My First Thanksgiving in Poughkeepsie
A uniquely American holiday, Callum Ashley’s experience of Thanksgiving offers an insightful peak into a world of tofu turkey, sugar and an American-sized portion of thanks
Vassar College, New York, United States – It’s a frosty Thursday morning and the usual bustle of coffee-grasping students are gone, so only a few of their empty cups are left, tumbling in the wind. It isn’t the government order of a lockdown that has sent this campus into desertion but is something that controls the average American’s much more easily – a national holiday.
Thanksgiving is a festival of family, food, and historical facts that are now too ingrained in popular culture to be fact-checked. Economists and anthropologists say the day is vital for understanding American society, its mood and even the world economy. Mythologising the communication between early settlers and various indigenous groups, the holiday celebrates a peaceful turkey dinner, shared before the next three hundred years of distrust and war – and genocide. In spite of the foggy origin, thanksgiving is celebrated nationally, by a multiplicity of ethnic groups, including my Ojibwe host family (a people indigenous to Walpole Island between the US and Canada).
Economists and anthropologists say the day is vital for understanding American society, its mood and even the world economy.
However, I had to decline an invitation to their ‘traditional thanksgiving dinner’ as I had already accepted an offer to attend another thanksgiving event with a few international friends, equally as fascinated as I was by the scope of the holiday. Whilst it would have been interesting to experience thanksgiving with Native Americans, I decided it would be just as intriguing to spend the day at one man’s house who had invited forty international students to fill a middle-class living room.
Whilst just under forty million Americans make an average 200-mile trip home through traffic jams, barren cities, with Christmas songs slowly leaking onto the radio, the forty of us made our own way to the house tucked away in a wintering forest, less than two miles from the college.
Despite the fact that roughly 46 million turkeys are slaughtered a year for the big day – a pretty tasteless bird native to the continent, and for reasons I’m not sure of, is also consumed in the UK at Christmas. Deciding that chicken tasted better, we bought one of those instead. We prepared, stuffed, cooked and made all parts of the meal with the help of a well-stocked Walmart and the oncoming and infamous ‘Black Friday’.
It was only those who were vegetarian that ironically consumed the closest thing to the tradition – ‘tofu turkey’. This not only mimicked the taste of turkey (and not too terribly), but also the sight of one. An interesting choice for those against eating animals that were nonetheless guzzled down alongside the chicken that was unfortunately not mixed with the international flavours I had anticipated, but carried a similar blandness that seemed to have followed me from home… The meal was nevertheless wholesome, and the desert marginally better. (I’m no cook, but I’m fairly sure American’s think more sugar means better flavor).
Our host and his wife asked us to form a circle and then wanted someone to volunteer to begin…
On telling my American friends of my first Thanksgiving experience, it turns out what we did between dinner and dessert wasn’t actually typical for the day and was, in fact, a little ridiculed. Our host and his wife asked us to form a circle and then wanted someone to volunteer to begin… “Begin what?” inquired an innocent international. “What you’re thankful for,” our host said, as if it was obvious, “it is thanksgiving!”
Whilst at first the mood was light, people did begin to allow their emotions to surface. Through a trickle of tears, a girl from Lagos, Nigeria, said, “I’m thankful for my mother and father. Without whom I wouldn’t have been able to study abroad and who I know to miss me, but support my choices anyway.” Some of these internationals hadn’t been home in two years thanks to COVID-19. The tears became heavier and an emotional, yet a wholesome mood soon caught on. The host’s dog then got into the kitchen and managed to nab the leftover chicken and deserts, causing the house to erupt into comedic chaos. The day was soon over, as everyone left early to be awake before sunrise the next day for various Black Friday sales stuffed with sugary desserts, tofu turkey and an American-sized portion of thanks.
Editor: Ryan Gerrett