The time: the late 1950s
The place: Birmingham, Alabama
My mother, my father, and I are driving home after Thanksgiving dinner with an American family.
“What a meal!” my mother says. “Do you suppose it was typical?”
“I don’t know,” my father answers, “but I have just eaten a dinner composed entirely of desserts. First, there was that red gelatin with grapes, on a leaf of lettuce. Why do Americans put a dessert on lettuce, and serve it at the beginning of the meal?”
“I’ve also seen them put pears from a can on lettuce,” my mother says.
“Tonight they put, all in one plate, sweet potatoes with those things like cotton balls on top—another dessert—and green beans. I cannot eat green beans on the same plate with dessert!”
“But they also gave you turkey, and that wasn’t dessert. The turkey was the size of a pig! Mrs. Hillman had cooked it all herself. These American women, I don’t know how they do it without a maid to help them. But they don’t get upset about anything, and their hair is always combed. Did you see?” my mother says, growing animated, “At the end of the meal Mr. Hillman and the boy carried all the dirty dishes to the kitchen.”
“It is a strange country,” my father nods. “For instance, those round red slices they served with the turkey…”
“Ay! For a moment it reminded me of membrillo, quince paste…”
“But membrillo is never that sweet! No, no, this was too sweet, and it was followed by the final dessert: a pie with nuts. Even the cold tea they gave us to drink had sugar. My tongue is stuck to my teeth. In Spain this would never have happened.” My parents fall silent for a moment.
“But these Americans are so kind,” my mother says. “They don’t understand anything we say. I can see their eyes open wide whenever I start to speak, but still, they invite us. They like a lot of butter, though. Maybe they don’t have enough olive oil. In the store they only sell it in little bottles, very expensive.”
“Today there was butter on everything—on the turkey, on the green beans, on the bread, in the crust of the pie. How can we digest all that butter without wine? We may be a little sick tonight.”
My mother is laughing now. “You should have seen your face when they offered you a glass of milk with the pie!”
“That is the first time I have been offered a glass of milk since I was in short pants.”
“But they have so much good will, these Americans. They tried so much to explain the tradition to us. I think they said it was about eating with the Indians.”
“Impossible,” says my father. “The Indians had all been killed…”
The conversation continues as we drive through the darkened streets. In the back seat, I barely hear it. I have fallen in love with the boy who helped clear the dishes, and a whole new continent is opening up before me.