Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Tumbleweeds and Turkeys
(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in September, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)

I have been to Amarillo. Now there is a name that speaks to us from half-remembered refrains of long ago songs, that promises a glimpse of that imagined Texas of our childhood westerns. I fingered the event for days before, until it was as dog-eared as a favorite book. It was my good fortune that the reality turned out to be so different from my expectations.

To set out from Lawton and journey westwards is to be transported back through time to an earlier and simpler age. The land becomes flatter and the towns smaller as one travels. To the north, the Wichita Mountains march on, becoming lower and more isolated until finally giving one last flourish of a few stony outcrops a short distance before Hollis.

Not only do the towns become smaller, they get older and more impoverished with each passing mile. These are farming towns and their dusty main streets and decaying buildings are not attractive to the glittering stores and eateries of the big city. No McDonalds or WalMart has chosen to grace this land with their presence. The grocery store, the corner service station, are much as they were in the fifties, echoing the fabled West with their gabled fronts of brick rather than wood.

But time has taken its toll of these buildings. Wind and weather has left paint peeling and brick flaking. Wood bleaches out to a tired grayness, tarmac crumbles and becomes one with the dust. Here and there we see isolated and deserted houses, their windows dark and unglazed, their timbers rotting slowly in the dry air and roofs sagging towards final collapse. Many of these are old and lean tiredly towards one side or the other, betraying the secret of their long survival; that they will bend with the wind rather than fight it.

Out in the country, the ranches begin to give way to cotton fields. I had not realized what an ugly crop is cotton. The dark branches of its low bushes merge with the deep, russet brown of the earth and all is pock-marked with the white spots and blotches of the cotton bolls. At the roadside, the short grass has caught wisps and clumps of drifting cotton, mimicking the trash and plastic sacks of an unkempt city street.

Alongside the road, the Kansas state tree, the telegraph pole, joins with our arrow-straight route towards the horizon. I fall to wondering what upright tree has provided the countless thousands of these tall poles. Kathy tells me that they are probably yellow pines, culled from the Big Thicket of East Texas. The numbers required to line every road in America with such poles just staggers me and I cannot imagine (although I know, for I have seen them) that there are any forests left.

A little way beyond Hollis we entered the great state of Texas. This was immediately apparent, not because a sign announced the fact, but because everything changed dramatically. Suddenly there were indications of prosperity everywhere. The road became smooth and dark with the recent application of new asphalt. The ranches and cotton farms grew larger and better tended. Signposts no longer slouched to one side and did not bear the scars of target practice and weather. Texan to the core, Kathy announced, "Big sky country!"

I found myself suddenly defensive of my already-loved Oklahoma. The skies are no more extensive in Texas, I thought. And I like the fact that Oklahoma is poor and humble. Those dusty little towns we'd just passed through may have been worn and disheveled but they had character and a sunburnt leanness that appeals to the romantic in me. Texas is great, sure; but Oklahoma is still OK. On the way back the next day I had my revenge. As we crossed into Oklahoma, I commented with glee to Kathy - "Home again!"

We are descending now into the Red River valley and the countryside becomes more broken and jagged. In places erosion has torn at the land to reveal the brick red color of the earth beneath. Here and there, flat-topped hills stand out, the product of some quirk of geology that made that small portion of the plain a little more resistant to weather than the land around.

The river itself could be a cousin to the "great, grey, greasy Limpopo" that forms the northern border of South Africa, except that here the sand and the water are red. This is no mighty river, rolling toward the sea. Although broad, it exposes its bed as great sandbanks hugging the occasional pool, while the main stream of the river wanders indecisively from bank to bank.

Twice we crossed the Red and then climbed back up to the plain. And here, at last, we found the truly flat plain of my imagination. Like an immense dining table, it stretches from horizon to horizon, a becalmed sea of short, dry grass and the occasional bush or stunted tree. The road aims like a rifle barrel for the ruler-straight horizon. This is ranch country and Kathy points out the tumbleweed, lined up against the fences that follow the road. There are rows and clumps of these strange, wandering shrubs, waiting patiently until a contrary wind should send them, once again, bounding and bowling across the plain. On occasion we had to slow as a single tumbleweed, set free somehow from its captor, crossed the road ahead in haphazard leaps and twirls.

