Of American Expat Thanksgivings in GreecePosted: November 23, 2021
I still remember my first Thanksgiving at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (the ASCSA or the School hereafter) in 1989. We had just returned from a ten-day trip through the Corinthia with Mr. Williams [Charles K. Williams, the Director of the Corinth Excavations], which also marked the end of the School’s fall program. We only had a few hours to rest and get ready for the big event: cocktails at 8 followed by dinner at 8.30. I had never seen Loring Hall so crowded and festive. Director William (Willy) Coulson and his wife Mary Lee were the hosts. Eight large tables filled the dining room; more were in the salonaki for families with young children. In later years as the numbers of guests increased, the party would take over the saloni for dinner and dancing afterwards.
I attended many of the School’s Thanksgivings, and these events were the source of many fond memories. When our son was born in 1999, we skipped the party but took him (then barely 6 months old) earlier in the day to see the roasted turkeys in Sakis’s kitchen. We eventually stopped going because of conflicts with our son’s schedule and our desire to start our own family tradition for the holiday.
At the time it was difficult to find a turkey out of season (because Greek butchers do not stock turkeys until a few days before Christmas). We usually had to approach the butchers weeks in advance to secure a bird for the table (often flown in frozen from Italy but more recently fresh from the American Farm School in Thessaloniki). The only place with cranberry sauce (or fresh cranberries) or Libby’s pumpkin puree was the original Alpha Beta on Stadiou Street (now closed). Soon I learned to make my own red currant sauce (it is still hard to find cranberries), and I have occasionally experimented with real pumpkins for the pie. This quest for ingredients made me wonder how the School celebrated Thanksgivings when imported goods were much more difficult to find, and the School’s cooks lacked experience with American holiday menus.
In November of 1910, Zillah Pearce, who had recently moved to Athens with her husband architect William (Billy) Bell Dinsmoor, who would later become the most important architectural historian of Classical Greece, wrote to her mother about her first expat Thanksgiving at the School:
“The dinner was quite wonderful for Evangelos [the School’s cook] is a genius. I don’t know that I can remember everything we had but there was fish soup, cold jellied pigeon, with little individual salads with whipped cream, turkey with chestnut dressing, another kind of salad, potato balls, quince jelly, & most remarkable ice in fancy shape, salted almonds, different nuts, four or five kinds of candies and fruit also…”. Pleased with the dinner, Zillah, however, was not happy with her outfit for the occasion. “Mr. Hill [the School’s Director] had said that the men were not to dress in evening clothes for this dinner, not even dinner coats, so I gave up my pink gown as inappropriate and wore my blue silk. I wish you could have seen the sight that greeted my eyes when I reached the head of the stairs. With the exception of Miss [Alice Leslie] Walker and Miss Sheldon, the others had on the most elaborate ball gowns with long sweeping trains and very décolleté gowns. However I am rather glad I did wear the blue for it is very pretty and I think it was more appropriate. Of course if I had been in Athens I would have known what the others intended to wear… Mr. Johnson [Allan Chester Johnson, later professor of Classics at Princeton University] on stepping from the library to the hall saw them and said in an undertone to Billy ‘My God.’ If you knew Mr. Johnson you would appreciate it.” Zillah was further delighted to find out that Mr. Hill had rented a piano. “Miss [Alice] Walton and I as it happened were the only ones who could play so we had to draw cards and it fell to my lot, so we spent the last of the evening in singing. Although there are so many young people none of them sing much. Mr. Blegen [Carl W. Blegen, student of the School that year, who would excavate the sites of Troy and Pylos later in his career] I suspect has the best voice. I am enclosing our place cards. Mine represents the animals at Corinth.”
On another occasion Zillah noted how hard it was to find or get cranberries to Athens, despite the recipes she had received from her mother.
“Was glad to have the recipes, only the cranberry sauce is a joke for you cannot get cranberries here. Some years ago a minister here (U.S. Representative for there is no Ambassador from America) sent to America for some cranberries for the Thanksgiving dinner he was giving to Americans in Athens and when they arrived he had to pay so much duty that he refused to take them and threw them in the Piraeus harbor” (January 3, 1911).
