The real thing

The only time I ever missed a Thanksgiving dinner was the year I was studying in England. That year my landlady served up the sausages and peas as though it was any other Thursday, and her husband sagely observed that if I wanted Yankee holidays, I should have stayed in America.

Back in London a few years later, it looked like history would repeat itself. ''I just hate to ignore another Thanksgiving,'' I sighed to my friend Jayne over a cup of tea.

''You don't have to,'' she replied in the tone of voice she reserved for implying that I was a fool. ''Tell me the day, I'll invite the guests, you can use my kitchen, and it will be just like home.''

Well. . . not quite like home. At home, the biggest contribution I'd ever made to a Thanksgiving banquet was the symmetrical arrangement of the relish trays - but I could hardly admit as much to Jayne, who was a very keen cook. She had recently developed an interest in American cuisine, and she knew that this was her one opportunity to take part in a real American Thanksgiving dinner. On the other hand, I knew that her do-it-yourself invitation was the only one I was likely to receive, and I accepted. Her friends wouldn't know what to expect anyway, so how could they be disappointed?

Jayne drew up a guest list that included her sister, her sister's new Australian boyfriend, her sister's English ex-boyfriend, two bikers from her husband's motorcycle club, and someone named Rose whose latest on-again, off-again romance kept us guessing up to the last minute exactly how many we were feeding. It wasn't until about two weeks before the big day that Jayne began to ask questions about the proposed menu.

''What do you eat with the turkey?'' she asked. When I told her mashed potatoes she nearly canceled the whole event. In England ''mash'' is solid, ordinary, working-class fare; it's fine for a weekday supper - but simply not what one serves at a dinner party. In the end she conceded the potatoes but rejected candied yams as ''too foreign'' and molded gelatin salad as ''a bit bright, don't you think?'' It might be my holiday, but it was her friends we were asking to eat the stuff.

''Harvard beets,'' I murmured, suddenly overcome with nostalgia. ''My grandmother always served Harvard beets at Thanksgiving.'' Jayne gave up. Warning me not to expect too much from a nation that regards beetroot primarily as a pickle, she confiscated the shopping list and added baked beans to it so that she would know that something edible would be on the table.

Because they were so utterly American, and because Jayne had vetoed everything else, the Harvard beets became a personal crusade. On Wednesday morning I swept into the fruit and vegetable shop at the bottom of the road and ordered three pounds of beetroot from the astonished greengrocer.

'''Ere!'' he cried in an unmistakable London voice. ''Wot do you want wiv all that beetroot? Makin' borsch, are you?''

No, I assured him. Harvard beets.

'''Arvard wot?''

Harvard beets, a traditional American dish for Thanksgiving, which was only a day away.

''Never!'' He shook his head incredulously. ''Oy, Tony! Bet you didn't know it woz Thanksgiving tomorrow.''

His assistant abandoned the stack of carrots he was arranging and came over to peer at me and my armload of beets.

''This Thanksgiving . . . is it more of a 'oliday than Christmas, then?''

Suddenly I found myself giving a quick version of the old pilgrim-and-Indians story to a pair of rapt Cockney greengrocers while their patient queue of customers snaked out of the door behind me and back onto the pavement.

''I'll be blowed,'' Tony said appreciatively. ''And wot're the beets for? Borsch?''

No, Harvard beets.

''You never went to 'Arvard!''

No . . .

''I knew a bloke wot went to 'Arvard,'' the greengrocer said. '''E woz very wotsizname. Intelligent.''

Miraculously, by the time all 10 guests sat down to eat on Thursday night, things had turned out more or less as they were meant to. After coping with foreign food for so long myself, it was a treat for me to watch foreigners confront American cooking. No one complained about the mashed potatoes - they were probably relieved to see something they recognized - and the few Waldorf salad skeptics were soundly shouted down. Cranberry sauce was less of a hit (''No one's putting jam on my turkey!'') but the pumpkin pie was a triumph.

''A bit like gingerbread,'' Jayne said thoughtfully.

''Reminds me of soggy cornflakes,'' said one of the bikers, hastily adding, ''I like soggy cornflakes,'' and asking for a second slice.

No one at the table had a clue what we were celebrating. ''The end of the war , wasn't it?'' Rose ventured. Once again I launched into the tale of the first harvest in the New World, but I muddled things by mentioning Puritans, which made them think I was talking about the English Civil War, and by the time I finished they were more confused than ever.

''Look,'' I said finally. ''Ask the greengrocer the next time you're in to buy vegetables.''

They had arrived wondering what sort of a holiday Thanksgiving could be without paper hats or fireworks, but it was clear by the end of the evening that our cross-cultural experiment had been a success. Except, alas, for the Harvard beets. When the last guest said goodbye Jayne was left, along with the dirty dishes, with three pounds of congealed sweet-and-sour beetroot. Because it was a special day she didn't even say she'd told me so.

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