A railroad keeps company with the road along this stretch and we passed mile-long freight trains inching slowly along in obedience to their straining diesel engines, front and rear. Once, as we left a train behind us, it released a long blast of its horn, that wailing, mournful note that is surely the most wistful sound in the world.

And so we came, at last, to Amarillo.

Ah, Amarillo. Sadly, it turns out to be in the same mold as so many other American cities, a broad suburban sprawl surrounding a high rise center. Somehow we contrived to miss our turn on one of the freeways and found ourselves heading into that center. It is pleasant enough, a pattern of open, grassed and statue-strewn squares surrounded by skyscrapers and older, more sedate, civic buildings. A few of the roads are surfaced with red brick and this gives the city an appropriate flavor of the old West. It being Thanksgiving Day, the traffic was light and we were soon headed in the right direction again.

And there, I've said it now - Thanksgiving, the reason for our journey and the end of our quest. We were invited to spend it with Kathy's sister's family, at the home of her son, the doctor. This was my first Thanksgiving.

I'm sure you expect me to attempt a full description of this celebration so unknown to us in the old country. But this turns out to be hardly necessary, it being much like an English family Christmas but without the tree and the presents. Everything revolves around the meal, the famous Thanksgiving dinner, and it is here that I find there is much to describe.

Yes, there is turkey, roast, I'm pleased to report (there is a new fashion for frying turkeys in huge deep fryers that cause household fires every year). This was carved in the kitchen, thereby avoiding the tussle on the dining room table that plagues so many British Christmases. There was ham, too, baked and cut into tidy slices, another echo of Christmas back home. The stuffing has mutated into something called sage and cornbread dressing, however. It was close enough in taste to its ancestor to be enjoyable, although I noticed that I was one of the few to sample it. Cranberry sauce is here a thick jello-like substance which can be served diced, sliced or however takes one's fancy. It remained untouched throughout the meal, everyone expressing a dislike for it. Tradition dictates that it appear on the table but there is no insistence that it be eaten. Oh, if only we were so sensible about brussels sprouts...

Wander from the meat dishes and America really begins to exert its influence. The inevitable mashed potatoes make an appearance but here we have a green bean casserole, a combination of green beans and cream of mushroom soup, topped with fried onions and baked. I assure you, dear friends, it works. But now things start to get seriously out of kilter. We find a dish called candied yams and marshmallows. I tried it and it is sweet, sweet as a popsicle. And then there is a dish that can only be described as black cherry coca-cola and jello salad. I still do not know where the salad comes in but the concoction itself would make a wonderful pudding in England.

Here we come to the real difference between the American and the Englander. It's all in the taste buds. In England we are trained from birth to keep sweet and savory apart, forever divorced to different courses. But in America they seem to delight in mixing both upon their plates, glorying in the great clash of forces that results. I have tried and tried but my upbringing defeats me every time; I cannot get used to this chaotic conjunction of savory and sweet.

Kathy points out that we do have a few sweet sauces (cranberry for one - we have not yet discovered that you're not really supposed to eat it) that we use with meat. But I counter with the fact that these are used sparingly, to highlight rather than conquer.

Understand, I do not deride these various American dishes. Most of them are tasty indeed. It is just that my deeply-ingrained British training insists that there must be separation and order, we cannot have this total disregard for class and type (oh, that's interesting - and I have been thinking about doing a chapter on the American caste system too...).

You might think that, with all these delectably sweet dishes provided in the main course, the statesiders would forego the addition of a sweet course. Not a bit of it. We should not forget that apple pie is as American as, well, apple pie. There was one produced at the end of the meal and it was not alone. As companions it had a chocolate cream pie, a coconut cream pie, a pecan pie and (wonder of wonders) a pumpkin pie. The hostess was no mean cook, you will understand.