Finding the right ingredients for the preparation of the Thanksgiving dinner continued to be a problem. In 1922, another member of the School, Natalie Gifford [the mother of William Wyatt, professor of Classics at Brown University and also one of the Whitehead Professors in 1989, my first year at the School], wrote to her family that she wanted to prepare mince pies for Thanksgiving. “I’m crazy to make some mince pies for the bunch. I think it would be lots of fun, but I’m afraid it would be difficult, particularly without a recipe and the Greek style of doing things. Maybe I could manage an apple pie. I’d love to surprise K.B. with one.” (K.B. standing for Carl Blegen, who by then had become the School’s Assistant Director.)
“We are going to have a big dinner here tonight. Mr. Hill said sixteen were coming,” she scribbled in the same letter. Gifford had just come from the kitchen where she and the other women of the academic program were trying to make pies. “The awkward thing [is] that none of us knew how to make mince meat, and none of us had a cook book. Mr. Holland [Leicester B. Holland, architect and father of Marian McAllister who was the Editor of the School’s Publications for many decades] came to our rescue by telling us that Uncle Bert [she meant the Director of the School, Bert H. Hill] had some. In the papers of Bert H. Hill, there is a copy of the 1918 edition of Fannie Farmer and the Boston Cooking School Cookbook: A History of Science, Gender, and Food, the one that young Gifford must have consulted for her pies.
“We did find an English mince meat in Miss Farmer’s cookbook” but the real problem was finding the right ingredients. “They just haven’t cider or brown sugar or molasses as the recipe called for… We told poor John [the cook] to go get the various ingredients… He couldn’t get citron, so he bought candied fruits instead. It made the mince very sweet, but we added lemon juice… We had the whole establishment helping us pick over the raisins and blanching the almonds. The chauffeur even came in and lent us his countenance…” At the end their pies turned out well “and made a great hit. We certainly never expected it,” confided Gifford to her mother.
“They are still talking about our pies. I made some little jam tarts to use up the pie crust the way Mother does, and K. B. [Carl Blegen] nearly collapsed, he was so thrilled…” I suspect that Natalie was in love with Blegen, but little did she know that he had already set his eyes on one of her fellow students, Elizabeth (Libbie) Pierce (later Mrs. Blegen).
Who made the School’s Thanksgiving guest list was occasionally a sore point. An exchange of letters between Edward Capps, Chair of the School’s Managing Committee, and Rhys Carpenter, Director of the School (1927-1932), implied that George Kosmopoulos had not been included in the guest list for the School’s Thanksgiving party in 1930.
Now that the dinner is over, and I hope you had a jolly time, I do not mind telling you that she [Alice Leslie Walker Kosmopoulos] appealed to me on the subject… She may not understand, and probably never will, that while nobody objects to her George, who is a very fine chap, of course, the members of the School would have little pleasure in his society and George, himself, would be quite miserable. Her wish that he might be ‘recognized’ is quite understandable, though her density as regards the function shows how Greek she has become,” conveyed Capps to Carpenter.ASCSA AdmRec 318/2, folder 2, December 17, 1930
“Now that the dinner is over, and I hope you had a jolly time, I do not mind telling you that she [Alice Leslie Walker Kosmopoulos] appealed to me on the subject… She may not understand, and probably never will, that while nobody objects to her George, who is a very fine chap, of course, the members of the School would have little pleasure in his society and George, himself, would be quite miserable. Her wish that he might be ‘recognized’ is quite understandable, though her density as regards the function shows how Greek she has become,” conveyed Capps to Carpenter (ASCSA AdmRec 318/2, folder 2, December 17, 1930). (For more about this couple, see: “An Unconventional Union. ‘Mr. and Mrs. George Kosmopoulos‘”)
The Glamorous 30’s
The after-dinner entertainment had improved considerably by the early 1930s. Richard (Dick) Howland, student of the School in 1933-1934 and later Chair of the Managing Committee, described an impressive evening with many guests that reflected the School’s growth during the years that Edward Capps chaired the School’s Managing Committee (1919-1939), but also the societal changes in Greece during the interwar period. (The best novel to understand the conflicts between the Greek bourgeoisie and working classes in the 1930s is Argo [Αργώ] by George Theotokas, whose archive was donated to the School in 2016.)
We had a regular luncheon at noon, and at 9:00 we had dinner, in the library, at a huge I-shaped table that accommodated 50 people. Everybody connected with the School was there, and everybody came formal with their best evening clothes. There were 6 waiters and 4 maids, recruited from the various households connected with the school, and everything was all very elegant. We had consommé, lobster with mayonnaise, turkey, potatoes, onions, roasted chestnuts, cranberry jelly, etc….chocolate ice cream, and fruit, nuts and raisins. We had white wine and champagne with dinner, and afterwards Sterling Dow [an advanced graduate student and later Professor of Archaeology at Harvard] gave some of us liqueurs, up in his apartment over the library.
