Expat James Bridgers has a lot to be thankful for, but this year, he nominates his “smoking hot wife” as the standout reason to give thanks. The ‘thankyou box’, where James’s appreciation for Jeanne was declared, is just one tradition favoured by this group of American families celebrating Thanksgiving in Sydney’s Vaucluse. Before dinner, each guest writes anonymously on a piece of paper the thing for which they’re most grateful in the last year. The paper slips are then placed in a box and read out after dinner. This year, it’s 14-year-old Eloise who, with rolling eyes, recognises her father’s handwriting while reading the slips, blowing his cover.
But long before this moment arrives, Jeanne and her friend Frances Walsh must cook for days and decorate the Bridgers’s house with a touch of Martha Stewart-style magic.
Frances, originally from Florida, came to live permanently in Australia in 1992 when she married her Australian husband Michael, leaving her position in the office of Democrat politician Bob Graham and having two children, Joseph and Lucy. Jeanne, a tax lawyer, moved here for James’s work eight years ago with their three children. For a pair of corporate and political high fliers, she and Frances certainly have a way with food, decor and Southern hospitality.
The morning of the feast, Frances gets baking: two kinds of pie – pumpkin and pecan – are prepared. The nuts are smaller than those available here, and are delivered from the States by a friend, while the pumpkin is a smooth purée imported in a can. “Americans like things out of a jar or a can. Easy,” says Frances, who uses the convenient options for authenticity as much as speed. That also goes for the mayonnaise in the squash casserole, too.
This year, Jeanne sources a fine, organic turkey, which she begins preparing early in the day. “Back home, I’d just buy a frozen turkey that costs a dollar a pound, but here, it’s a bit more precious. This was $130. I couldn’t tell my mother that – she’d die!” Jeanne says.
The turkey sits for two days in spiced brine, which keeps it moist through long roasting. Mid-morning, Jeanne hauls the monstrous bird out of its pot, then dries and spreads it with butter, honey and maple syrup. The cranberry and cornbread stuffing is already made and preparations for her grandmother’s famous oyster dressing to be served alongside the bird are underway.
Two tables are set, one for the kids in colourful linen and another for the adults in traditional Thanksgiving autumnal tones. Jeanne has ironed the heirloom table linen and polished the silver mint julep cups which will be used for water. Frances has arranged flowers, leaves and candles, and tied a name card to a pear at each place setting.
Come 6 pm and their guests climb the candle-lined front steps to the house overlooking the harbour. The very American timber-panelled den was to be used for pre-dinner drinks, but as the rain has stopped, a bar is set up in the courtyard. A wheel of brie, warmed and softened in the oven until oozing, is topped with a cranberry and jalapeño chilli relish and sprinkled with pistachios.
It’s not a traditional Thanksgiving dish, but the berries fit well with the theme, and it’s so popular that nobody objects. Besides, all the dishes that follow are traditional, right down to the moist pumpkin bread, which Frances baked that morning as gifts for guests to take home as thanks for sharing the meal.
Photography by Alan Benson