The Spirit of the Thing

I think that last week, one of those impish spirits that rule the universe must have stubbed a toe, mid-flight, on the Cumbrian mountains, sending ripples down through the earth’s crust that finally shuddered to the surface in the village pond opposite my windows. Because for some reason last week, everything was slightly off kilter. Not in a disastrous or alarming way, by any means, but just as if events were struggling to catch up with the meaning they usually embody, like a picture that’s out of register.

The whole working week was a bit of a struggle, not least because my son was poorly with a nasty cold and so stayed home. Not that he was the least bit of trouble, but because he was unwell I kept him company during the day, and working to a background accompaniment of World of Warcraft mixed with whatever is on the television tends to scramble my brainwaves. But it wasn’t just that. I was trying to put together yet another version of the motherhood proposal and the stuffing has gone out of the project for me at the moment. Most sensible advice to aspiring writers suggests you go where the energy is, which is fine until you reach the fourth or fifth rewrite and are heartily sick to death of what you absolutely must do. Writing guides tend to fall silent at that point. Still, by Friday I had cobbled something together and now I’ll let it sit for a while and stew before returning to it in a week or so. It may not be the fault of the project, of course. I don’t feel that my writing is working particularly well at the moment, which happens from time to time as the year waxes and wanes. I’m going to research magic realism for a while now, and I hope that it will perk my imagination up. I have some utterly gorgeous French novels to read that cannot fail to inspire.

And then midweek the UK was gripped by hysteria because a portly 64-year-old ex-political commentator resigned from a television dancing competition. You’ll probably have heard about this, yes, even you at the back in Uruguay. I don’t know if this is a cultural feature in other countries, but we have a system here for derailing a straight fight, which is called the public phone vote. I’ve watched Strictly Come Dancing for about five series now and every time there is some unfortunate soul who lasts far, far longer in the competition than is truly wise because the chance for the average viewer to both witness humiliation and effect rescue is too good to pass up. It’s all the fun of watching your favourite Christian in the amphitheatre, knowing that with a press of a button you can send the lion down the trapdoor, if need be.

This year the ‘worst’ competitor was a man called John Sergeant, whose incompetence was mitigated by a kind of Winnie the Pooh cuteness. The judges were rude as they always are, the public voted for him in droves and then the pack split: half considered him to be a delightful tool for undermining the judges, the other half considered the joke was flat and that he was spoiling the chances of other, talented competitors. The battle lines were drawn up on the message boards of the internet and then spread into other sectors of the media, where vitriol and flaming reached such a fever pitch that John Sergeant, wily ex-political commentator that he is, staged a tactical withdrawal. Well, quite. The public was perfectly willing to kill him off when the competition reached the stage of demanding two dances a week from each contestant, and the prospect of having to undergo three or four in the final must have been daunting. I hear he is heading off to give a series of lectures on a cruise ship next week, which must seem a better prospect.

The rights and wrongs of this situation are beyond me, but I do know it all boils down to what you consider the spirit of ‘entertainment’ to be. I know that I am tediously aligned with the law, and for relaxation I still like to be presented with a view of an orderly world. I watch Strictly Come Dancing for the same reason that I love to shop in John Lewis – on the grounds that it’s impossible to imagine anything truly unpleasant happening there. Seeing the tempers mount on the message boards has been a disconcerting experience for me, revealing the war-mongering heart of folk who were supposedly enjoying a gentle, old-fashioned Saturday teatime programme. I know some people find a big old row thrilling spectator sport, but I hate the conflict and the excess. All those folk on the message boards screaming in capital letters ‘It is all supposed to be a bit of harmless fun!’ are clearly, to my mind, somewhat lacking in irony. But actually I think it’s emotional displacement from worrying about the credit crunch and the state of the mortgage and not having put by a little nest egg for a rainy day, etc. There’s a certain frenzy to this conflict that seems completely over the top.