After dinner we had dancing until 2:00, with a fine 7-piece orchestra from the Grande Bretagne, which is the best hotel in Athens. I danced with a great many people, but nobody more than 2 or 3 times. It was a fine party… The best part about it is the fact that the School paid for the entire party” wrote a happy Dick to his parents in November 1933.
A year later, Howland attended his second Thanksgiving at the School: “I was invited to a cocktail party at the Dows’ before the Thanksgiving dinner. Connie [Constance Gavares] was there and Joe [Joseph Shelley, Fellow in Architecture], and Mary Elizabeth, and several others. Very nice, and then we went down to dinner about 9. Like last year, there was one huge table set in the library for 40-50 people. We had stuffed turkey, vegetables, etc….but no pie for dessert, only ice cream. After dinner there was an 8-piece orchestra and we danced until 3:30. It was a very nice party, and afterwards we went downtown to have some ham and eggs.”
Richard H. Howland all dressed up for Thanksgiving, 1934. ASCSA Archives, Richard H. Howland Papers.
From an Italian Perspective
Less than a month ago, the ASCSA Archives acquired a collection of 93 letters that Brunilde Sismondo (later Ridgway) wrote to her family when she was a student of the School in 1955-1957. Ridgway hardly needs any introduction to the archaeological community. But because this blog aims at making the history of the School accessible to a wider audience, I must say that young Sismondo, an Italian born in Chieti, went on to become a world expert in Greek and Roman sculpture. She taught for almost four decades at Bryn Mawr College and produced dozens of students, many of whom teach classics and archaeology in American and European universities. Bruni’s gift followed that of George Fletcher Bass (1932-2021), one of her fellow students and also a prominent archaeologist, who founded the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in 1972.
Written in elegant Italian, Bruni’s letters are a trove of information about the micro-history of the School: its academic program and the scholarly trends of the period, the daily life of the students in a country that was recovering from WW II and the civil war that followed (the Greek Economic Miracle), and so many other things that are not included in the School’s official reports or in the administrative correspondence. For example, I read the correspondence between John L. Caskey and Charles H. Morgan, the Director of the School and the Chair of the Managing Committee respectively, throughout 1955-1956, and there is hardly any mention of the academic program or the students. To be fair, Caskey and Morgan worried about a host of other matters: whether there was enough money to finish the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos, how to make the School’s work appealing to the Ford Foundation for funding, or how to secure the Greek King’s presence at the inauguration of the Stoa in August of 1956. However, without access to personal letters or diaries, we miss important sources of information when trying to understand the history of a long-lived overseas institution such as the ASCSA.
Yet, as Bruni warned me, there is usually a limit as to what one confides to his or her family, especially when mail was slow and telephone communications were reserved only for extremely serious matters. Therefore, letters tended to be descriptive and quite cheerful, because the students did not want their families to worry about them.
With her permission, I decided to probe those that described her first Thanksgiving experience at the School. Thanksgiving per se was not a novelty for the young Italian girl. As a graduate student at BMC she had already experienced the real thing. But this was an expat Thanksgiving.
“Ho ballato e ballato e ballato” (I danced and danced and danced): this is how she started the description of her evening to her sister Mitì. They all dressed up for the dinner that Jack Caskey and his wife Elizabeth had organized for the School community. Most of the women had spent a lot of time and money to have their hair done…but not Bruni, who decided to keep her natural thick, curly hair (she described it as “zazzera,” meaning mop). The hairdresser even showed up at the School before dinner to give the final touch to the girls’ coiffures! The dinner, as was the case for a long time, was held in the main library. That night the Pi-shaped arrangement of the library tables seated 72 people. The tables were decorated with baskets in the form of cornucopia full of fall fruits and vegetables, even cabbages and eggplants. (It is unfortunate that we do not have photographs from the early Thanksgivings. but, until in the 1980s, amateur photographers avoided taking indoor photos.)
