As an American living in London for the past thirteen years, I still get nostalgic when Thanksgiving approaches.
I begin to yearn for my mom’s home cooking: canned sausage and beans, canned tuna casserole, canned spaghetti from Chef Boyardee with a can of mushrooms tossed in for show.
My particular favorite was her curry: a can of mushroom soup mixed with cooked ham or turkey and a pinch of madras curry powder. Poured over rice and you had ambrosia.
Yes, in my childhood, cooking was warming up. The sound of dinner being made was the sound of an electric can opener.
Of course, we know things are different now. Most people wouldn’t admit to knowing where their can opener is. These days the ultimate status symbol is fresh produce. Fresh enough to slap you if bit.
We insist on bright green beans still trembling with life. Fragrant ruby tomatoes. Pert button mushrooms. And to scramble a useful American idiom I admit that I jumped on the bandwagon whole hog. I spent some time as a fresh food snob.
My counters groaned with baskets of perfectly color coordinated fruit and vegetables. I insisted on cutting corn kernels straight from the ear. I ravaged fresh coconuts for their milk. Yes, I even tossed side-glances at other trolleys in the supermarket and smugly compared fresh food ratios.
But thankfully, I’ve returned to my roots. Fresh is not what it’s cracked up to be. Those baskets of produce melted into mush when I wasn’t looking. I spent too many hours chopping my way through dinner.
I’ve realized my mother had it right. Food should be out of sight in the cupboards, serving friendly, until I need them, not uselessly ripening into pulp in my way. I know now that deep down it was all a front. Fresh food was a password, a visible sign that we will spend the time and the money to make up for life’s ever increasing ease. I think, bottom line, we feared losing our usefulness. If we personally cut our way through two pounds of fresh plum tomatoes, we could still consider ourselves center of our domestic universe.
We caused head shaking amongst the older generation. When a London friend of mine went into long self-congratulatory diatribe about how she made all her baby food from scratch, my mother leaned forward sympathetically and asked “Why? Don’t they have jars of baby food here?”
Lately, I’m increasingly proud of the fact that my family lived on canned vegetables, bottled salad dressing, frozen fish and lived to tell the tale. I used to blame my mother’s cooking on my tardy interest in vegetables. (My children will no doubt blame my serving everything lightly sautéed in extra virgin olive oil on theirs.)
Now I appreciate that my mother knew a good thing when she saw it. Have I told you about her auspicious use of boxes too? Cakes, brownies, muffins, even breads. No messy need to sift flour or melt chocolate or, heaven forbid, squeeze a lemon.
Tear open a box and you created a masterpiece. As a Foreign Service wife overseas my mother often had to fess up in front of local dignitaries who clamored for her “deliciously moist cake” recipe. “The shock on their faces was delightful,” my mother grins.
And now that most British supermarkets sell Betty Crocker mixes I am set. My children and I have often reenacted the ritual of what my mother and I used to do on a rainy afternoon. My children stand on a chair and stir with tongue-chewing attention while I rip open the plastic bag of ready-made mix, crack open the egg and measure in water and vegetable oil.
It used to be that you could lick the spoons. Truthfully, it was the whole reason you made the damn cake in the first place. But you can’t now. If you do you’ll fall flat on the kitchen floor with the runs, salmonella bacteria organizing rave parties in your intestine. But that’s modern life.
And lest you think my mother and I were complete culinary barbarians, we did make our own frosting. Milk and powdered sugar. Drop of green coloring and mint extract. Frosted over the cooled chocolate cake, it was, mmm, deelish.
So for this Thanksgiving I’m going to get super nostalgic and prepare the meal just like Mom did. I’ll mix a can of sweet potatoes with a can of sectioned mandarins in juice, a bit of brown sugar and butter and chopped walnuts. I’ll tip my hat to modern convention and even chop the walnuts by hand.
Naturally, we’ll have roast turkey. I yearn for the self-basting pop-up timer Butterball turkey of my homeland which practically opened the oven door and called out when it was ready.
I will not forget the canned cranberry jelly which retains its perfect tin shape in the dish. And then we’re going to invite a couple of friends, a few of them Brits who for some reason think Thanksgiving is hilarious. Especially the parts about the wild Indians sharing their food with the Pilgrims. I think it’s our cornucopia paper napkins that just sends them over the edge.
We will say grace. I know, so quaint, but it’s either that or the Pledge of Allegiance. And then we’ll tuck in. And eat too much and complain. If we were in the States we’d have a football game to slouch in front of and complain properly. Here we’ll probably turn on loud music and watch the rain fall. And when the first wave of over eating nausea passes I’ll rummage through my new stash of cans and make turkey curry and remember how things were in the good old day…when we could.
photo by ipickmynose (flickr)