Anyhow. Not to worry, I thought yesterday. I had voted to participate in Cam’s virtual Thanksgivings celebrations and decided to take the opportunity of a friend’s visit to hold an English version of the dinner. I proceeded to spend an age studying recipes on the internet for something I could recreate with UK ingredients. Not as easy as you might think, when whole turkeys are only readily available at Christmas and then they come in industrial sizes only. Unwilling to leave my poorly son home alone, I gave up an unequal fight and decided to get a chicken from the supermarket a few doors down the road. As luck would have it I had a bag of sweet potatoes, but there was no point even looking for a pumpkin. The recipes were all such a strange mix of sweet and savoury that I ended up making my own version. There was only one person I knew who would consider eating a combination of sweet potatoes, a bag of brown sugar and a vat of marshmallow. ‘Yum,’ said my son. ‘Now that’s a vegetable dish I could get behind.’ Telling you what I made instead will have to be a description rather than a recipe, as well, I’m afraid. But in the end I pot-roasted a chicken, which I prepared by wrapping bacon rashers over its carcass with sprigs of fresh thyme. Surrounding the chicken in the dish I placed three-quarters of a butternut squash and a bigish sweet potato, cubed, along with some chilli, a few whole cloves of garlic and some chopped fresh sage. I poured a little hot chicken stock over the vegetables and then slow cooked it in the oven for a couple of hours, taking the lid off for the last twenty minutes or so to crisp up the bacon. When I came to serve it, I mashed the vegetables together along with one of the roasted garlic cloves (you could add as many or as few as you wished). It was a very simple version, but it tasted delicious.

So I had my meal, but what about the thanksgiving? It was not as easy as I’d hoped to find the emotional ingredients for a celebration meal, either. I had told my husband we’d be having a Thanksgiving dinner ‘Oh? Great,’ he said, sifting through the day’s mail. I might as well have told the pot plants. ‘I’m going to cook a Thanksgiving dinner, like they have in America,’ I told my son. ‘Uh-huh,’ he replied, managing the almost implausible feat of paying less attention to me than my husband. When my friend arrived, she was brimming over with excitement about a possible new relationship. It’s fair enough to say that her mind was not exactly on the meal. Of course, it’s not just that I’m a hopelessly un-forceful hostess (although I am that), I’m also a disorganized one. I hadn’t been able to get candles or crackers, as I’d hoped, to dress the table and make it look pretty, and people need a few tangible markers to indicate a celebration. Even more problematic, we don’t do Thanksgiving over here in the first place and so have no clear concept of what it means. I had thought I might ask everyone to name something they were grateful for this year, but as the others got stuck into my son’s maths homework, discussing why five to the three over eight to the minus three didn’t result in two to the one (or something), I realized this was just not the social moment to do so. My family and friend were happy, and had enjoyed the meal, and if the spirit of thanksgiving didn’t exactly put in an appearance, well, perhaps the ripples emanating from the boot of that other clumsy spirit sent it off course a bit and it landed, unexpectedly, on the dinner table of a family in Hemel Hempstead. I hope they all had a nice time.


24 thoughts on “The Spirit of the Thing

  1. Your chicken pot roast sounds scrumptious! I’ll have to try that sometime. And don’t worry: there really isn’t much more to the American Thanksgiving tradition than the food (and arguments, when the whole family is together), although I do tend to like to go around the table and make people name something for which they are grateful. Math homework might not be what drags people away from the table, but many a Thanksgiving meal has been ruined by too many people ignoring the food while glued to the TV set watching whatever American football game is on at the moment (and basically, they seem to be on from about 5:00 a.m. until midnight). This year, we’ve been invited to have the meal with a family whose tradition is to have amaretto sours in the afternoon, after the meal and before dessert. That sounds very civilized (provided no one drinks way too many amaretto sours, that is!).

  2. This American thing of mixing sweet foods with savoury is entirely bizarre. As for Thanksgiving, it seems just another excuse for a huge meal that will take 3 days of preparation but be eaten in 40 minutes. And then take 3 days to clear up. We are running away from Thanksgiving this year and not even having the meal. I’m not sure, but we might be kicked out of the country.