But what captured the guests’ attention were the exquisite place cards that another of Bruni’s fellow students Clairève Grandjouan (1929-1982) had drawn. The drawings on Bruni’s place card recalled her reports on the Throne at Amyclae, the Hermes of Olympia who identified himself as a Roman copy (“I am a copy”), and the “Marathon Ephebe”. Apparently, during her report in Olympia, following the theory of her professor Rhys Carpenter, Bruni had argued with passion that Hermes was not an original of the 4th century B.C. Clairève had also added “blood stains” and the caption: “traces of the beaten adversaries” (orme degli avversari battuti). In addition to the scholarly debates about the Hermes of Olympia, the discussion of what the “Marathon Ephebe” held in his hands proved equally controversial among the archaeological community. Clairève had reconstructed the Ephebe’s hands holding an egg on the left, and salt and pepper on the right, alluding to their breakfast exchanges: “pass me the salt.”
Of the dinner itself Bruni does not say much to her sister, except that the turkeys were huge. Dancing followed dinner, with the Caskeys opening the dance floor, but most of the students did not follow until the “older crowd” had left the party. It was only then that the younger gaggle including Bruni, George Bass, and Lloyd Cotsen (who was in Athens with his wife JoAnne) took up dancing until one in the morning. (Bruni also told me that “the two people who went out of their way to make me feel welcome were Lloyd Cotsen and his wife JoAnne.” Lloyd, an architect and a businessman, would later become a trustee and generous benefactor of the American School.)
Uncle Bert’s Last Thanksgiving
In November 1958, an aged Bert Hodge Hill was describing his Thanksgiving at the School to Carl and Elizabeth Blegen who were in America. Hill’s wife Ida had already passed away in 1954.
“For the rest I have kept to the house except last evening when I went to the School’s Thanksgiving party. 69 sat down at table, Betty [Caskey] said. Lucy [Talcott] was absent, and [the Homer] Davises and others. Kevin Andrews. It was a pleasure to see him scarcely changed by the years – and John and Sue Young came after the dinner, having first had Thanksgiving with their daughter. Jack [Caskey] made his usual speech and [Aristides] Kyriakides his (read from notes and not quite up to his usual form). Jack and Gorham [Phillips Stevens] and Gene [Vanderpool] and Henry [Immerwahr] and I don’t know who else carved turkeys. Grace was said by a cleric I don’t think I have met. I didn’t go the rounds in the saloni, but sat in a polythrona (armchair) mostly. However such so the party rather did me in, with bad dysphoria after it combined with the pain in the chest (high, both back and front) that you get when your stomach goes sour after a too hearty meal. As the thing lasted from about 11.30 until 6 the night was the worst I have had since Corinth Oct. 10 and 11. But I have slept a lot today and have had no dysphoria. So I haven’t called Lorandos [the School’s doctor] and expect to sleep well tonight. I cut the Propeller [Club] lunch and the Thanksgiving show at Ath[ens] College at 3.45–substituting breakfast combined with lunch in bed for the former and sleep for the latter.” Sadly, Hill died the next day.
In the Shadow of an Assassination
On Thanksgiving Day (November 28) 1963, the then Director of the American School, Henry S. Robinson, departed from the usual script in his speech to the guests.
“The emotions which are generally experienced and thankfully expressed on this particular American Holiday are today gravely diminished by the incredible tragedy which has so recently struck our nation. We cannot yet explain and can surely never comprehend the dreadful act of last Friday. We can only hope and pray that the criminal was unbalanced and was acting independently; that no organized group –political or social- was involved in so heinous a crime. Let us pray, too, that the peaceful ends for which Mr. Kennedy had striven may yet be achieved through the actions of other leaders of our own and foreign lands. May I ask you all to rise for a moment to pay silent homage to our late President.”
Henry S. Robinson, ca. 1960. Photo by Patricia Lawrence.
After a minute of silence, Robinson continued: “It has long been the custom for the Director to say a few words on this day. To express his thankfulness that the long trial of the fall trips is at an end; that the students have remained in good spirits (or, in years when that cannot honestly be said, that they have remained at least in good health); that the winter has been late in coming (or, in other years, that the bracing November weather has arrived early to drive away the humours of an Indian summer); that our travels have been marred by a minimum of inclement weather (or, in other years, that the constant rains did so little to dampen the enthusiasm of the group); that our physical plant is in good operating condition (or, as last year, that our cooks were able to prepare the Thanksgiving dinner in spite of six inches of water over the kitchen floor). In short, whatever the course of the School year may have been to date, it is expected that I –and you- will be duly thankful. I am; I hope that you are.”