An old story

It has been brought to my attention that some readers are baffled by the pumpkin pie allusion. Anyone who has been reading the Unoff Mensa List for the last few years will have heard it at least once, and anyone even remotely connected with Theresa’s family will have heard it, oh, annually. But the nice thing about blogs is that they develop legs and move about the place under their own steam. If you’ve heard it, skip a week, I will be moving along shortly. If not, the moral of the tale of my first Canadian Thanksgiving is that you probably have to grow up with traditional holidays to really ‘get’ them.

(And, of course, if these musings appeal you can find more tales of transatlantic confusion and fun at Looking BackImmigrationThe Eternal Language BarrierTradition TraditionThe Wizard of Oz and Cicadas and Alarums.)

Thanksgiving isn’t an English custom you see. We Brits have a sort of harvest festival but it is restricted to little food drives at churches and schools. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m sure that receiving your autumnal box of tinned rice pudding, pineapple chunks and an apple is very nice for those elderly folk brave enough to open the door to a gaggle of schoolkids. It’s just not very exciting, no family gatherings for a start. Or traditional dinners.

Please don’t think that we Brits go short of pre-winter celebrations, we are most festive on November the 5th. It’s the time for firework displays, bonfires and sausages you can write with, but we save our major family feastings for Christmas. Which is why, shortly after emigrating, when we were invited to Theresa’s for Sunday dinner earlyish in October I accepted the invitation happily enough but had no inkling that anything special was going on.

It must have been half-way through the Saturday when some kind soul scanning my groceries made a little polite conversation: “So, are you going anywhere nice for Thanksgiving Dinner?” My face must have been a picture of incomprehension. She said it again more slowly, just in case I didn’t speak English. “Um, yes, I think so,” wasn’t the wittiest riposte in the circumstances but I suddenly had a lot of processing to do, and an urgent phone call to make.

“This Thanksgiving thing, is it, you know, sort of a special meal?”
And do you know what? It turns out that we had, indeed, been invited for a special meal. Apparently turkey is usual but the family tradition chez Theresa is for Bob’s famous ham and scalloped potatoes.
“How nice, what can I bring? How about dessert? Have you made dessert yet? Good, leave it to me.”
Ten minutes later:
“So, is there anything sort of traditional that you’re supposed to have for dessert? Pumpkin pie eh? Ok, pumpkin pie it is.”

Consider the dilemma. You are a habitual baker. (Due possibly to an English upbringing… processed food is so much more expensive than basic ingredients, so everybody cooks from scratch.) You have never, however, eaten pumpkin pie. You have twigged that the chap who told you about pumpkin hunting was probably kidding. (The farmer blows a horn and it frightens them so they all run about the pumpkin patch, then you can shoot one. It’s considered cheating to shoot a resting pumpkin. Allegedly.) But you have not – to date – seen, tackled or cooked with a pumpkin at all. You have no idea what it should look like or taste like. All the recipes tell you to start with a “cup of cooked pumpkin” but omit the step beginning “first, attack your pumpkin”. Yes, yes, yes, I know you can buy it in cans now, but I didn’t then and it was an emergency. So, I chickened out and went to Zehr’s for a frozen pumpkin pie.

Having finished shopping a few hours before we were due to join our adopted Canadian family, I decided to leave my prized pie in the car. The theory went that it should have thawed nicely by the time we were ready to eat it. You are naturally way ahead of me here so I’ll cut to the chase. Picture the scene, a dining table full of family, friends (and adopted strays like us) have had a little rest after their Thanksgiving Dinner of Bob’s deservedly famous ham’nscalloped potatoes. Ben and I are feeling welcome and happy and all in favour of this New World tradition. We all begin to feel as though we could manage a spot of something dessertish and I step proudly into the kitchen to dish up my contribution. There is a pause. A silent moment that lasts a fraction too long.
“Um, is it meant to be all runny like this?”
“Not really. How long did you bake it for?”
“Oh dear.”

Of course the unbaked runny filling had slopped all over the box by then, there wasn’t a huge amount left in the pie case but we baked it anyway. At about midnight we all partook of a slice of soggy, pumpkin flavoured pastry. It wasn’t terribly nice. I still take dessert when invited for meals. I am greeted at the door on each occasion with a cheery “did you bake it this time?” I rather like being part of someone else’s family folklore though, it’s a belonging of sorts. I have even learned how to make pumpkin pie but I can’t say that I like it very much. Thanksgiving definitely takes practice.

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