  3. The American students at the Institute are all getting very excited about Thanksgiving and one of the local pubs (whose landlord is clearly not one bit daft!) has offered to cook them a full Thanksgiving dinner at what is really a very very reasonable price. They are so grateful that he will undoubtedly make up whatever his loss is on this meal in custom throughout the rest of their stay and as some of them will be here for three or more years that is a considerable time. I’m hoping I’ll be able to attend although I’ll have to see how things are on Thursday, not mention what the weather is doing. Are you snow bound? It looks as if you’re going to get it first.

  4. I’ve always wondered what pumpkin pie tastes like – I’d love to try it. Your version sounds very good.

    I can’t get worked up over Sergeantgate. I enjoyed his dancing and even more my husband liked watching Katrina dance. Still she’s on again tonight with John for a farewll dance – so no doubt he’ll be glued to the screen – although he’s watching football at the moment.

  5. You dinner sounds like an appropriate Thanksgiving meal considering the limitations you faced. The holiday here really is all about food and spending time with family and or friends. My family required a prayer before the meal. My husband’s family being Jewish did not require a prayer but required everyone name one thing for which they were grateful. While we don’t do the turkey thing, my husband and I do follow his family’s I’m grateful for… ritual and appreciate the pause in the regular day-to-day to take a moment to be thoughtful and thankful.

  6. I hated sweet potatos until I was an adult because I couldn’t stomach the marshmallows that my grandmother put on them each year. I now love to just bake them, put smidgen of butter on them, and top with cilantro. Have them about once a week. As for your dinner, I think it sounds wonderful, but in flavor as well as in its simplicity. I have a friend who just returned from living in the UK for 5 years. She always talked about how difficult it was to find a turkey — I think she would make a trip into London and pick one up at Harrod’s, a special order. I’ve never cooked a turkey (leave that to one of my older sisters or sisters-in-law) but my husband just commented that he wish he was cooking a turkey this year. I bet there is one in my oven on Friday, but I hope it is a small one. My mom used to cook 20 – 25 lb birds to feed up to 40 people; my oven isn’t even big enough for one that size and I have no idea what I would do with that many people in my house at one time.

  7. Such amazing style of writing. It is so sophisticated that actually I was trying to taste the sentences than comprehend the meaning of them. I loved the descriptive adjectives you used. Great work.

  8. I never could do the sweet potato thing–even with the marshmallows but I do love pumpkin anything at this time of year. Pumpkin pie is my favorite (well next to cherry pie anyway). Your Thanksgiving dinner sounds like it had all the right ingredients to it, and like everyone else has mentioned–it’s mostly about the dinner (that takes ages to make and yes, does get eaten in what seems like a blink of an eye). Still, when I lived overseas and missed it terribly(I had to work on the day–how awful was that). Wonderful post–you are the only person I can think of who can successfully and with panache pull off a witty post covering not only a sick child, the latest brouhaha on a dance show and a Thanksgiving feast. As always well done (and I agree wholeheartedly with what Helen before me had to say!).

  9. I’m an American who wouldn’t dream of eating marshmallows in any way whatsoever or putting any sort of sugar on sweet potatoes. I’ve actually never been served that style of sweet potatoes in 44 Thanksgivings, so I’ve always assumed it’s a regional dish. I’ve also never been to Thanksgiving or any other meal at a house where the TV would be on during a meal or with company over, nor has anyone in my household ever watched a football game. So much for the stereotypes.

    Your dinner sounds just right except that there would usually be stuffing inside the poultry. And if your family and friend were happy, well, that IS the spirit of Thanksgiving, really. It’s a family/loved ones sort of gathering. The food aspect came about because it’s basically a style of a harvest festival. That’s why you have the autumn vegetables like pumpkin.

    Pumpkin pie, if you ever want to try making it, can be made with any dark yellow winter squash. I do it all the time! You’d just bake that butternut squash you had, then puree the softened insides and follow a pie recipe, using the squash in whatever amount pumpkin is called for. You can eat it plain, but many people put whipped cream on top.

