As I sit here in Northern Europe on the fourth Thursday in November, I’m scrolling through the many social media postings that have been littering my feed over the last 24 hours or so, drawing my attention to Thanksgiving.
There are the nice ‘I give thanks for my kids/partner/dog/life’ postings, and then there are the ‘Here’s the best way to stuff a bird’ ones. I’m thankful for lots of things but when I start to read exchanges about the feasts that await everyone I not only start to get homesick, I start to get hungry.
Each holiday season so many of us face the same dilemma: should we head ‘home’ and celebrate with those who live so far away? Or should we stay ‘home’ and celebrate with those we’ve grown close to?
And if we decide not to get on a plane and join those we love, as well as those we can barely tolerate how do how we incorporate our traditions into the worlds in which we now live?
I’ve spent many a Thanksgiving Day overseas and every time I struggle to decide whether to celebrate properly or to simply mark the day with a quick ‘Happy Thanksgiving everyone!’ message to the world.
If I do decide to put on a spread I’m faced with that uniquely expat problem of finding the ingredients I need to do it right. I’m a foodie so I don’t go for half-measures and I don’t like ‘close enough’.
Take cranberry sauce. Some members of my family (who shall remain nameless) are perfectly content with cracking open a jar and sliding that gelatinous cylinder onto a serving plate. I, on the other hand, prefer to make my own. It’s not that difficult, it can be made days ahead, and the taste is far superior. Unfortunately, cranberries are not easy come by here in Sweden, and while many a Swede will insist that lingonberries are ‘just like cranberries’ I beg to differ. It’s the same with pumpkin. To make the obligatory pumpkin pie one must find cans of puréed pumpkin, and these are not easy to find.
So gathering together the proper foodstuffs to create your perfect holiday meal becomes a challenge. While I’m up for pretty much any challenge the sad news is that I am not alone in this – everyone is up for the challenge and I am always in direct competition with every other expat within shouting distance for the limited amount of supplies available.
And so I have learned. I have learned that canned pumpkin and fresh cranberries are at a premium here in the far north of Europe, and that those who came before me have already sussed out the situation and laid their annual plans for battle.
First step is to identify the shops that carry it – or that will be carrying it, because that can change from year to year. Sure, the English Shop on Stockholm’s south side has learned to cater to the hungry Yanks but despite their best efforts supplies sell out almost as fast as they hit the shelves. Many a tear has been shed over hearing ‘I’m sorry, we won’t be getting another delivery before the end of the month’. Some of the larger grocery store chains have also twigged on to the expat yearning for a taste of home but they also get in limited supplies and they’re gone before you can blink an eye.
So what’s a desperate host or hostess to do? Well, you can make friends with your local shop and ask them to give you a head’s up when the stock arrives. Or you can take another route: Stockpile. Canned pumpkin has a pretty long sell-by date and cranberries freeze well, so the smarter cook buys up a couple years’ supply and tucks them safely away. If they’re even more savvy they offer their spares to someone in need, storing up favours for the future. I’ve also heard there is something of a black market going for these premium items but I choose to chalk that up to urban legend.
Because it’s a regular workday here in Sweden I won’t be celebrating until the weekend. But I’ve got my supplies, the guest list is confirmed, and come Saturday I will be feasting on a wonderfully juicy bird with all the trimmings, while (smugly) thinking of those who haven’t yet learned the ropes and are forced to make do with ‘almost good enough’.
Maybe next year I’ll let them in on my secrets. Or perhaps just invite them to join me.