I accidentally spent my first ever Thanksgiving with a family of Trump supporters and I’m thankful for it
“Did y’all see Melania’s dress the other day?” was the first clue.
It was 2019, pre-mask wearing, pre-travel bans, pre-covid and the forthcoming US election was still an entire year away. We were two British girls on a five-week road trip, snaking through the B roads of the southern states of the USA, culminating in Thanksgiving in Texas.
We had no contacts in the US, just a mission to drive across the bible belt in our little Ford Fiesta, taking as many foodie pit-stops as possible in a bid to better understand what America’s all about through its food. We’d had our fill of New York and its bagels. We’d spent enough time in LA eating organic salad. This trip was all about seeing the real America, not another city akin to London in its multiculturalism.
And so we found ourselves driving alongside monster trucks trailing billowing TRUMP flags (I can’t say which shocked us more- the enormous cars or the Trump trumpeting), through North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana into the red barn dotted, lone star state.
It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving 2019 and we’d arrived early at small-town Lexington to interview and cook with Pitmaster and legend, Tootsie Tomanetz. The line was already 200-people deep by the time we arrived and we soon realised what everyone was there for.
Tootsie’s 16-hour slow-cooked barbecue brisket was hot property days before 26th, with many of those around us waiting to walk away with an entire brisket to serve at Thanksgiving.
‘What y’all doing for the holidays?” asked a lycra-clad cyclist from Austin just ahead of. It was only then that it dawned on us that we’d be alone on such a quintessentially ‘American’ holiday.
So our mission began at this barbecue shack in Lexington. The minute anyone struck up conversation, overhearing our British accents, we would set out to woo them into inviting us into Thanksgiving dinner.
Between sips of Dr Pepper and bites of mouthwatering brisket sandwiches topped with pickled gherkins, I (rather un-British in my directness) asked Don, a 60-something year old grandpa in a checked shirt whom I’d built a rapport up with outright: “Can we spend thanksgiving with you?”
“I’d have to ask the boss,” he said, hastily adding, “I don’t see why not.”
‘The boss’ turned out to be his wife, Linda, a cute little pixie haired lady with sparkling elvish eyes. Addresses were hastily scribbled on a scrap of paper and it was decided within five minutes. We’d be spending Christmas with Linda, Don, their kids and grandkids in suburbia.
We emailed Linda right away and received details on the time, and the wine we were to bring, “With roasted turkey I believe Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Viognier would be perfect.”
Her email signature reads, “Live simply-Love generously-Care deeply-Speak kindly - Leave the rest to God”
Arriving at their neat, white picket fence lined home in the sleepy suburb of Roundrock, we were giddy at the prospect of experiencing an authentic American ‘holiday’. Passing mowed lawns scattered with leaves in every shade of Autumn, we guessed at the Thanksgiving menu (there’d been talk of a sweet potato dish topped with marshmallows that filled us with dread) and discussed our get-out plan, just in case.
Linda, the very picture of southern hospitality, had already invited us to stay the night so that we could have our fill of Viognier and avoid driving down to San Antonio. Having known her and Don for all of five minutes, we were aware that we may at some point want to make a quick get-away.
Not unlike most houses on their street, Linda and Don’s bore stars and stripes.
I suddenly felt nervous ringing the doorbell but once I was in Linda’s kitchen watching copious glugs of orange juice be poured over a tray of sweet potatoes, the only trepidation I had was over dinner.
As we gathered in the kitchen around an enormous kitchen island, drank our glasses of fizz and got acquainted with Linda and Don’s daughters, their husbands and children, we discussed Thanksgiving food (apparently, sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows is a thing in the south) and our own lives, traditions and holidays back in the UK.
Feeling comfortable in the company of these friendly strangers, we relaxed into our role as the eccentric British girls at Thanksgiving lunch, telling tales of our travels across the south and sharing our thoughts on the Americans’ ‘supersize me’ attitude to just about anything: cars, refrigerators, and chocolate bars. It was all very pleasant.
Then Austin’s homeless population came up in conversation. We’d been staying in Austin and Don asked our opinion on the ‘disgrace’ that is Austin’s downtown. At the time, the city of Austin had bucked the trend of criminalizing homelessness, making it legal for those without a home to camp in public spaces. The result was a sea of tents under Austin’s hughway overpasses.
“It’s a disgrace what they’re doing to Austin, did you see all the bums under the bridges? You weren’t staying in Downtown, were you?” came a question that made me shudder.
I’d read about homeless women who had previously been forced to sleep in the shadows being raped and abused. Another homeless woman who’d been camping in one of Austin’s creeks had died as a flash flood swept through the creek bed.