  10. Emily – how very reassuring! So Thanksgiving sounds like any family-based celebration the world over, and certainly any weekend over here passes with wall-to-wall sport for those who want to watch it! I love the thought of you working your way through a number of palate-cleansing amaretto sours! I do hope you’ll blog about the day afterwards. Musings – LOL! Well tell you what, we’ll keep your Thanksgiving defection just between you and me, right? I don’t mind the preparation, and the eating is fine, but ugh, the clearing up afterwards is the pits. Ann – I do hope you get to enjoy the meal with the students – I imagine that would be so much fun! We have had some snow this morning, but now it’s all turned to freezing rain. Yuk. And definitely smart work on the part of the pub landlord! Anne – I wouldn’t have thought of it, but when Cam invited anyone who wanted to participate, it seemed like a lovely idea. And I like cooking – well, I like cooking when I know what we’re going to have. Thinking of dinners every night of the week gets a bit tedious! Booksplease – I agree about the pie! And my husband completely agrees about Kristina. He’a bit ‘John who?’ but he loves the Marilyn Monroe-lookalike. Stefanie – I’m glad it’s not too far from the mark! I know what you mean about ritual. There’s something special about doing the unusual regularly. The best bit of Christmas for me these years is getting the tree and smelling the thick scent of pine resin for the rest of the day. I’ll still be posting on gratitude as part of Cam’s virtual thanksgiving, so the opportunity’s still there for me! Cam – sweet potatoes are very good for you (so I’ve read) so I’d like some ways to use them more regularly, and your simple recipe sounds lovely. I have never cooked a huge turkey and only have a small oven, so that wouldn’t work. I have such admiration for people who can calmly feed 40 guests – I would be in complete crisis over it! Oh and thank you for the lovely idea – I thought it was so nice and a chance for me to try something different. Helen – thank you so very much! I will absolutely treasure that comment. Really, thank you. Danielle – how awful to have to work on a special holiday day when you were abroad (although I can see how that would happen!) – I would have felt so homesick too. Can you believe I’ve never eaten anything with pumpkin in it, but I see Dew’s left some great instructions so I’ll have to try. And thank you SO much for your lovely comments – they do mean the world to me. I’m sending back a virtual hug! Dew – first of all thank you for the information on pumpkin pie – I shall have to try that. I’ve only recently become a convert to butternut squash, but now I’ve learned how to get into them, I’m keen to find new ways to use them. Explaining thanksgiving as a harvest meal makes perfect sense, and it’s interesting for me to hear about all kinds of thanksgiving celebrations, given that we don’t have it at all. I’m sure there are a lot of variations when it comes down to it!

  11. Thanksgiving is a weird holiday for me, because it’s right at the end of the semester, and I usually use the few days off work to catch up on my grading. Not very celebratory. Hobgoblin and I have a nice dinner (Cornish game hens in the past few years), go on a bike ride, and then I buckle down to work again the next day. How wonderful of you to cook that great dinner, and I’m sure everyone enjoyed it, even if they didn’t exactly get what was going on!

  12. This was a very odd, albeit lovely, post from you. I had so much fun reading it!!
    Your Thanksgiving dinner had me in stitches – at least you were there in a celebratory fashion. And the meal did sound lovely.
    I favor the holiday because there are no strings attached. You don’t have to buy anyone anything, there is not a lot of decorating involved, and family together is simply a must.
    I have a twenty five pound bird thawing in my refrigerator right now – it takes days. One of my favorite things on the day is my brother’s toast. He is the official family toastmaster, and he talks about how fortunate we are, and he speaks to all of our loved ones who are gone. One minute I am teary-eyed, and the next moment I am digging into a bowl of home made, garnet hued cranberries. I love the food! The rest of the women in my family are just biding there time for dessert, of which there are never less than five or six. This year is blueberry pie (my son makes), Black Forest cheescake (my daughter makes), apple pie (I make), and two pumpkin pies, chocolate brownies, and pecan pie (my mom makes all of these – the queen of dessert).
    And the dance contest? It sounds dreadful! My daughters watch Dancing with the Stars, which must be something similar. There is one judge (who happens to be a Brit) who is the nasty guy, and he cuts the dancers down until they are in tears. These reality type shows are a mystery to me!
    I hope the stubbed toe over your world has healed and your writing is back in good kilter, your son is feeling better, and that family in Hemel Hempstead appreciated your Thanksgiving spirit!

