On Friday, we celebrated an “American” Expat Thanksgiving with 17 new friends hailing from Germany, France, Canada, and Singapore. Cooking for that many people back home would be challenge enough, but with the incredibly limited equipment in our rental kitchen — and lacking many of the usual ingredients — this year was an exercise in flexibility and creativity.
First of all, Thanksgiving requires full size pantries, refrigerators and freezers for storing all those ingredients, sinks and dishwashers for cleaning up, and most importantly, ovens for baking. Even relatively new Dutch kitchens like ours are tiny by comparison. I have to shop almost every day to make a regular dinner since we can fit so little in the fridge and we have no freezer at all. I thought this was just our house since it’s a rental, until we learned this is actually quite typical in the Netherlands. In fact, last night we were invited to dinner at the house of John’s colleague. He has a nice old row house somewhat like ours, though a little larger, that he has nearly gutted and remodeled: and his brand-spanking new kitchen has the same shrink-rayed fridge, combi-oven, and lack of storage.
that's our combi-oven there above the fridge
the oven can do one pie at a time and the fridge will hold only 1-liter cartons of milk
I’ve decided that the size of a typical U.S. oven is directly linked to Thanksgiving dinner: I can’t imagine anyone (outside of Manhattan, perhaps) who would own an oven too small to cook a turkey. I’m willing to bet that the first thought 99% of Americans would have looking at these tiny Dutch combination microwave/ovens is, “How would I cook my Thanksgiving turkey in there? Forget it!”
So, taking a cue from the very first Thanksgiving, we made ours a pot-luck. I managed to supply all the traditional items — sans turkey, of course, for this vegetarian family — including homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, cranberry sauce, roasted vegetables, green beans, apple pie and pumpkin pie. I did break down and buy rolls from the bakery. Our friends brought homemade dumplings, a cous-cous and cabbage dish, and pumpkin soup. Add several bottles of wine and you have quite a party! And the upside of being in a rental — when a glass of red wine smashed all over the table, we all just gave the Dutch shrug, as we’ve come to call it, which essentially means “Oh well.” It’s a lot easier to clean up and move on when it’s not your antique linens and crystal stemware.
flowers from the Friday market and "pumpkins" (fall squash) from the local farm
the patio furniture made it a table for ten (and the place settings helped hide the stains on the table clothes I found in the cupboard)
"gezellig" -- the Dutch have a special word for a cozy, homey feeling -- and candles are a big part of it
Being a historian, I imposed a little history lesson on our guests before dinner, explaining the story of Thanksgiving. And there’s even a Dutch connection! You see, in 1609 those religious radicals who would become our pilgrims (though they weren’t called that until a couple hundred years later) fled England and went to the Netherlands, which was relatively more accepting at the time. However, the English actually hounded them there and sent officers to arrest the community’s leader, who escaped in the nick of time and went into hiding. They were also getting worried that their children were learning Dutch and losing their culture. So in 1620 they decided to buy passage on a couple of English merchant ships bound for the new world.
Now we all know about the Mayflower, of course, but that second ship was leaky and forced the group to stop for lengthy repairs before they even got away from England. And then once they were out to sea, they wound up turning around to go back and transfer all the people and cargo, delaying their departure even more. That’s why the pilgrims arrived so late in the fall in 1620 and wound up having a disastrous first winter in which half of them died.
We probably all learned in school that it was the Native Americans who taught those English radicals how to survive and supposedly came to that first harvest dinner of thanks-giving. But did you know that when the pilgrims came ashore, they were met by a Native American who spoke to them in English?? Turns out that a man named Squanto had been enslaved by a previous English ship and taken to England, where he somehow managed to escape and get back, having learned the language. Squanto is the one who taught the pilgrims how to grow corn, eat pumpkins, make maple syrup, fish, and avoid poisonous plants.
I found myself thinking a lot about Squanto this Thanksgiving and how simply amazing it was that he showed such kindness to a bunch of starving English people, when he had been enslaved by their countrymen. And how sad it is that this early cooperation between Native Americans and European Americans stands as one of the only examples of its kind in our history. While I love our Thanksgiving holiday and its broader meaning of pausing to give thanks, I can completely understand why Native Americans do not necessarily celebrate the day. But in honor of that early moment of cooperation, we taught our new friends how to make pilgrim and Indian hats. We also made hand-tracing turkeys (though our Canadian friends report that they do this in Canada, too).
one of the dads wearing an Indian feather
a microcosm of Eindhoven: all of the men either work for Philips, a Philips-spin off, or used to work for Philips
Oi Leng spent half the meal jumping up and down to make her fresh dumplings - amazing!
the "kids table" -- i.e. coffee table -- held seven kids
Cal and his friend Thibault
Ian and Maia
apple pie and pumpkin pie on my desk!
And here’s proof that it really was Thanksgiving — pie! No canned pumpkin, evaporated milk, or pie pans, but we pulled it off with pulp from fresh roasted winter squash, cream, and a couple of tart pans. I’m thankful for my kitchen conveniences back home and familiar food supplies, for Trader Joes and the seitan I would have made into our main dish in the U.S., but this Thanksgiving gave us the chance to be thankful about new things: I’m thankful for new experiences, new friends, and the opportunity to hit the “pause” button on our American life and renew our focus and priorities here for a few months in the Netherlands. That’s a lot to be thankful for, indeed.