The Potatoes of Thanksgiving

Variety of fingerling potatoes. Source:

When I lived in Philadelphia, I found out that American Thanksgiving is similar to but different from Canadian Thanksgiving.

It is something like bottles of Coke. When I moved to the States, all the bottles were 16 ounces. Canadian Coke bottles were 12 ounces. I was perplexed, as I didn’t understand the reason for the extra four ounces. My thirst was quenched after 12 ounces. Years later, I moved back to Canada to work at McGill. I was perplexed again. Twelve ounces was not enough. I was still thirsty.

At Canadian Thanksgiving, families get together and eat a big bird, just like in the States. But it is a holiday like any other. In the States, it is the biggest holiday of the year, it is a major family thing. People get worried if you are spending Thanksgiving alone. So they invite you to their home. What follows is a very heavily disguised, perhaps true story which I have told people occasionally when asked about reasonable accommodation.

Picture this: you are a Canadian; you go to an American Thanksgiving dinner. You quickly sense that this is a major thing for the Americans, and that it is significantly different from the Canadian holiday. Also, you sense some tension in the air. It turns out that the family’s son is coming for dinner for the first time in a long time. He is coming with his new mate, who no one has met yet. His mate is very shy, and does not say much to anyone. Things are fine until dinner. Then, in the middle of the table, appears the big bird. The son leans over to your host and explains his new mate is a vegetarian. Your host smiles and says no problem. Potatoes and turnips and carrots and salad are served in generous helpings to the son’s new mate.

But then the new mate gets up, and walks to another room, signaling for the son to come. No one stares, but everyone notices their conversation. The couple talk in whispers, but it is animated. Hands are moving back and forth. The new mate is not happy; arms are crossed. The son is speaking rapidly, but finally stops, and walks back into the room.

Everyone, he explains, must eat the potatoes, and only the potatoes. No big bird. No gravy. No dressing. The new mate walks back into the room, looking down, saying nothing.

The rest you can imagine. You are a Canadian in a seemingly familiar, but occasionally disorientingly different environment. It is not a holiday dinner, it is a family dinner, the most important family dinner of the year for Americans. The meal ends quickly, you get a ride home.

Is the Canadian holiday better? Not better or worse of course. It was an act of charity for the Americans to invite a foreigner. It shows gratitude for you, the foreigner, to follow their rituals as best as you can and be reasonably accommodating. And vice versa. Communities, friends, and especially families are tricky things, a little empathy can go a long way.

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