If you don't want to mess about with dough and filling, then just buy a pumpkin pie.
So says this Centerstage article, listing top Chicago bakeries that can meet your pumpkin pie needs.
But what if you live in a land without pumpkin pie? A land where your friends say, "Pumpkin? In a pie? A sweet pie? Not a savory pie?" And a land where, the first time you make one, someone takes one bite of your prize creation and says, "Ugghhh....this pumpkin pie thingy is minging!"
(*minging-disgusting, gross, nasty, etc...)
Yes, my pal James, bless his honest English heart, did call my pumpkin pie minging when he tried it two years ago. But I wasn't offended. Not that offended, anyway. I know pumpkin pie is an unusual taste, even to many Americans. Heck, I didn't even like it until I became an adult. But, on the whole, most Brits like pumpkin pie when they have it at the Thanksgiving dinners I've been part of the last two years.
One of the problems with making pumpkin pie in England, however, is that you have to think far ahead. Pumpkins are only sold through mid-October in most stores and I neglected this year to buy a few, create a puree and freeze it. Luckily a colleague was going to Chicago for a conference, so one of my trusted Evanston friends bought me two cans of Libby's and sent it back with my colleague on the airplane. Another expat friend, however, didn't know she was cooking a Thanksgiving meal for 16 Brits until last week, so she found herself in a bit of a pickle. After putting out a plea on Facebook, she discovered she could get canned pumpkin at Waitrose luxury food shop--sort of.
"It's only 60 percent pumpkin and 40 percent squash," she wrote on her Facebook page. "Is that OK? Will it work?"
We reassured that yes, sometimes the best Thanksgiving pies have a mixture of several different squashes and that at least she didn't make the mistake of our friend Bethany who, on her long stay in England, couldn't find pumpkin and, in desperation, used mango. "I ended up with kind of a mango tart rather than a pumpkin pie," she later explained. "It was disgusting."
So here it is, Thanksgiving once more. I'm headed to the house of a large British family who spent two years in Seattle and picked up the glorious Thanksgiving tradition. As the token American at this celebration, and armed with my two cans of Libby's, I offered to make the pies. On Sunday night, however, when I reviewed the coming week's schedule, I realized the only time I had free to make the pies was early Thanksgiving morning, before work.
"Thanksgiving is much easier and more relaxing when you have the day off work," I grumbled yesterday in a conversation with my brother.
These whiny thoughts continued as I got up extra early this morning and brushed my teeth. They definitely increased in volume when I discovered I was out of eggs and had to pull on my coat for a chilly early morning walk to the shop.
"Why am I even bothering with Thanksgiving?" I muttered. "I've been here long enough that I don't mind skipping it so much. Nobody else feels the holiday spirit. Listen to me grumble, and I'm not even making the turkey!"
But now I am sitting in my warm kitchen a few minutes before I go to work. The window panes are frosted over and the delicious smell of baking pumpkin custard is wafting from the oven, as well as simmering apple odors. (I had some extra crust, so I used apples from the garden tree to do a small apple pie, as well).
I feel that rosy Thanksgiving glow creeping over me--the contentment of good food, good friends and the joy of being at a good place in life. I am so grateful to my English friends for the way they've embraced this American and this American tradition and how, despite their suspicion, they are willing each year to try some pumpkin pie.
I laughed at Travel Editor Lori Rackl's account of seeing the band The Killers in line at an airport in Mexico, and it made me think of my own recent star encounter here in England.
Joe and Kevin Jonas take fan questions during the "intimate" pre-concert sound check event, attended by a lucky few hundred little ladies.
I have the good fortune (misfortune, some might call it) of being distantly connected to the Jonas Brothers. Now if you are a normal adult here in England, you would scratch your head and say, "Should I know who the Jonas Brothers are?" From what I understand about America, this is not the case, as one cannot escape the squeaky clean teen singing sensations. In England, however, the Jonas Brothers are known only to two groups: pre-teen and teenage girls (namely those who get the Disney Channel on satellite tv); and their parents.
I am well-acquainted with the Jonas Brothers because my very talented cousin Ryan Liestman is their keyboardist and he travels the world with them. Ryan and I lived in the same neighborhood when we were small and spent hours playing together, but now I get to see Ryan when the Jonas Brothers come to the UK. Last week they came to Birmingham, about an hour's drive from Nottingham, and so a couple of us made the trek out to see Ryan. And his band.
When we arrived at the National Exhibition Centre (a large arena), it was three hours before the show and I called Ryan to say we'd arrived. He sent the tour manager out to meet us with backstage passes because, apparently, even he is recognized by those teenage girls here in England. As I walked past the lines of girls waiting to get in, I tried not to catch their eye as they glared at me and my shiny backstage pass.
