Saving Thanksgiving dinner from disaster — with a lamb curry

     (<a href=Lamb curry image courtesy of Shutterstock.com) " title="shutterstock_lamb-curry_1200x675" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Lamb curry image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    An American-style Thanksgiving dinner in Wales. The plan was born between pints and half-pints on a worn wooden table of the George & Dragon. We had just read an amusing letter from our friend Joan Donnelly in Ireland — largely devoted to the idiosyncrasies of Irish sanitation — asking if she and Jim could spend a couple of days with us in Bangor, Gwynedd, at the end of November. Jim had some research to do at the British Museum, and they’d like to visit us en route. Could we meet them at the Holyhead ferry station the night before Thanksgiving?

    The year was 1967. We had met the Donnellys on the Greek freighter we took from Brooklyn to Britain the previous August. They were headed for Trinity College in Dublin, for Jim’s postgraduate work. My husband, Jerry, was signed on to do a graduate degree in linguistics at the University of North Wales. On the endless, nine-day Atlantic crossing, we’d become friends with the couple, even though I was sick for the entire trip.

    Joan’s timing was perfect. By the last Thursday in November Jerry and our university friends would be just finishing semester papers and tutorials. Our Thanksgiving would be heartfelt, and we would invite some of our international group of friends to join us.

    Six weeks of cold rain and constant dampness had numbed our Yankee spirits, and we huddled eagerly ’round the prospect of hot gravy and pumpkin pie. The primary duties and expenses of the celebration, we decided, would be shared among the Americans in the group — Jerry, Gayle and me — assisted by our close friends and frequent lunch companions Mike and Maggie.

    Jerry and I could squeeze the Donnellys in with us at Plas Rhianfa, the pseudo-French chateau in Anglesey where we had rented an apartment for the school year. (Our flat, with its ice-cold turret bathroom, was a popular stop for our university friends, many of whom had no showers or bathtubs.)

    Gayle would have to host the dinner at her flat in Bangor: She was the only one of us with a real kitchen. With borrowed chairs we could crowd 14 bodies around her saggy trestle table. Our British buddy Mike, who had a flat just above us at the chateau, volunteered to handle drinks and decorations. (Mike loved our American idioms. His favorite that week was “a shower in the firehouse” — my cousin was having to a bridal shower in her local firehouse, and he thought the idea of turning on showers inside the firehouse as opposed to showering a fire was hilarious.)

    Maggie — our charming Welsh friend, whose son was in nursery school with Gayle’s daughter — ordered a second round of bitter, and we spent a merry lunch hour boiling down our would-be guest list. In addition to ourselves and the Donnellys, we would invite Mashi and Shushma from New Delhi, over-precise Anna from Denmark, shy-smiling but lecherous Christian from Hamburg, and (Mike was adamant about this) soulful Leila from Tehran.

    Making arrangements

    I wrote to Jim and Joan in Dublin to confirm the Thanksgiving plan, and we began improvising a semi-traditional menu from our limited funds and resources. Maggie, with her wealth of local connections, ordered the turkey for us through a friend at the Treaddur Bay Hotel, while Mike scouted for bargain wine. Potatoes and turnips we could purchase in town for pennies, but the rest of the meal posed a real challenge.

    Through two weeks of oppressive weather and even more oppressive studies, we were buoyed by daily updates and anecdotes at the George. Everyone had accepted our dinner invitations. Maggie’s red-cheeked grandmother offered to bake a mincemeat pie for the occasion, and Mike discovered the recipe for a toe-tingling mulled cider. After a careful financial audit, Jerry decided to splurge on a jar of mayonnaise for coleslaw. His sister promised to send us a cache of corn muffin mix and a can of pumpkin from Pennsylvania. And Gayle burst in ecstatic one afternoon with three cans of cranberry “jelly” she had unearthed at a specialty shop in Caernarvon. (Everyone wanted to know just how and when we Americans applied this jelly to our fowl.)

    But as November dragged into its fourth week, our dreams of drumsticks were replaced by more imminent deadlines. We deserted the pub and crawled into isolated library carrels to cram Chomsky and Roberts, Piaget and Ericson.

    Saving Thanksgiving from disaster

    On Wednesday night of this “hell week,” Jerry and I were rousted from a sound sleep by a heavy knock on the door. It was our pink-curlered landlady telling us we had a phone call. We dashed upstairs, trying not to panic. Jerry grabbed the ornate receiver. It was Jim Donnelly. He and Joan, now a bit damp around the edges, had been waiting for us at the Holyhead ferry station for an hour. Had we forgotten they were coming?

    My brain went spinning over the same crack: Next Wednesday. Not today. Next Wednesday … I heard Jerry laugh and tell Jim to sit tight; he’d charge across Anglesey in his rusty A-40 chariot and rescue them within half an hour. Still smiling, he hung up and turned to me.

    “Guess what, Jin? We blew it. Thanksgiving is tomorrow, the fourth Thursday in November.” The fourth Thursday, not the last. This damn November had five Thursdays in it!

    What would we do? There wasn’t a spot in the flat not covered with stacks of papers. This was hardly the moment to borrow an extra mattress from our landlady. And dinner. Our lovely dinner! The turkey wouldn’t arrive at Treaddur until next week.

    In the morning, our exhausted friends still asleep, Jerry and I crawled out of our improvised blanket-bed on the living-room floor and dashed over to Gayle’s for a summit meeting. Jerry had to be at school early to take an exam, but Gayle and I could serve the Donnellys a quick breakfast and take them on a Mt. Snowdon mini tour. Then Jerry could take over at 1 and show them around the university while I finished Professor Lyons’ Swahili paper and Gayle studied for her history tutorial.

    Our turkey day would have to stand as planned for next week. But what about tonight? How could we conjure up a feast on such short notice? The Taj Mahal, of course. The only affordable eatery in Bangor, it served passable food despite the dead-cat myths that clung to it. Pooling funds and leaning hard on the beneficence of the local bank manager, we could just swing it. Gayle would ask Maggie to mind the children, and Jerry would get word to Mike to meet us at the Taj at seven.

    That evening, through the twang of a relentless sitar and the haze of stinging incense, five red-faced Americans and one Englishman glowed with the cheap wine and hot lamb curry and good fellowship of a real Thanksgiving celebration.

    Virginia Alpaugh is a freelance writer and editor living in the Philadelphia suburbs.
 She spent much of her professional career writing for the in-house magazines of national 
 corporations but is now happily occupied writing personal essays and memoirs.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.