It’s a holiday that doesn’t exist where I am – talk about it to the 10 people I know in town and I get blank eyes, blank faces. I’m used to that by now – four years of expat life and all – but each November I make it happen anyway. I find my guests. I get a chicken. I scour the supermarket for anything remotely resembling cranberries and cream of mushroom soup. Keep your Memorial Days and your Fourth of Julys; your Valentine’s Days and your Religious Whosits; Thanksgiving is the holiday I always celebrate no matter where I am or who I’m with. I need the togetherness. I need the ritual of giving thanks. I need the pure Americana of it all. I need the stuffing.
Thanksgiving is my Graceland, sir.
And so it begins: Expat Thanksgiving Number Four: Thanksgiving in Italy. It’s 1 November and I need to suss out the turkey situation.
Turkeys, sadly, are not the most popular bird outside of the United States. In Japan, they didn’t exist. In Ireland, they’re eaten for Christmas but you won’t find them earlier than Yuletide. I’ve seen minced turkey in packets here so I’m hopeful. First, I go to Coop – supermarket extraordinaire on the very edge of town. I nose around the poultry section and see several whole chickens, plump in their Styrofoam beds. Turkey cutlets, too; my hope springs. Behind the glass case, the butcher is whacking a side of cow with a cleaver; dull thuds.
Do you sell whole turkeys? I ask him.
No, he says. You need to ask a butcher at a butcher shop. They can get you one from the country.
This is, by far, the most promising thing I’ve ever heard when it comes to celebrating Thanksgiving outside of the U.S., but I try to keep myself chill. After all, I’ve been burned by Expat Thanksgiving before. I head to the butcher, the one on Via Svizzera. Behind the case is the same guy who raised an eyebrow at me the other week when I wanted beef brisket to make tacos. He’s smiling today, though, and says, You want a turkey? Well, let me tell you – we can get you a turkey. But you don’t want a boy turkey. You want a lady turkey. The boy turkey will be huge. You’ll feed the whole town.
Yes, yes, His assistant gets in on the act. With the boy turkey, you can be like Joey from Friends. You will put it on your head. She shimmies from side to side. She gobbles.
Well, I say, that’s a TV show. We don’t really –
Or Obama, she continues. He needs a turkey that big. But you? No.
She’s right. Obama, yes. Me, no. I arrange for a lady turkey. My first turkey Thanksgiving in four years. I drive home grinning like a madwoman.
This will be the menu:
- Roast Turkey
- Macaroni and Cheese
- Mashed Potatoes
- Green Bean Casserole
- Maggie’s World Famous Stuffing
- Chocolate Chip Cookies with Milk
It’s my default expat Thanksgiving menu; when you’re the one throwing the dinner, when you’re the one providing the hit of American culture to people who think American food is just hamburgers and hot dogs, you reserve the right to serve just the Thanksgiving foods you like. I don’t like yams. I hate pumpkin pie. Corn can kiss my ass. If I were better at making pies, there’d be a pecan one on the set list but I’m not, so we have chocolate chip cookies and milk, which I’ve described to my friends as the typical American merenda – that is, afternoon snack for kids.
Explain to me again, says Maria. There will be a turkey with stuffing?
Yes, I say. But I do the stuffing separately because it helps the bird cook more evenly.
And it will have the little things on the legs, like in the movies?
Yes. I hadn’t planned on putting sleeves on my turkey drumsticks, but if I can make an Italian woman’s Fairy Tale of American Thanksgiving come true, by golly, there will be sleeves.
And you said there will be potatoes?
Yes. Mashed potatoes. It’s like potato puree but different.
It’s thick. Chunky. Not smooth and fine.
But you put potatoes and milk in it?
And you blend them together?
So it’s potato puree.
Don’t worry, I say. You’ll see.
The other invites go out. My friend, Paolo, from the Pensione Ulisse says he’ll try to make it but might have to deal with some dinner guests. All right, I say, But just think of it! American food! Hooray!
Yes, he says. That will be interesting.