We had a great time hanging out with Ryan and seeing the backstage action at a major show. The Jonas Brothers are currently on a 6-week world tour and travel with 15 semis of sound, lighting and staging equipment and, we were told, this is their small, pared-down set! Not to mention there was a whole fleet of tour buses. After we spent several hours with Ryan, he headed out into the arena with other band members to the screaming accompaniment of thousands of girls, and we groupies made our way to our seats. The concert was fun, but after only a few minutes I realized it was a very big mistake to forget the ear plugs. I hadn't realized just how earth-shattering a teen girl's scream can be, especially when multiplied by 10,000. No wonder nobody could hear the music at the Beatles concerts.
The Jonas Brothers (including, most importantly, my cousin Ryan Liestman, who is their keyboardist) played the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, UK. It was fun to see them and especially my cousin Ryan (he's the one on keys) but the screams of thousands of teenage girls reverberated in my ears for days to come.
On the drive home we mere mortals discussed how surreal the entire experience had been, and the next day I rushed into work with photos and videos on hand to show my friends.
"Look," I bubbled, showing off the pass and photos to a knot of gathered colleagues. "This is from going backstage at the Jonas Brothers concert last night."
There was no gasp, no shriek, no cry of "Oh, my daughter is going to be so jealous!" I merely looked up into a sea of blank faces.
"Should I know who the Jonas Brothers are?" one of them asked.
I found this very informative article in yesterday's Guardian newspaper--read on to see an explanation for National Health Insurance-minded Brits about how the American healthcare system works, and what needs to be fixed.
On Friday I'm traveling back to America, after a year away from my homeland, for a 6-week visit. I find it slightly ironic that I've needed to purchase UK travel insurance so that I'm covered in the event of illness in the United States! I'm really looking forward to my time at home, but am actually a little bit nervous after so long away. I'm realizing more and more how England is becoming home. Will I feel like a foreigner when my plane touches down at O'Hare? Will I be excited with the convenience and familiarity? Most likely I'll just be tired! Last year the first thing I did was order a tall glass of iced tea and it tasted incredible. I may repeat the experience this year.
Thanks to all of you who sent your good wishes on for my UK driving exam. I must admit that I failed the test--through a stupid mistake born out of old driving habits! I am now in the majority of 60 percent of Americans who fail their UK driving test the first time. What I am pleased about, however, is that even though I made the mistake in the first 8 minutes and instantly knew I'd failed (it falls into the category of "serious fault" and is an automatic fail), I managed to hold it together and drive very well for the remaining 40 minutes. Had I not messed up early on, I would've passed the test with flying colors, and I'm sure I'll do so when I retake it in October
It was frustrating to fail but the test really was a good (if expensive) experience--and I was impressed by how comprehensive the exam was. The instructor took me on busy roads, little roads, large roundabouts and dual carriageways, had me demonstrate various types of manouevres and turns, asked me about how to run my car (how to test power steering, for example), and many other questions. There is no doubt that when I do pass this test I will be a better driver than before, especially when driving a manual car! The only trick will be getting back into the British driving mindset after six weeks in America.
I've so far refrained from commenting on Giftgate, as I like to call the PR furor that was stirred up after Gordon Brown visited the Obamas last month and brought along lovely, thoughtful historical gifts. It was Obama's gift to Brown that caused the uproar--a set of 12 great American films on DVD, which, according to some reports, were the wrong region and don't even run on British DVD players.
But I had to laugh while watching live BBC footage the other night of Barack and Michelle Obama's meeting with Queen Elizabeth II after the presenter solemnly announced that President Obama had brought for the queen ... an iPod. Now it should be noted that it's a very nice iPod, with photos of Her Majesty's 2007 American visit already uploaded and also accompanied by a rare songbook signed by great American composer Richard Rodgers. But an iPod? Really? After all, the queen is a rather elderly woman and, as technologically savvy as both of my emailing, texting grandmothers (both younger than the queen) are, I can't imagine either one of them joining the iPod revolution. My friends and I had fun the next morning imagining the queen and her iPod.
"She'll be the same queen," Trevor said, "it's just that in all photo shoots from now on you'll notice her subtly bobbing her head and tapping her feet to the music nobody else can hear."
The L.A. Times says we should give Obama a break on the gift gaffes because, after all, we all struggle with gift giving. But I'm more enamored of this idea by Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller--from now on, the president should give only books.
P.S. I like the breadth and humor of the Daily Mail story I link to in the first paragraph, but the story does contain a cringeworthy error, referring to that "famous line ... from Casablanca, 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.'" Casablanca? Hello! You don't even have to see the film to know that it is from Gone With the Wind. Maybe the Brits need those DVDs after all.
Speaking of driving, today I had a fascinating conversation with a friendly taxi cab driver.
I was on my way to a presentation for work and, as yesterday's post made abundantly clear, I am not yet able to drive myself there (and I freely admit this is a good thing, too!). I was laden with expensive video equipment, so I enjoyed the luxury of a cab ride instead of a string of buses or my bicycle. En route to my destination, the chatty cab driver asked what part of America I was from. When I told him I'd lived most recently in Chicago, we got into the usual conversation about the weather.
"You get lots of snow there from the lake effect, don't you?" he said knowledgeably.
I was amazed.