I tried the pumpkin pie, something I have been wanting to do for quite some time. It is excellent, not too sweet, with a delicate flavor enhanced by the addition of a dash of cinnamon. I can assure my countrymen that we missed out by not stealing the recipe before we departed these shores way back in 1776.

So that was my Thanksgiving. I have said nothing of the people involved, quite deliberately, since I have no desire to turn unwanted spotlights on anyone. Suffice it to say that we interacted in a most friendly and cordial manner. I was in an unusually talkative mood that night and this may have eased my way into acceptance. At least, I hope so.

Christmas should be interesting.

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


I can only express dismay at the callous treatment of the cranberry sauce. We here in New England take our cranberries to heart. Of course since we grow the cranberries here, we might have a slight bias in their favor. Cranberries of course are slightly bitter and require sweetening to be palatable, but the slightly astringent quality still makes it a clean taste and excellent to prepare the palate for more of the heavier and starchier elements of the meal. There is whole cranberry sauce which is rather lumpy and textured with pieces of whole fruit. I prefer the jellied cranberry sauce that is smooth and cold and exactly the right flavor to offset the turkey and stuffing. As a matter of fact, leftovers must be served in a sandwich containing these three key ingredients, a thick slab of turkey, a large dollop of stuffing (only my mother knew the exact measurement of a dollop so you will have to estimate) and a couple of slices of the cranberry jelly sauce. If you are more traditional, you might make cranberry relish which can contain apples and oranges or other fruits and varied spices. What you must never do, is have Thanksgiving without cranberries.
Date Added: 01/12/2004

Gone Away
There, see, I knew that cranberry sauce is only de rigeur because it's a tradition. But I realize now what it takes to haul Ned, kicking and screaming, from the woodwork. All I have to do is insult a few more New England delicacies and there she'll be, putting me straight and suggesting recipes to sweeten the pill. Did I ever tell you about bread sause and roast pork....?
Date Added: 01/12/2004

Gone Away
Please ignore the typo. Sauce*
Date Added: 01/12/2004

Say, don't listen to Ned...Ned IS a cranberry, for crying out loud. Now that that has been nicely settled, I turn your attention to me...what is my problem? Here I find myself drooling to return once again to the Land of Plentious Dust after being dragged along on yet another crammped automobile trip, with noyhing more than weather-beaten buildings and leaning signs filled with bullet holes to keep me eyes busy. My only consolation comes from not hearing the creaking of pituresque windmills - tell me they have been outsourced to asia! O please tell me that!
Date Added: 01/12/2004

*Noyhing was intentional, and is not a typo.
Date Added: 01/12/2004

Gone Away
You're right, I did see a few windmills. But they are so common in Africa that I hardly noticed them. What I did forget to tell you is that there is a little town in Texas that announces itself with this sign: "Welcome to Memphis - Texas, that is".
Date Added: 01/12/2004

Most enjoyable Dad. Tell 'em about bread sauce and black pudding...
Date Added: 01/12/2004

Oh hey! It must be a record: Three posts in two days. You'll be keeping up with Mr Way at this pace...
Date Added: 01/12/2004

Now I understand. Gone is busy reading his damn reviews. No wonder the man gets nothing done.
Date Added: 01/12/2004

I am very happy in the woodwork, thank you.
Date Added: 02/12/2004

One of these days I'm actually going to catch up on this blog.. but until then, I will trod away with my responses, attempting to keep them breif. I must agree with Ned, being a nearly-New-Englander myself (born and raised in Pennsylvania). Cranberry sauce is a must-eat! And not that slimy conconction that slides from the can with a loud gurgle.. oh no, that's just won't do! It must be real, fresh, wonderful, glorious cranberries.
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Gone Away
Note to self: Never insult the cranberry within earshot of a New Englander...
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Gone Away
That should read "Note", not "Mote"...
Date Added: 09/01/2005

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