Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Moveable Feast

There is absolutely no holiday I like better than Thanksgiving. It might have something to do with giving thanks. Surrounded by endless blessings: loved ones, good health, happiness and an abundance of riches (these days one calculates their prosperity by counting the number of screens there are in the house), I cannot help but seek a way to express my eternal gratitude. But there's definitely more to it than that. First of all, beyond being the only American holiday I celebrate, it is the only secular one period. Here in Israel almost every holiday--and there are a lot of them--has some religious significance. Accordingly, it is ironic that this secular holiday has become my holiest of holies. 

This confession leads me to an even more significant one: It might just be about the food. In Israel almost every holiday is centered on a meal featuring a particular cuisine. At Rosh HaShana we bring out the apples and honey, Passover, matza, Hanukkah, jelly doughnuts, Purim, Hamentaschen and Shavuot, a variety of cheeses. Sukkot actually offers a seasonal parallel to Thanksgiving, timed to the local squash (think pumpkin) season, usually in October, and traditionally celebrated by gathering for a meal under a Sukkah –or tent. While a Sukkah is unnecessary for the celebration of Thanksgiving it would make an excellent addition—after all, it offers an excellent way to collect those we love under one roof and yes, to give thanks! 

My annual tribute, whose sanctity supplants all other annual celebrations (including those enumerated above), has nevertheless taken on a vastly different significance for me as an expatriate.  First of all, it has very little to do with the historical origins of the holiday. There is nary a hint of those thanksgiving pageants staged back in elementary school (where we all wanted to be Miles Standish). And although I might have mentioned something about the original American settlers to my children, it was probably more in passing than any attempt to actually educate them. New information regarding that first mythical meal has, in any case, indicated that most modern Thanksgiving dinners are a far cry from the original feast celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts back in 1621. Nathaniel Philbrick's groundbreaking book, Mayflower, recently adapted for children and very likely to become the new textbook on the Anglican settlement of America, describes neither the abundance, or good feeling, we have come to associate with this annual chow down. 

Philbrick points out the discrepancy between items included in the original meal and our modern celebrations. Turkeys, being much smaller at the time, and cranberries, for example, played minor roles, while there was quite a bit of shellfish! But there's no reason to panic, two staples of most modern meals—local corn (albeit far more colorful than our white and yellow variety) and squash, were featured. Beyond the culinary differences, there were the more significant ones regarding the atmosphere at that historic event. As most of the original Pilgrims were religious extremists, actually Separatists, who had escaped from Anglican England, their aim was more at conversion than acceptance. The natives resented their intrusion and any harmony achieved within this meeting, albeit ostensibly in celebration of the harvest, was fragile at best.

Perhaps the blurry lines surrounding the myth that became the tradition of Thanksgiving are exactly what make it most importable. Our annual menu, following some folkloric checklist, includes the mandatory Thomas the Turkey (squeezed into my European-sized oven with a broken limb or two), bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn bread, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. My effort to put together this meal, as a national/foreigner (forever struggling with that designation) in sometimes hostile territory (no evidence of the US poultry campaign here and most cans of pumpkin have an expiration date of 2006), recalls that of our Pilgrim forefathers. They too sought to organize a feast, with whatever they could find locally, that would reflect abundance and successful settlement. Beyond the menu is the question of just what it was like for those Pilgrims and Natives as they gathered around the table. In this way the gathering in my own home well recalls that original sit-down: a meeting of different cultures and languages whose fragile harmony is tinged with the stress of everyday tensions. Nevertheless, I can proudly attest to the fact that the meal itself, sacrosanct within our home, is NOT squeezed in between "downs" or "quarters". (I'm certain that the next generation will give up eating around a table and opt to simply crowd around the television screen). 

Our bi-cultural, bi-national Thanksgiving dinner all boils down to pumpkin--or more precisely, pumpkin pie.  Back in 1995 I spent hours trying to conquer the local, stringy pumpkin. This grainy squash, absolutely enormous in size (you actually only take a chunk home from the market), could not be tamed into a smooth pie custard. It was staunchly rejected around the table by all of my guests save my husband. His gallant effort to eat a whole piece can probably be attributed more to devotion than sensory appeal. Undaunted, I started to annually import canned pumpkin and soon enough, those Israelis guests brave enough to try a dessert based on…pumpkin?...were converted. Of course the irony here, and the detail that recalls the combination of different cultures, races and languages symbolized generations ago by the meeting of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Tribe, is that the recreation of this American classic within the Holy Land was enabled by a classic recipe culled from one Mrs. Segal at Sunday School in Philadelphia back in the 70s. There could be no better tribute to the spirit of cultural integration and root origins--in this case, my own!


  1. What could be nicer than a family tradition, tucked in not against the host culture but nestled there, a bit of an outlier only to become a trademark? Sounds like a lot of fun!

  2. one more thing!.
    the united nations sanctioned the state of the jews on the 29th of november, a day after thanks giving. the day of thanksgiving was devoted to persuading the nations that were against and thus swinging the vote.
    thanks giving should also be an israeli holiday.
    the seeing eye husband

  3. Making your own pumpkin puree is for the birds in the States, too, Martha Stewart nothwithstanding. Happy Thanksgiving to the whole family!