"How did you know about lake effect?" I asked. The usual reaction to Chicago is generally along the lines of, "Isn't that somewhere in the middle?" or "Yes, I've seen it on ER."
"I actually spent six months in America a few years back," said the driver.
"Really?" I asked. "Where did you go?"
"Everywhere," he said modestly. "I drove to each state."
"That's really cool," I said. "No wonder you took six months."
"I also drove to each state in alphabetical order, even Alaska. I had to do some flying for Hawaii, though. " he continued. I think at this point my jaw literally dropped.
"Alphabetically?" I asked. "That's absolutely incredible. Are you serious?"
The driver, whose name, by the way, is Harry Keeling, was serious. The year he turned 55 he decided to make his year, doing exactly what he wanted, and the goal he set for himself was driving to the state capital of all 50 states--in alphabetical order, of course. That meant going from Alabama to Alaska, from Nevada to New Hampshire.
I happened to meet an older woman in Nottingham's Market Square last Saturday, and as soon as she heard me speak she asked the inevitable question:
"Whereabouts in America are you from?"
I smiled and answered, "From Chicago, most recently."
"Ah," she said, and gazed piercingly at me. Not sure what to say next, I responded politely.
"Do you know it?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. There was another pause and she said, "My husband and I used to travel to America quite frequently. But we haven't been in the last eight years."
"Oh, really? Why is that?" I asked.
The woman gave me an incredulous look for not immediately knowing the answer.
"Because of Bush, of course," she sniffed.
"Ah, right," I smiled. "Well, that will all change after Tuesday."
"That's right," she said. "Maybe I'll go back after all."
This is a true story, albeit a dramatic one. As I've reported herebefore, all of the English and other Europeans I know (and, for that matter, Canadians, Australians and South Africans) are elated by Obama's election. My Austrian friend Robin pulled me aside last week to show me his electronic planner.
"Look, Steph!" he exclaimed. "I've got it booked in. I'm going home early from work to watch it"
Sure enough, the time from 1 pm onwards was blocked off by the words "Obama."
I myself made lunch plans for tomorrow, but now that I've realized they cut into the inauguration (it's at 2 pm here in England) I'm sure my lunch mate will be amenable to finishing early. I know she's interested in the inauguration, as well.
However, politicos and analysts on this side of the pond are being cautious about Obama's impending presidency, just as they are at home. I found this Daily Telegraph editorial today by Janet Daley who, from the stories she tells, must also be an expat American. The Daily Telegraph is a conservative paper. I found a slightly different take on Obama on the Web site of the Guardian, a liberal paper. Although both appear to have been written by Americans, I find it interesting that one paper highlights the similarities between Bush's policies and Obama's apparent policies, whereas the other highlights the differences.
Last night I attended my first Thanksgiving feast of the season (tonight is the second). You would expect, of course, that an American abroad wouldn't celebrate Thanksgiving at all, but Brits are very happy to share this tradition with us. Last night's meal was hosted by an American friend and her British husband, and the guests included her visiting friend from D.C., me and 7 Brits. Tonight I'm eating with a British family who adopted the tradition after spending two years in Seattle.
Before last night's meal, we three Americans were quizzed at great length about Thanksgiving traditions. Here is a sampling of questions:
"Why do you eat cranberries with the turkey?"
"What time do you eat the meal?"
"What do you eat for breakfast?"
"What do you do after the meal?"
"Which teams are playing American football today?" (to which the three American ladies--2 of them expats--all shrugged their shoulders. We sure didn't know.)
Finally one of the Brits turned to his friend, who was doing most of the questioning and said, "Didn't you learn anything from watching 'Friends'?"
If I haven't mentioned it yet, the Brits love the television show "Friends." Now I am just the right demographic to have grown up with "Friends," as it started when I was in high school and continued through my early 20s, but back home, it seems, the only people who know "Friends" so well as me are other women in their 20s and 30s. But here in England, everyone knows "Friends"..moms, dads, grandparents, little kids. That's because it is always on. I quickly discovered how fun and easy it is to nattily toss in offhanded references to "Friends" episodes here in England. It's great that we have this cultural touchstone. However, I must admit to airily doing the same when I was home in Chicago at a party last August, and that instead of the room breaking out into a congenial snicker at the shared memory of the episode, I was met by a roomful of blank stares.
But back to Thanksgiving. A few other amusing cultural jokes have arisen in the past few days, namely that of the post-Thanksgiving Christmas cheese.
Yesterday morning I was chatting about the holiday with my friend Jida, who is from Israel.
"And afterwards you put up the trees, right?" she asked, from across the noisy room.
"The cheese?" I asked, confused. I hadn't heard right at all.
"No, no!" Jida exclaimed. "The Christmas trees."
"Ah, that makes more sense," I said, relieved and laughing as my imagination took off. "You weren't asking me about that grand old tradiiton of hanging Christmas cheeses on the wall after all, then, were you?"
We chuckled a bit, but we laughed much harder when, a few minutes later, someone from the other side of the room asked in genuine curiosity, "So what is this you were saying about the American tradition of hanging Christmas cheese after Thanksgiving?"