  13. Okay, I am now starving, absolutely starving, for Thanksgiving dinner next week. (My mother makes the sweet potatoes with apples, raisins, and maple syrup, baked to a crisp in the oven… oh yum.)

  14. I did hear about Sergeantgate down here and wondered what the fuss was about. That Thanksgiving dinner sounds delicious and I’m sure your family appreciated it even if they were distracted by maths equations. Great descriptions as usual. Good luck with the revisions. Oh, and the stubbed toe vibes were rippling down here as well.

  15. Dorothy – I know just what you mean about term-ends and holidays. Christmas here comes after term has ended and admissions interviews been conducted and (when I was teaching French) I’d have to go and buy Christmas in a state of blitzed fatigue, thinking about setting exam papers. It’s a real problem with academia – it’s possible to have no holidays when you work in it! But the Cornish game hens sound magnificent! Qugrainne – Lol! I know, it was a bit odd. A combination of an odd week and an over-ambitious amalgam of topics, but I’m glad it made you laugh. I do likw what you say about a celebration without strings – how nice to have a festive occasion that involves no presents, and wow, I am so impressed by all those desserts – they must look amazing just before everyone digs in. Dancing with the Stars is indeed the US equivalent of this show and I believe we share some judges – only the ones that come to you are supposed to be the nicer ones!! That should give you some indication of the judging…. Emily – London is an amazing place to shop – you can get absolutely everything there, I think. Beyond London, it gets a little tougher, but still, approximations and substitutes are usually fine, too! Scriptor Senex – thank you so much! I’m honored to be quoted, and thank you for introducing me to your blog too. We clearly feel the same way about Strictly! Pete – oh it’s been incredible – ie implausible and quite ridiculous. And yes, people enjoyed the meal which is the main thing, after all. I’m also thinking of our longtitudes and guessing that they are not so far apart – I’m sure those ripples could easily spread and reach you! 🙂

  16. I know what you mean about the dancing program–I stopped watching Dancing with the Stars because it got so frustrating watching people vote for “the wrong competitors”–lol. I’m glad you tried out Thanksgiving, and I’m happy to send you any recipes you might want–I save a raft of Thanksgiving recipes every year, and have a few tried and true ones! Measurements American, however, though I might be able to manage to convert them. Your squash and sweet potato idea sounds fabulous, and I usually roast my squash or sweet potato with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, so I get you on the weirdness of mini marshmallows. In fact, I only make the “sweet” version of sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, but ours does not include marshmallows–that’s sacrilege in our house. My version is more Southern–with brown sugar and pecans. More like dessert, if you ask me! My sister-in-law married an English guy, and they lived in Primrose Hill for several years. Her difficulty at Thanksgiving was finding cranberries! And there is no real substitute for those. Why don’t you just come to my house next year? I’ll feed you and yours!

  17. We celebrated Thanksgiving in my little Swiss house this past weekend as well. For fun we invited my husband’s entire family thinking most of them wouldn’t be able to make it since we sent invites at the last minute and then all of them showed up. Which was a pure delight, although it made seating rather (or very) tight. And I had the same turkey problem – the butcher just laughed at me when I said I needed ONE turkey to feed 25 adults. But somehow everything worked out and we managed to have a great time while some weather god with an impish streak decided to dump a foot of snow on the village while we ate. It was beautiful, but a little treacherous by the time everyone needed to head home 🙂

  18. Gentle Reader – oh now wouldn’t that be wonderful? How lovely would that be to have Thanksgiving with you!! Cranberries are still hard to come by over here, although one of the TV chefs made them more popular a little while ago. As a result the big supermarkets do sometimes have them in freezer bags, but even so, they are not readily available and I agree – very hard to substitute! Oh yes, we come from the same place with regards to the dancing contests and I can get my head around sweet potatoes with pecans. I would try that! 🙂 Verbivore – I have such a delightful image of twenty five hungry adults crowded around one turkey in a small but charming Swiss chalet. Snow outside makes for an even more lovely image, but yukky to tackle in reality, and in the cold and dark! Respect to you for making one turkey go that far! 🙂

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