Yesterday we had a wonderful “Thanksgiving Day” here in Italy, only a couple of days late as compared to all of our family and friends back home. With 10 people in our apartment, we pulled out the kitchen table to the dining room and every chair in the house was put to use. What a fun time it was! Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, along with Fourth of July, and is uniquely American. A holiday that is all about getting together with family and friends, enjoying the company and focusing on the good things that we have in life. The reminder to be thankful that goes bone deep for our culture, if only for a day.
Not only was the day a great time, the days and weeks leading up to Thanksgiving were a lot of fun too. Putting on Thanksgiving in Italy is a challenge. It takes a lot of advance planning and quite a bit of last minute improvisation. Finding all of the ingredients, as well as making a lot more of the food from scratch, takes advance legwork but the result of a successful day make it so well worth it. And because it’s so rare, and took so much effort, we value it a lot more than if we ran down to the store to pick everything up the day before.
Here’s a little bit of the challenges and improvisation that we deal with here…
Turkey – You can’t just run to the grocery store and buy a frozen turkey. At most you’ll find a turkey breast in the butcher’s case. Last year on our first Thanksgiving quest we learned that the only way to get a whole turkey was to order it from the local macelleria (butcher shop). This year we ordered the Turkey a couple of weeks in advance and picked it up Friday, freshly butchered for us (although a few pin feathers had to be removed – ever done that before?). The smallest one they could get was 6.5kg – about 14.3lbs. We couldn’t have fit a bigger one in our small oven!
Cranberries – Cranberry sauce made from fresh berries is an important part of Thanksgiving dinner, a must have for me. Last year we discovered that cranberries don’t exist in Italy – there isn’t even an Italian word for them! Try describing a cranberry to someone who has never even seen or tasted one. Good luck with that. We’ve had them “imported” by visitors in November the last two years. We lucked out in the timing and the fact that we remembered to ask them to bring them for us in advance. So fresh cranberry sauce and cranberry relish was available this day.
Stuffing – A basic staple, this is one of the easier things to find ingredients for. A couple of twists were thrown in though… I put “sage” on the grocery list for the stuffing recipe I use and my husband bought fresh sage. Great, except the recipe called for dried sage. An internet search later, and I had a stuffing recipe with fresh sage and parsley. A quick run to the store for the parsley, and I was in business. (Thank goodness for the Internet, and that it wasn’t a holiday in Italy – the store was open!) As I was making the stuffing I realized the bread cubes, instead of being unseasoned, were flavored with olive oil and salt. OK then, just a bit more Italian flavor. The stuffing came out great, rave reviews especially from my son… I want to use fresh sage every time now!
Mashed Potatoes – Yes, there are lots of potatoes in Italy. But not a lot of sour cream. Our friend Mike was making the potatoes this year and wanted some sour cream for the recipe he was making (not a low calorie feast here!). Here in Italy, not every store has the same things. You might find sour cream in one store out of ten. And that store may not have it in all locations, or all the time. It’s crazy to us Americans! But my husband has found a good, consistent source of sour cream, so he bought some and delivered it to Mike a few days before Thanksgiving. It takes a village to make a Thanksgiving dinner.
Pumpkin Pie – I usually don’t like pumpkin pie but this year I got it in my head that we needed to add this traditional dish. Pumpkin is not a hugely popular food here, you can’t find canned pumpkin in the grocery store nor are fresh pumpkins readily available. I had a coworker who travelled here for work in November bring a few cans of pumpkin puree for me. So pumpkin in hand, I needed to make a pie.
OK – first off, crust. Hmmm, I could make crust from scratch but where to find shortening here? Is there such a thing as a pre-made crust? My husband sleuthed around at several stores, asked moms at school, and discovered a pre-made crust but it wasn’t frozen and didn’t come in pie tins. Our pie tins are in storage in the US, so we had to buy a couple of pans. The closest he could find were torta pans, which are sort of pie shaped, more like a cross between a shallow cake and a pie, and were bigger – 11 inches in diameter vs. the normal 9 inches.
Second, the pie filling itself. The recipe on the can said evaporated milk. Yeah, that was going to be impossible. So searching on the internet I found you could substitute regular milk with no problems. I was set. I started to make the pies Friday night. Cinnamon, check. Nutmeg, check. Ginger… no ginger. Hmmm, well I had Allspice. I figured a teaspoon of that wouldn’t hurt. So by the time I was done I had two huge pumpkin pies (it took the filling recipe for three pies to fill these babies) that didn’t really follow a recipe. After about 1.5 hours of baking (two very large pies in a very small oven = longer time), our house was filled with the delicious smell of pumpkin pies.
For whipped cream, we had to buy heavy cream and actually whip it ourselves. That was an experience too! I must admit, they turned out very tasty. Much better than a storebought pie, I think I actually like pumpkin pie now. And it only took one giant pie to feed our 10 people, so now I have to figure out what to do with this second giant pie… to work I think! My Italians colleagues could use exposure to this American treat.
In addition to all of that food, we had a yummy spinach casserole, brownies and blondies, salsa and guacamole, hummus and pita… all brought by our guests. And the perfect complement was the Italian prosecco (like champagne) and red wine we enjoyed. I think that tradition of Italian beverages must go home with us.
Our second and last Thanksgiving in Italy was a success. It was a truly authentic, American feast with great friends. The only thing missing was the long weekend….
Where ever you are in the world, however you celebrate being thankful, I wish you the same feeling of gratitude and togetherness that Thanksgiving brings to me. Happy Thanksgiving from Italy.