It’s actually no small feat putting together a Thanksgiving dinner all on your own. The expat Thanksgiving is a lonely holiday, especially if you’re the sole American in the bunch – i.e., the only who one gives a crap. But I like to think that I’ve gotten pretty good at this by now. The dry ingredients were all bought weeks ahead of time, as were the table decorations. Things must be bought in small bunches; I’m not the physically strongest of people, after all. But it pays off; by the week of, all I need to do is pick up the bird and the vegetables. The green bean casserole, cookies, and stuffing will be made Wednesday night. The bird will go into the oven at 2:30, leaving me free to clean the house, get dressed, set the table, and then make the mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. It’s a science, you see. Organization is key, even if you’re the only one who will appreciate it.
Wednesday evening, it’s finally time to head to the butcher. The bird is beautiful – fat, succulent, and round. The butcher wiggles the legs at me and shows me the empty cavity. He weighs her; I have a beautiful 7kg bundle of turkey joy, for which I pay 31 euro.
Listen, I tell the butcher. Like a cretin, I parked kind of far away. I don’t know if I can carry her all that way.
He says, It’s no problem! Just drive up to the shop and I’ll come out and put the bird in your car.
So I trot back to my car, tripping along on feet light as air. Then I stop dead in my tracks.
Some assclown has keyed the entire side of my Fiat Panda.
What the fuck? Who the fuck? I spit some nails and kick some air. Are you kidding me right now? Who? What? But the turkey is waiting. I have to get the turkey! So I get into the car – animals!! – and drive to the shop – are you freaking kidding me?!! – and idle in front. Immediately behind me, honks and angry hand waves.
Shut up! I shout at them, in English. My car got keyed and I have a turkey to pick up!
The traffic starts to weave around me; a big truck and motorcycles. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Just in time, the butcher comes out and drops the bird in my backseat.
Arrivederci, he says. In the wolf’s mouth!
And then no one will let me back in the line of traffic. Fuck this country, fuck it! All I wanted was Thanksgiving. All I wanted was a turkey.
But I get back in traffic. And then I get back home. The bird fits in the roasting pan. She fits in the fridge. She’s going to be beautiful, baby.
T-Day up in my kitchen, and the bird has quite a lot of feathers on her. I pluck them out as best I can, but get bored quickly. I think: My guests have never had turkey before. I could leave the feathers in and just tell them that this is how we do it in America. Woe to my stupid conscience. I pluck and I pluck and then I shovel fistfuls of rock salt inside the bird, then two carrots and two stalks of celery. Olive oil gets rubbed into the flesh, along with pepper and rosemary from my garden. I wrap the drumsticks in foil.
Hot damn, she looks good. She goes in the oven at 170 Celsius. And then I take care of everything else.
The house is shiny, I’m wearing clean clothes, and the air is thick with roast turkey awesomeness. It almost smells like home. And then it does – web cam with the fam in Connecticut. The Ibargurens are at the Mandrinos’ for Thanksgiving dinner and they’re all in the kitchen, holding up the dog Tallulah.
I show them my table.
I show them my bird.
There are oohs and aahs. I see my mother lean over to Joy: I can’t believe she did all this!
What was that??? I say.
I said! says my mother, louder. That I can’t believe you did all this on your own!
Well, I say, I did.
Diego, too, is surveying the turkey.
Nice, sis. he says. It’s like watching Helen Keller suddenly get up and break into song and dance.
We’re proud of you, E! they say. You really did it!
But of course I did it. I’ve been doing it for years.
Isn’t that what I’ve been telling everybody?
The bird is so juicy and plump I need to win an Oscar or something for this shizz. Emilia really, really likes the mashed potatoes. Eugenio says The fried onions are good and Maria says The turkey has things on its legs! My uncle misunderstands that the dried cranberries on the table are garnish, so he’s eating them by the handful.
I tell them about the Native Americans. I tell them about the pilgrims. I tell them how in America we go around the table and say things we’re grateful for. They say I should start. So I start. I tell them that I’m grateful for all of them – helping me feel at home in a new place. They say That’s sweet. And then they go back to eating turkey. I watch them eat and I pick at my own plate. I don’t know what I expected when I said that – tears and hugs? Silly. But then, they don’t know me. They don’t know how hard it is for me to feel connected. They don’t know that this turkey dinner is my way of saying thank you for being my friends.