A post about Thanksgiving, grits, condos, cooties, enchiladas, and other things that my British neighbors don’t quite get.
On my first Thanksgiving in the UK, I came across a couple of British TV personalities making small-talk on the box (US: on the tube) about the unfamiliar holiday. When one asked what a Thanksgiving dinner is like, the other one said in a bored, everybody-knows-that tone, “Oh, it’s just like Christmas dinner. They have a turkey with stuffing…roast potatoes…Brussels sprouts…chipolatas…”
I wrote about roast potatoes a couple of years ago, and Brussels sprouts are so canonically a part of a British Christmas dinner that I recently saw an ad for “whimsical” Christmas gifts that included a wreath made out of them. (Further Googling revealed that lots of people will make and sell you a Brussels sprout wreath, so the one I saw wasn’t an anomaly, but part of a genre.) But that was the first time I’d ever even heard of chipolatas, which turn out to be sausages.
Long, skinny link sausages, that is. Sausages virtually always refers to links here; I don’t think I’ve ever seen sausage patties in the UK. British sausage links are generally a lot bigger, a lot more round than American sausage links; chipolatas are as thin as American sausage links but they’re two or three times the length. In fact I think they look kind of creepy, long and pale, like a dead man’s fingers in a ghost story.
Pointing out that TV presenter’s chipolata error doesn’t mean I’m out to make fun of the British for what they don’t know about the US. There’s no reason foreigners should keep up with details of American life—although the English lady about 50 years old who wasn’t aware that US and Japanese troops fought each other in WWII (when the Pacific Theater came up in conversation, she said she hadn’t realized Hitler had ships over there; when I said the ships were Japanese, she was amazed) did shock me. But for every Brit who’s that blind to the US war effort in the 1940s, there are probably 100 Americans today who couldn’t locate England on a map, so I’m loath to point fingers—even cold, dead, chipolata fingers—at her.
A lot of the cultural assumptions that turn out to be so wrong that they’re funny do seem to have to do with food. I heard a British chef in a radio interview talk about the time she made dinner at the White House for Bill Clinton. She said she knew he was from Arkansas, which is in the South, so she decided to give him traditional Southern food, but with her own signature garnishes and so on. What was the main dish then? Enchiladas.
Right. Growing up in Kentucky, the only enchiladas I ever saw (until I was 21 and moved to California) were in those cheap TV dinners that came in partitioned foil trays—muy exótico. Then again, Kentucky is about twice as far from Mexico as Arkansas, Arkansas being a mere 600 miles from the border, about the distance from London to Milan, and you know how similar English cooking is to that of northern Italy.
My writing group is a good source for all kinds of slips because there’s nothing like a group of amateur writers to test a language to destruction. An Englishman once asked about one of my fictional characters, “If she’s such a successful plastic surgeon, why does she have to live in a condo?” I really wish I knew what he thought a condo might be, but I didn’t think to ask.
Another time, someone who’d run across the word in an American novel asked what cooties might be. An English lady jumped in with “Oh, I know what cooties are!” and provided an elaborate explanation involving cutting up squares of paper and marking black dots on them. I think she got this from Canadian relatives, and it sounds like Canadian cooties are very different from the cooties I grew up knowing (and avoiding).
But the best example from the writing group came in a scene populated with what its English author apparently thought to be typical Southern children, getting on with their typically American lives in the present day. These kids, whose descriptions owed much, I think, to The Waltons, pranced barefoot down to the lake—a typical southern lake, with the typically southern name Lake Wisconsin—to go fishing, while singing hymns and occasionally shouting “Hallelujah!” (I promise you I’m not making this up; I have witnesses.)
Things took a truly surreal turn, though, when little Solomon, ready to pull in a nice fat trout, baited his hook with grits. Yep. Grits. (For UK readers, this would be something akin to saying you were baiting your hook with porridge and, unless you are Lewis Carroll, I’m guessing you’d be unlikely to say something that off the wall.)
And so we find ourselves back on the subject of food.
Why the British have chipolatas at Christmas, when there’s already a big roast turkey, served with a stuffing that usually, in England, has pork sausage meat in it anyway, is a question. A neighbor said that the chipolatas, wrapped in bacon, broiled (UK: grilled), and set all around the turkey on its platter, are really for the children, but no one else I’ve spoken with thinks that’s the case. An older friend tells me that when she was a child, chipolatas weren’t the non-optional part of Christmas dinners they seem to be today. That tradition, then, isn’t very old, although you’d have to look a while to find an ad showing a Christmas turkey being served on a chipolata-free platter. The earliest she remembers them is the late 1940s, after the war. (That would be the war with the Germans and the Japanese—and the Italians, for that matter.)
Having learned about chipolatas, do I serve them at Christmas? No. I don’t see the point, really, despite our when-in-Rome philosophy. The when-in-Rome approach means we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving unless we’ve got American visitors, so I’m off the hook for cooking a Thanksgiving feast most years (regardless of whether the hook has grits on it).