The first Thanksgiving we celebrated was in October 2004, to give thanks to the God Almighty for bringing the family to the great land of Canada. I bought a turkey like all Canadians, but had no clue about baking it. I went through the internet and downloaded a recipe which I thought was the easiest and most practical. That was when I called up my old classmate and dear friend Vijaya Bhaskar, the Executive Chef and General Manager, Hotel Le Meridian, Bengaluru. He is a top Chef of India who features in the book ‘25 of India’s Biggest Chefs’ by Sagrika Ghoshal. I explained to him the task in hand and read out the recipe I had and he advised me to add some Indian spices (garam masasla) while marinating and follow all steps as given in the recipe.
Vijaya Bhaskar (Vijas as we all called him) was in my adjacent room in Pandya House at Sainik School Amaravathinagar (Tamil Nadu) and we had Mr PT Cherian as our house-master. Vijas was my trusted companion whenever I did any prank or took to any (mis)adventures like getting out of school after dinner, busing to Udumalpet (nearest town about 22 km away) to watch the second show at the theater and then walk back through the night to reach school early in the morning.
Whenever we got caught in our acts, we did the punishment meted out also together like apologising to the entire school during the morning assembly, wearing the uniform all through the day for a week or digging 24 pits (1M x 1M x 1M) for tree plantation. We enjoyed each others company in all these activities.
We went to Madras (now Chennai) to appear for the entrance exam for the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1978 and that was when I visited Vijas’ home. He had three brothers and a sister and they all addressed their dad as “Naina” (I really took a liking for the word “Naina” then). Vijas’ dad worked with the Post and Telegraph (P&T) department and the entire family lived in the small P&T quarters. Unlike us, who had some cultivation around the home to provide for most vegetables, they had to buy anything and everything for the household. It must have been the magical powers of Naina that he managed to bring up all children to be successful citizens today and I always thought that we were better off with both our parents being teachers and the little inputs we had from the land around our homes. In 1979 Naina did another great act of adopting a girl and so the family became that of six children with Vijas leading the pack.
We both qualified our NDA entrance exam and were undergoing training for our interview. We had Squadron Leader Manickavasagam as our Headmaster (another exception to my previous rule) and one day we both were summoned early in the morning to be told that we had to address the assembly at 8 AM and the topic for Vijas was “Untouchability” and for me it was “Co-education”. Vijas’ mind went into an overdrive and immediately asked “for how long should we speak?”. “As long as you can” came the Headmaster’s reply and the typical smile (well captured in the image here) indicated to me that there was some prank attached to the question.
As we went back to prepare our speeches, Vijas told me that we should speak for 45 minutes each the least so that everyone goes for the tea-break after the assembly and we all can manage to skip the first three periods of the day. That was when I realised what the prank was and we did execute it pretty well that after each speech, the Headmaster spoke for 15 minutes, analysing and assessing our speeches.
After graduating from the school, Vijas surprised everyone by opting to join the Institute of Hotel Management in Chennai. In those days we neither knew the existence of such an institute nor the avenues in hotel management. Vijas came out of the institute with flying colours and today has reached the position of the Executive Chef and General Manager with the prestigious Hotel Le Meridian at Bengaluru. Now the same Vijas was giving his “special” advice to bake the Thanksgiving Turkey.
Thanksgiving is an important day for all Canadian families and for the “Turkey” dinner, the entire family gets together. For a few hundred years, Thanksgiving was celebrated in Canada in either late October or early November, before it was declared a national holiday in 1879. It was then, that November 6th was set aside as the official Thanksgiving holiday. In 1957, Canadian Parliament announced that on the second Monday in October as Thanksgiving Day and would be “a day of general thanksgiving to almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”
Throughout the 19th century, official Days of Thanksgiving were proclaimed to celebrate such events as the cessation of cholera (February 6, 1833), the end of war between Great Britain and France (June 18, 1816), restoration of peace with Russia (June 4, 1856), and for the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness (April 15, 1872).
In the US, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 at the behest of Governor William Bradford, to mark the arrival of the Pilgrims, a name commonly applied to early settlers of the Plymouth Colony in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts. Thanksgiving became an official holiday in the United States in 1863 via proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln that declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to move the official Thanksgiving date to earlier in November in order encourage a longer Christmas shopping season as a depression recovery strategy. His idea was shot down by Congress, and the official date was declared permanently as the fourth Thursday in November.
Reason for Canadian Thanksgiving arriving earlier than its American counterpart is that Canada is geographically further North than the United States, causing the Canadian harvest season to arrive earlier than the American harvest season. Since Thanksgiving for Canadians is more about giving thanks for the harvest season than the arrival of pilgrims, it makes sense to celebrate the holiday in October. There are hardly any differences between Canadian and American Thanksgiving, both Canadians and Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with parades, family gatherings, pumpkin pie and a whole lot of turkey!
Thanksgiving was referred to in writings as Turkey Day due to the popularity of the bird as the traditional feast. Roasted goose was the favourite at harvest time in England. When the Pilgrims arrived in America from England, roasted turkey replaced roasted goose as the main cuisine because wild turkeys were more abundant and easier to find than geese. Thus the turkey was most-associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, making winter the prime season for turkey farmers. Today, turkey has been recognized as a lean substitute for red meat.
The first turkey effort was a big success and everyone enjoyed the dinner and after the dinner I called up Vijas to thank him for the tips he gave. He asked me at the end as to whether I documented all what I did to the turkey and I said “no”. Vijas said “that is the difference between a good chef and an amateur cook”. Thankfully I never had to prepare the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner after that since our daughter took it upon her and every year we have been treated to excellent dinners on both days.