions and get into sync with our new community.  In Nanaimo that means a trip to McNab’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

The day we went was a little late in the season, since it was after Thanksgiving (Canadian) and most of the really big pumpkins were gone.  However, they had tons of small to medium pumpkins, a local school fundraiser with all the homemade baked goods my heart could ask for, and the corn maze was still in full swing.  I was already feeling nostalgic for Iowa since a much-missed friend was throwing a fall celebration party with all of our friends, and we had just passed the dates for two of our favorite things to do in Iowa; the Farm Crawl and the Brews and Muse Festival at Peacetree Brewery.  Oh, friends, we were sure missing you on those weekends (especially those friends who shall remain nameless but kept sending emails and Facebook comments about the delicious new brews from Peacetree that we were missing out on… trisky hobbits that you are).

So with homesick hearts we went looking for new traditions at the pumpkin patch.  I assure you I never thought in my life that I’d say I was homesick for Iowa, but I’m getting sincerely tired of leaving places behind that have become home.  In our quest for new traditions to make this place home, McNabb’s did not disappoint.

Even after living in the American Midwest for five years, I had never been to a corn maze.  At Farm Crawl there was a corn maze, but I was always more interested in Pierce’s Pumpkin Patch, the borscht served at Coyote Run Farm, and the amazing preserves, people and brew (Peacetree again…) at Blue Gate Farm.  So McNab’s was my first time to be in and amongst the corn.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Surrounded by corn... like being back in Iowa.

Surrounded by corn… like being back in Iowa.

The day was perfectly foggy for an Autumn trip to the pumpkin patch, and we headed off to the maze first.  We had a great time trying to get lost, and searching (often fruitlessly) for the little markers hidden in the paths.  Apparently the markers haven’t been moved in years so the locals all know where they are, but since we’re new the hunt was still fun.  Once the chill of the maze started to get to us, and the enclosed space of the corn from Little Man’s viewpoint started to wear on him, we took the Hay Ride tractor to the pumpkin patch.  Here we selected a couple of pumpkins, had them measured and then heaved them back to the tractor, wishing we had brought the stroller to carry our pumpkin booty.

Hmmm... Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

Hmmm… Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

As we got off the tractor at the front of the farm, we ran into some friends from town, and hung around the fire pits chatting.  That is the sort of thing you miss when you move often; the regular meeting of friends in public places.  Little Man ran around with their kids, visiting the piglets and goats, and climbing massive downed stumps.

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When Little Man finally started showing signs of wearing down and needing lunch, we headed off for lunch.  We could have stayed there for hot dogs, but the morning was cold and we all wanted some warm, inside rest.  So we headed for Coco Café in Cedar.  The café’s name is an acronym for the Cedar Opportunities Co-Operative, whose mission is to provide developmentally disabled adults with employment opportunities within their community.  This year the maze was dedicated to Coco’s, and I had heard of it before as well.  It has the reputation of being a nice little café with cozy atmosphere and good, local food, for good prices.  Perfect.

Walking into Coco Café I caught a glimpse of our little family in the glass door; all looking cold, dazed, hungry, and distinctively muddy.  Inside I ordered a hot cocoa, and Dave got coffee.  Little Man was very pleased with my drink choice, and did his best to polish off my whipped cream before I could get to it myself.  Dave had a Thai Curried Chicken Panini with a green side salad.  Little Man had the grilled cheese on an awesome whole wheat bread; and I had a massive bowl of Beef and Barley soup complete with a good-sized hunk of warm Pumpernickel, rich with molasses.  Dave’s Panini was great, and we were both impressed with the salad.  After our time in the Midwest we had come to loath side salads since inevitably they were tasteless piles of wilted, ice berg lettuce buried under a mound of not-cheese.  At Coco Cafe even the side salads were great.  Not a hint of iceberg lettuce to be seen, but only dark, lovely salad greens with a homemade vinaigrette.  Little Man liked his sandwich, but preferred my cocoa; and my soup was divine.  It was full of great vegetables, barley and beef, the broth was rich and stew-like with a good amount of black pepper.  This soup was a perfect example of why homemade soup is so much better than the stuff from a can.  All in all we had a great, home style lunch that did not break the bank, and which warmed us up from our stomachs to our fingers and toes.

On the way back home, Dave struggled to keep Little Man awake so that he could take a nice long nap at home.  Little Man, for his part, did his best to hide behind his Pooh Bear and fall asleep.  In the end we all had great naps, and ever since I’ve been fixated on hot beverages.  I want drinks that I can hold in a real mug, not paper or factory made, but something made by real hands, something that fits nicely between my palms, and warms me from the fingers on out.  And that brings me to my family’s Wassle; a hot mulled cider that fills the home and the heart with the aroma of the holidays.

This recipe for wassle comes from my dad’s side of the family, and just a whiff of this simmering away in the slow cooker makes me think of “family.”  I don’t mean “family” in the sense of just the three of us, but of gatherings of loved ones, whether or not you are biologically related, where you can just relax and be at home.  In fact, it’s worth making this wassle just for the aroma.

When Dave and I first made this wassle for our friends-who-became-family in upstate New York, their first comment was “mmmm… this is good…” followed quickly by asking if we’d ever tried this with rum.  We hadn’t.  We did.  It was delicious.  But I have to say, this wassle is amazing on its own and doesn’t need any accoutrement.  What sets it apart from other mulled ciders I’ve tried is the mixture of apple cider with pineapple, orange and apricot nectars.  Cardamom and cinnamon round out the spiciness of the hot, hot drink, and are key to its aroma.  There is no added sugar, the juices are sweet enough as it is.  So if you’re having friends/family over and want that scent of the holidays that will stop them in their tracks the minute they set foot in your home, this is the wassle for you.  The only problem will be getting them to leave later, since it’s so nice to just sit with loved ones while cradling a mug of this wassle in your hands.

Wassle (A Hot Mulled Cider)

Ingredients

4 cups apple cider

4 cups unsweetened pineapple juice

1 ½ cup apricot nectar

1 cup orange juice

6 cinnamon sticks

1 tsp. whole green cardamom

Directions:

  1. Pour all juices into your slow cooker and turn it on to high.
  2. Place the cardamom pods on your cutting board and crush them with the back of a spoon or flat of a knife.  Alternatively, crush the pods in a mortar and pestle (I just can’t find mine since the move…)
  3. Add the cinnamon and crushed cardamom to the slow cooker.
  4. Cover and heat until pipping hot, then turn the slow cooker down to low and simmer the wassle for 25 minutes.  Enjoy!
  5. Optional: float a new cinnamon stick in each mug.

Click here for a printable version of the Wassle recipe.

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