Don’s assertion, and that of his son-in-law who was also engaged in the conversation, was that this law should not have been passed, “because it gives them the right to come and do all sorts of stuff in the city.” They insisted that the new legislation would give rise to homelessness.
Their response smacks of Trump’s own to the housing crisis in America. ““I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” he tweeted, as he repealed a rule requiring communities build low cost housing in areas that could relieve racial segregation and homelessness, laid out by the Obama administration. He has since threatened to tear down encampments sheltering homeless communities.
“They’re into all sorts, drug taking, alcohol…” said Don, warning us of the dangers of “letting homelessness go unchecked like this.”
Uneasy and unable to let this go, I countered that the numbers of homeless had not risen, but rather, had become more visible because of the law. They’d emerged from various woodlands, creeks and crannies around the city and set up a community in and alongside the people of Austin. The visibility of this homelessness is surely better than those less fortunate than us being put at even more risk?
Don’s seven year old grandson saved us in the nick of time. “Y’all wanna hear about the battle of the Alamo?” he said and I swallowed down a generous gulp of red wine as I listened to the story of the Texas Revolution.
Soon after, Linda announced lunch was ready and we all poured into the dining room to take our seats at the long table dressed in tartan, Autumn foliage and blown glass centrepieces in the shape of pumpkins. Somewhere in this locomotion between kitchen and dining room, Don ventured on another topic.
“Did y’all see Melania’s dress the other day?” came the question. Not knowing what to say and completely perplexed at the topic of conversation, I pretended not to hear, diving into my seat and profusely complimenting Linda on the table dressing.
Perhaps it was Don’s way of connecting with two young women, to strike up a conversation about the First Lady’s sartorial choices. Either that or he genuinely has an eye for fashion. Either way, it was enough of a clue to nudge towards the realisation that we were at Thanksgiving with a family of Trump fans.
It made sense. Middle class suburbia in a state that’s been red for decades. The flag, Linda’s very sweet, Christian email signature, the white picket fence. It’s these very voters that Trump has been appealing to, fighting the corner of the white, middle class, Christian patriot looking to ‘Make America Great Again’.
And yet I couldn’t assimilate the obnoxious and bigoted views of America’s soon-to-be-gone president with this family who’d opened their house to us for Thanksgiving; the very picture of southern hospitality. It did cross my mind that perhaps the invite would not have even been extended to us, had we been black?
I’ve never been very good at sticking to the ‘no sex, religion or politics’ rules at the dinner table and soI came right out and asked the question I’d asked on so many occasions during this trip; “what do you all think of your president then?” It came after a conversation about our monarchy, and I felt it fitting to ask about their head of state in return.
“I like him, he’s done a damn sight more than the other one did for the economy,” said Don.
“He can be a little direct sometimes, but maybe that’s what America needs,” Linda added.
Other heads around the table nodded in agreement.
“What we need is strong leadership and there’s no doubt about it, he’s a strong character,” chimed in their daughter as she dolloped a thick, orange wedge of sludge onto my plate. The marshmallow-topped, orange and Jack Daniels soaked sweet potatoes were easier to swallow than this.
I asked what the women thought of Trump’s attitude to women. “He could be a bite more of a gentleman,” Linda shrugged passively. Later on in the lunch Don made a comment about how he never cooked or cleaned. At which point Linda again, shrugged passively.
I felt my cheeks flush and bit my tongue. It was their home and we were guests. So we listened to their opinions and exchanged silent glances across the table. We did not need to say our code word (“cranberry”) to know that both of us wanted out and would not be staying the night at Linda and Don’s.
The conversation, of course, moved on from the president, to trips (they regularly cruise) and to our lives in England. We sat alongside people we’d usually hold in contempt and try as I might not to, I really did warm to them. They were intelligent, kind, they asked questions and were genuinely interested in hearing about us. One Thanksgiving lunch is not enough to sway a vote or change a political opinion but I did wonder, if we took the time to sit down with our political adversaries and to understand them and their background, might we all be in a less polarised position?
As the votes came in earlier this month and the blue and red map showed just how divided a nation America has become, I was not surprised to see that Trump had still managed to win nearly half of America over (after Biden he’s the most-voted for president in all of American history.) Where other proud ‘left wing liberals’ might balk at the news in disbelief and draw their own conclusions on what that says about Americans, I ruminated on why nice people would vote for a man that really embodies an ideology that is not very nice at all.
American views on Trump seem to me to be very much like the Brits and Marmite — you either love him or you hate him — but unlike with marmite, there is a conversation to be had about this. Rather than holding each other in contempt, we really have to sit down with each other and see the humanity before the ideology. Otherwise, we risk never being able to understand each other. We must try the whisky-drenched, orange juice-soaked sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, even if it’s just to say we tried.