Friends, thankfulness...and a turkey named GobbleLoo

When American Brianne Leary moved to Devon, she missed one thing most of all: Thanksgiving. So what happened when she introduced the tradition to her reserved adopted home?
It’s now nearly three years since I moved to Devon from the US. I have learnt to drive on the other side of the road. My neighbours have learnt to watch out for ‘The American in her Mini’. I have helped birth a breeched lamb. And I am coping with only a smattering of sunlight annually – thanks to vitamin D supplements.

What I am struggling to adjust to, however, is the fact that my favourite holiday, Thanksgiving, isn’t celebrated in the UK, although my British friend, Martin, begs to diff er, insisting, ‘We’re just so happy all you Americans left.’ (I think he’s kidding.)

For me, Thanksgiving jumpstarts the holiday season. So last year, I decided it was time to introduce the tradition to Devon.

It sounded simple – until I tried to order a turkey from our local butcher, John May. It seems that deep in Devon, it is impossible to get a whole turkey before mid-December. The only thing readily available is a little something curiously called a boneless crown. Boneless? Crown? Americans insist that turkeys come complete. We take our Thanksgiving turkey very seriously; so much so that according to the American National Turkey Federation, 46 million turkeys are served on the day.

John patiently listened as I tried to explain. ‘No worries, Bri,’ he grinned when I had finally finished. ‘One turkey, with bones, coming up.’ When he asked when I wanted it for, I explained that Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November and has done since President Abraham Lincoln declared it an official Federal holiday in 1863. Sarah Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book (the only American magazine edited for women, by women in the 19th century) is credited with convincing Mr Lincoln to make this the official, national day of celebration.

But John, I think, was beginning to glaze over. On my way out, however, a woman stopped me and politely asked if I wouldn’t mind telling her why Thanksgiving mattered. My thoughts wandered back to memories of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as it passed my apartment building on Central Park West. I got a little misty thinking about sipping hot chocolate and munching warmed nuts in the crisp, November air.

Thanksgiving-Nov21-02-590Brianne’s oven was a tad on the small size

‘Well, for me, it’s more important than Christmas,’ I said.

‘But what is the significance?’ she pressed on. ‘Is it a religious holiday, like Easter?’

‘Well, in my opinion,’ I began, ‘it’s not about religion per se. Thanksgiving is a day about giving thanks and being grateful for what you have, no matter how much that is. Everyone is welcome; Thanksgiving is the quintessential all-inclusive holiday.’

She contemplated this and after a few quiet moments, she said, mat-ter-of factly, ‘You Americans are good like that. We Brits aren’t.’

I didn’t agree. I suggested, perhaps, Americans express things differently and, perhaps, the British are more… circumspect. She gave this a good, long, think.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s not it. We just aren’t good like that.’

And with that, she was gone.

The original Thanksgiving feast lasted for three days. Today, we make up for it by consuming three days’ worth of calories in one sitting. According to the ACCC (American Calorie Control Council) Americans can devour up to 4,500 calories (each!) in one meal.

And so with 28 people to cook for, I had one week to get together 126,000 calories.

I scoured the local shops for the key ingredients for my menu: green bean casserole, pumpkin and pecan pies, corn bread muffins, chunkybread stuffi ng and classic cranberry jelly mould. The shopkeepers looked at me as if I were an alien. I wasn’t off ended. I am an alien, so to speak.

Undeterred, I sent out a culinary SOS to my gang back in New York and thanks to FedEx my care package arrived in time. A cornucopia of foodstuff s chock full of additives and preservatives with sell-by dates that read: When hell freezes over. Perfect.


Knowing how much the Brits love fancy dress, I supplied pilgrim hats and bonnets along with Native American headbands.

Unfortunately, butcher John was not having much joy and I was beginning to worry. Then my husband, Chris, off ered up a solution… our turkey. Our turkey, GobbleLoo? Who I had raised from a chick? GobbleLoo? Who somehow has survived several visits from the fox? Had Chris lost his mind?

May as well change the menu to lamb and carve up our pet ewe, Casserole. Or perhaps, Pâté, our goose. I reminded Chris of his promise: ‘If we name ’em, we don’t eat ’em.’ GobbleLoo was to be the Guest of Honour, not the main course.

With just two days to go, I also had four pies and 48 corn bread muffins to bake and just one prehistoric oven, Stanley. Stanley has a mind of his own and a limited temperature range: hot and incinerate.

Nevertheless, the day before the big day, most of the food was prepped. Organisation is key to a successful Thanksgiving. No, actually, having a turkey is key to a successful Thanksgiving and I still didn’t have one. Back in 1621, turkey wasn’t the only main course. Lobster, eel, crane and seal were on the menu. I was beginning to think that finding a seal would be easier.

The tables also needed to be set to seat 24 adults and four children in the rather cosy sitting room of our 16th century cottage. I assigned this task to Chris, while I polished my grandmother’s silver and ironed my favourite linen napkins. Nothing like silver and crisp linen to dress up a table laid with paper plates.

I called John for a turkey update. He sounded a bit annoyed and managed a terse, ‘It will be sorted.’ And so it was. Just. The turkey, all 26 pounds of it, would be ready to collect in the morning.

On the morning of the big day, Stanley was preheated – and all was well. Until I tried to put our huge turkey into our tiny Stanley. Turkey tartare was not an option.

Thanksgiving-Nov21-04-590Left: Brianne raised GobbleLoo from a chick. Right: The turkey was roasted to perfection

Desperate, I called our neighbour, Barbara, asking if we could use her 21st century oven as a surrogate. Not a problem. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Guests began to arrive as I was adding a dash of crème fraiche to the lobster bisque. Each guest chose a festive hat and as Chris poured the champagne, I was peppered with Thanksgiving questions.

‘Just eat!’ I told my guests. ‘All will be revealed.’

The bisque was served and cleared and it was time for the big event. I emerged from the kitchen to thunderous applause. All the chatter and questions stopped and murmurs of ‘delicious’ and ‘must have this recipe’ could be heard. Before dessert, I asked my guests to join in another Thanksgiving tradition. It is customary in American households to raise a glass and say what we are thankful for. An awkward hush followed.

‘I’ll start,’ I said. ‘I am thankful for my husband’s good health, I am thankful for Barbara’s oven and I am thankful for all of you welcoming me into your lives.’

Then 12-year-old Louisa stood up and raised her juice box. ‘I’m thankful for my family,’ she began, ‘The original Thanksgiving feast lasted three days: today we eat three days’ worth of calories in one go’ Brianne raised GobbleLoo from a chick before adding with an eye on her little sister, Daisy, ‘most of the time!’

This broke the ice and my reserved British friends stood up and gave thanks; to a new grandchild, getting through the floods, the summer sun, friendship.

For a few precious moments, we were all one, big, happy family.

‘And this, my friends,’ I announced, ‘is what Thanksgiving is all about. Family, friends, life, love and taking the time to appreciate how blessed we are.’

A brief silence ensued, then, a resounding ‘Here! Here!’ from all.

This year, at least, the tradition – and GobbleLoo – live on.