An Italian Thanksgiving

I’ve already written a fair amount about my least favorite American holiday. So it’s only fair that I dedicate as much blog space to my favorite one: Thanksgiving.

What’s there not to love? The whole holiday is about food (and that whole being thankful thing). I love it all: the Brussel sprouts, the green beans, the various pies, mashed potatoes, the stuffing (oh, the stuffing), and of course, the turkey.

Thoughts of Thanksgiving are always associated with food and family. The special recipes that are passed down through the generations, everyone’s special place at the table, and the kitschy keepsakes that decorate the table are stuff of family lore.

Now that I’m a mom myself, I can’t wait until P has enough hand-eye coordination to help me in the kitchen. But even those Thanksgivings that can’t be spent with family are memorable.

One of the most unforgettable Thanksgivings I ever spent was during my study abroad year in Venice. Italians are fascinated with all things American (although the details are a bit blurry…every Fourth of July my father-in-law asks if we’re eating turkey). So I figured that it would be really cool for my Italian roommates to experience a completely American holiday.

At the time, I was living in a house with four other Italians—all of them male. Not one spoke English, since our study abroad program was adamant that we live with locals to really experience the language and culture. It was, to say the least, fun.

I prepped them in advance, telling them that we’d be having a big American-style meal with turkey and all. Like in the movies, they asked? Oh yes. Just like the movies.

When I thought up this grandiose idea, this Italian Thanksgiving, I didn’t realize just how easy Americans have it: frozen Butterballs in every grocery store, canned pumpkin, already prepared pie crusts, etc. Once I actually started looking for all the ingredients, I saw that it was going to be a bit more of a challenge than I anticipated.

At a store that catered to ex-pats, I found some cranberry sauce (I believe it was the jelly kind, the one that leaves the form of the can imprinted on the sauce) and a turkey baster. At home, my roomies immediately dubbed the baster my “instrument of pleasure.” Really, what did you expect with four guys in their 20s who’d never seen a turkey baster before?

At the grocery store, I soon found out that Italians don’t eat whole turkeys. Nor do they have canned pumpkin. (To be honest, I had balked at paying a gazillion lire for the canned turkey in the ex-pat store.)

I bought a whole pumpkin and some cookies that most resembled graham crackers. Thankfully, all the sides were easy enough to find—and I headed home with bagfuls of potatoes and green beans. The turkey situation was solved by stammering an order to a grumpy butcher near our apartment. He asked me three times if I wanted a whole turkey (un tacchino intero signorina? E’ sicura?) before finally shrugging and telling me it would be ready Thursday morning.

I received my fair share of stares as I lugged home a whole turkey up and down the bridges in Venice.

I believe my roomies thought I was insane as I started whipping the meal together. What 19 year-old makes an entire Thanksgiving meal, from scratch (as in really from scratch) no less? Apparently, a very homesick one.

But once I started cooking, the rhythm of it took me back home to California. I rubbed the bird inside and out with olive oil and seasoned it, stuffed it with a mixture of old bread and veggies, and basted it to death. I called my parents at home to figure out how long I had to bake the thing—all this was done before Google was invented. I roasted the pumpkin, scooped out the pulp, made a makeshift crumb, and put together a pie. I only made two side dishes, justifying the low number by telling myself that Italians had no idea how many side dishes were actually served at Thanksgiving.

There were seven of us at the meal: me, my four roomies, an American friend also studying in Venice, and the cute lifeguard I was seeing at the time. The meal was a resounding success: the Italians loved the American-ness of the whole thing, and the two Americans in the bunch felt a little less homesick. The wine flowed freely, and the evening ended with a rowdy stroll through the streets of Venice.

And the turkey baster? I left it for the roomies. They long ago moved out of our cute apartment in Campo S. Barnaba, but the “instrument of pleasure” has puzzled a long line of Italian students in the past 15 years.

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