Subtle differences exist between the Thanksgiving holidays in Canada and the United States: Canadians celebrate on the first weekend in October, and Americans celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November.
Canada’s celebration remains a harvest festival whereas, over time, Thanksgiving south of the border has evolved into a secular beginning to the Yuletide, signalling, “Slow down. Take a breath. The Winter Holidays beckon.”
Notwithstanding the stereotype that all Americans shop on Black Friday, many of us do not like shopping. I invariably chose exercise, during childhood, when given the choice between watching college football games after midday Thanksgiving dinner and enjoying a postprandial walk in the Indian summer days of mid-Mississippi November.
It was thus a no-brainer on my first visit to the Okanagan Valley, to ski on Silver Star Mountain, in November 1999. Spending Thanksgiving skiing was immensely enticing. I concluded, immediately, “I am coming here, every Thanksgiving.” And 2018 marked my 20th Thanksgiving at Silver Star.
I am hardly alone. Many American Nordic skiers flock to Silver Star, to enjoy arguably the best, and most reliable, early season skiing in North America. This year, when Scandinavia saw no perceptible snow, skiers were more abundant than ever. On Remembrance Day weekend, when I arrived to attend the Okanagan Symphony’s 100th Anniversary Commemoration of the Armistice, 1,000 day passes were sold at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Club, on each of the three days, which figure does not include season passholders. Thanksgiving Day was my 14th consecutive day of skiing — on Nov. 22.
Year-round area residents might not appreciate the Mecca in their backyard. The amenities bring skiers across North America here, enthusiastically, in November and December. The impact on the local economy is significant. Dollars are not spent solely on the mountain. Many of us know and love the merchants of Vernon, heading to our favourite shops in town, from Stussi Sport to fine food purveyors. The dialectic between the sporting activities on the mountain and high-end destinations in town — with which mountain resorts throughout the globe cannot compete — finds the Okanagan deeply beloved by its visitors. In the two weeks before Thanksgiving, I attended symphony and ballet performances at the Performing Arts Center, plus First Man at Towne Cinema, and made six trips to Nature’s Fare, four to Vernon Square Safeway, three to Simply Delicious, two to Quality Greens and, last but not least, one each to A Fine Kettle of Fish and Helmut’s Sausage Kitchen (both of which can compete against any boutique food store, anywhere in the world).
I am not the only person patronizing local merchants, but my Thanksgiving celebration might be unique otherwise: it is a joint American-Canadian dinner. This year’s guests included Vernon residents Gregg Cancade, Nancy and Norm Crerar, Russell Haubrich, Don Kassa, Colleen and Mike Lindsay, and Dee and Jamie Paterson, as well as Stuart Stevens, a friend from my hometown of Jackson, Miss., whose 1984 completion of the — then — 10 Worldloppet international Nordic ski marathons introduced me to the thought; an epic pursuit memorialized in a documentary film, Marathon Winter.
A message from a friend’s mother, on Thanksgiving morning, captures the spirit. Charles de Galle said: “Patriotism is when the love of your own people comes first; nationalism when hate for people other than your own comes first.” Convening across international lines, to celebrate bounty in gratitude, affirms the brotherhood of humankind, in times when tribe eclipses the concept of the commonwealth. What better way to reaffirm common humanity than “breaking bread” with others?
My tradition is that there is no tradition. While foodstuffs might be consistent from year to year, fresh recipes and preparation greet guests annually. After a Thanksgiving dinner at which the food drowned in assorted Campbell’s condensed soups, in the style of the 1960s, I vowed never to make a meal “trapped in amber,” not imagining how soon I would cook and serve Thanksgiving dinners. I study recipes and compile a menu. Preparation is equivalent to attending cooking school. I read books about food as I go. The entire experience encourages insights into how one eats, and what one eats, throughout the year.
Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed captures the concept concisely: “This underlines the transition from common transient time to the timelessness of which real feasts are the instrument; their essence also involves the unpredictable.”
This year’s recipes were from the New York Times Cooking app: An amazing amenity, it allows users to stockpile recipes and readily retrieve them. Hors-d’oeuvres were anchovy tapenade, beet and salmon tartare, and white bean hummus. The appetizer was cream of cauliflower soup. The main course featured turkey, colcannon, mashed carrots and potatoes, butternut squash and sausage, cabbage kugel, a chickpea, eggplant and tomato casserole, fennel, and pear and cranberry chutney. Dessert included lemon bars, macaroons, and a pavlova.
Fortunately, over time, circumstances have instructed one that a feast cannot be prepared promptly. One has to proceed gradually, freezing items as finished — and refreezing leftovers, to be enjoyed, subsequently, at appropriate junctures.
Kim Severson’s Nov. 11, 2014 article in The New York Times about my friend Regina Charboneau states it succinctly. Regina expected approximately 145 family members for Thanksgiving, and her freezer was her friend: “‘People think they can do Thanksgiving all in one day, and that is wrong, wrong, wrong,’ she said. ‘I want people to be one step ahead, always. It’s just the key.’…
“For the past few weeks, Ms. Charboneau has been making dishes that freeze remarkably well. Don’t gasp. A good bit of her meal will have been in the freezer weeks before it is served.”
My Thanksgiving is a cross-border gathering, a feast fit for a King, on a holiday. Everyone should plan one meal in a calendar year as the meal of the year, which is what Thanksgiving in the United States is. It is a deeply beloved celebration of eating and of food, employing the attention paid to home cooking before food sources and preparations were industrialized.
Madeleine Kamman asked in When French Women Cook, “Where are you, my France, where Sundays were gastronomic celebrations, where dinner tables were islands for animated conversations around nuts being cracked and picked by nimble fingers? Where are you, my France, where women cooked, where the stars in cooking did not go to men anxious for publicity but to women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in the house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience. Where are you?”
Ignoring gender role stereotypes when Kamman wrote those words, men and women alike should seek sanctuary in long, leisurely meals, unrushed by the exhausting pace of contemporary life, focused upon food and conversation during mealtime, appreciating a pause in the quotidian, with nothing beyond the table: nothing else more important nor mattering.
The concept is not a culinary condescension. Please accept my apologies if snobbery is gleaned from this article. I ask that people, everywhere, find occasion to step back, enjoy family and friends, focus upon food and the culture of the table, and celebrate a meal in their own, unique ways. The timing of this article is such that I implore people to devote one day out of the upcoming holidays to the togetherness and escape that meals were for everyone, every day, before centralization and industrialization interrupted the idea of “breaking bread” as a pause.
Patience Gray generously defined such dinners, “Whether the feast lasts for seven years or whether it lasts a week or a night, and whether we have forgotten the abundance and nature of the fare and the colour of the wine, and whether the faces of the company are as clear as they then were, or are blurred, we still feel we have taken part in a unique event. In fact, a feast beginning with an ample supply of drinks and victuals generously offered, is always destined for an unknown goal, one which is inspired and revealed by the imaginative gifts of the participants.
“And if one has no such gifts? In good company there is a place for you; a disposition for amusement, a healthy appetite, an attentive ear, a capacity for laughter, each is fuel for the celebration’s fire.”