Ireland isn’t a place one thinks of when they think of Thanksgiving, but this year Kevin and I brought the holiday to the West of Ireland.
In November we celebrated Thanksgiving in Ireland, a week early (a friend was getting married Thanksgiving weekend and we couldn’t miss). I’ve never been a big fan of Thanksgiving for all the cultural and social implications of celebrating a man, Columbus, discovering a land where people already lived and tended and subsequently eradicating a huge percentage of them all in the name of glory. Instead, I’ve always thought of the day as a family celebration. Growing up, my family was lucky as sometimes we had three Thanksgivings to get to during the weekend; one was with my mom’s immediate family, the second with her extended family at Granny Noodles, and the third with my dad’s family. I remember many times getting to all three meals in one day, starting in Ohio with the two on Mom’s side then driving and finishing in Indiana with my dad’s. And now it was my turn to host and cook a Thanksgiving meal on my own.
Kevin was excited about the idea of Thanksgiving. He loves food and the typical staples of American Thanksgiving meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and such are traditional in an Irish Christmas dinner, which is Kevin’s favorite meal. He excitedly waits for Christmas to come around to have that delicious combination of food. From now on Kevin hopes he gets at least two such meals a year. Kevin asked if I would have Thanksgiving at our house for his mom and dad as well as his friend’s family from Cork, who spent the weekend. This was such huge pressure because 1) I would be cooking for his mother whose food is amazing and Kevin places above all else. 2) I had to make an American Thanksgiving meal that summarized the holiday traditions of my family. 3) I had to do all the cooking for 8 of us alone, which isn’t too much but I was feeling the pressure to represent and fulfill what they imagined. 4) I had to find all our traditional American ingredients in Ireland. 5) I had to cook and keep five fed for the weekend on top of it all. Luckily we did pizzas when Kevin and his family landed after their four-hour drive. There aren’t any typical fast food places nearby. The next town, Ballaghaderreen, was about 15 minutes away and has a few takeout places, but Kevin only likes those occasionally (spoiled rotten with a home-cooked meal every night). I am so glad Caitriona offered to do dishes after the meals and cooking; it’s my least favorite thing to do.
For the dinner I planned my favorite dishes that my family typically has for Thanksgiving and occasionally Christmas: turkey, mashed potatoes, sage dressing instead of stuffing, green bean casserole, corn casserole, and sweet potato pie and pecan pie for dessert. This was no easy feat for me to do on my own. It wasn’t hard finding a turkey because the grocery stores were stocking up for Christmas. Potatoes are a given in Ireland, and I actually under-performed because special meals usually have them 3 ways. The dressing was easy as well–I don’t do stuffing, it creeps me out for some reason. But all the rest took weeks of recipe searches and finding substitute ingredients.
Originally I had planned on pecan and pumpkin pies. Everyone here is interested in pumpkin pie because it is all over American culture. Unfortunately, they don’t sell canned pumpkin puree, nor do they have pie pumpkins. Mark, Kevin’s brother-in-law, and mine as well I guess haha, went to tons of stores looking for pumpkins, but it was way past Halloween and they were all gone. So I chose sweet potato because it is one of my favorite pies my grandpa makes and not too many people in the North (USA) eat it either; it is a Southern dish for sure, but it is making its way around. Modern pecan pie recipes call for corn syrup, which is easily found in the US, but here in Ireland, corn isn’t a major food staple or product so I had to find a different recipe which called for more sugar instead. The pies came out perfect.
For green bean casserole, I had to make my own fried onion topping. At first, I couldn’t find any canned soup either, but I realized that was because the store we were shopping at didn’t carry canned/tinned items. The green bean casserole was perfect. The biggest problem in this meal was the cornbread.
Jiffy boxes of cornbread mix DO NOT exist here and neither does cornmeal. Kevin and I went to four stores looking in all the baking aisles and the same story at each shop. One store had cornflour so we bought a box to try out. I opened it to find a very fine white powder that when it got wet was a liquid-solid–cornstarch. What am I going to do with so much cornstarch? I was devastated. Corn casserole is by far my favorite dish and for some reason, my family only makes it in the winter and for holiday gatherings. Kevin and I had to run to the next town over, Ballaghaderreen, to stock up on horse feed for the next week. Kevin suggested we stop and check the grocery there. Ballagh is a diverse town with a Syrian refugee center as well as a big Pakistani population. The grocery in Ballagh has an Asian section at the back and right there bottom shelf was a 2-pound bag of cornmeal. I squealed with joy because now we could have the casserole and cornbread. Which led to the next problem in my Thanksgiving saga–no creamed corn. I attempted to use more corn but I didn’t use enough wet ingredients to compensate for the creamed part. So when it came out of the oven it was cornbread with corn in it instead of the casserole; it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t my corn casserole. I have yet to try the mix again, but I might try it soon.
One of my biggest struggles baking and cooking in Ireland is the switch from Fahrenheit to Celsius. For the past 34 years, I have used Fahrenheit for everything and now I have to switch. I am so grateful to google and to online recipes that put both units of measure. Along with the change in temp comes the change in measuring from cups to grams. I had planned for the difference in measuring when I moved and brought along some measuring cups and spoons. But I’m thinking of making a chart for the degrees of the oven.
I gave Kevin the pleasure of sticking herb butter between the skin and meat of the turkey. He had never done such, and I’d done it a few times before so I knew. His friends were delighted to watch his reactions to having raw skin on top of his skin and raw meat underneath. Then after an hour of cooking a 14-pound turkey was almost finished cooking on the outside layers when dinner wasn’t going to be for another 4-5 hours. That’s what happens when you put the turkey on 200 forgetting it wasn’t the same. 200 Celsius is almost 400 Fahrenheit! I was burning dinner before most of it even started. Kevin went into complete panic, his dinner was going to be ruined and we wouldn’t have Thanksgiving with his friends and his parents. I wasn’t worried too much. My mom and I saw on the Trisha Yearwood cooking show how her family turns their oven up very high for an hour and then shuts it off. The turkey continues to cook from the residual heat in the oven–it’s very tasty and juicy. That was my new plan since the oven was so hot. Kevin, on the other hand, went into a complete panic. He searched what to do online, called his mother to see what could be done to save the turkey and begged her to come over. She was out getting groceries but was on the way home. So she stopped in and thought the turkey looked ok just was finishing too early and that if we shut the oven door the turkey would be fine…exactly what I said. I teased him for a few days about needing to check with his mom instead of listening to me, but I know it came from a place of panic for our first dinner in our new home.
The meal ended up being a success. Kevin’s parents came and they brought his nephew Lorcán along too. I know he approved of the food because he had no room for pie but still somehow squeezed them in. They had never had either pecan or sweet potato pie and liked them both. Just the other day, Kevin’s friend “Kevin from Cork” called and said they are needing a pecan pie fix. So it looks like we’ll be driving down there soon with a pie or 2 for them.