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Tales from Thanksgivings on four continents, not including North America.
Eric J. Lyman in Rome:
When I inquired at various butcher shops in Rome looking for a turkey for my first Italian Thanksgiving, everyone had the same advice: “Buy a female.” They should have also warned me to get a dead one.
I think I went to half a dozen Rome shops before I found one where they said they could get me a turkey by Thursday. “Tanksgibing Americano,” Franco, the Testaccio butcher, said with a knowing smile. I told him a wanted an 8-kilo bird (17.6-pound), a female (“Yes, of course, you are smart boy,” he replied). I was to come back on Wednesday morning.
When I returned, the butcher was in good spirits, taking me by the forearm around the side of his stall to his minivan parked nearby. He threw the door open to reveal four live turkeys clucking around in the back. He picked up each one, proved they were all females, then stood back to let me decide which one I wanted. “You get a feeling about one,” he said when I asked what I should base my decision on.
I had no feeling about any of them, though I did notice one seemed a little less beat up than the others. Was she younger? Better able to defend herself? Did she just mind her own business? Was she undesired by the males? Were these good or bad signs?
I picked the least beat up one, who, appallingly, seemed to make eye contact with me just as I pointed her out, as if to say “I’ve stayed out of trouble my whole life, and this is the thanks I get?”
I explained that I was too busy to butcher the poor bird myself, and that there was no way for me to bring a live turkey home on the bus. The real reason, of course, was that I didn’t know how to kill and clean a turkey. I came back in the afternoon and she was ready — not quite Butterball clean but close enough. The head and feet were still there; a few stubborn feathers still clung to her body.
I don’t know if it’s because she was so fresh, or because the old Grand Union supermarket near my parents’ house back in Florida only sold male turkeys, or because of something else. But the taste was great: moist, flavorful. Now whenever I’m in Rome this time of year I do the same thing — almost. I go back to Franco, ask for a female, and then tell him I want the bird cleaned and ready for dressing. “Of course,” he tells me each time. “You are a smart boy.”
Andrew Meldrum on Zimbabwe:
Thanksgiving in Zimbabwe is a challenge.
In November the weather is hot and rainy. Turkeys are hard to find and cranberries are unheard of.
But while living in Zimbabwe for 23 years I found many different ways to mark my favorite holiday. A few times my wife and I were invited by people from the U.S. Embassy to enjoy the traditional meal with fellow Americans. They got all the necessary provisions sent in by diplomatic pouch.
Once we had a Thanksgiving meal at a nice Harare hotel, but the turkey and stuffing were accompanied by a sweet jam and the whole meal felt like a British Christmas repast.
My favorite Thanksgiving meals were at our own home with our Zimbabwean friends. I think the best meal was not with a turkey, but with a churkey. That was the Zimbabwean term for the cross between a chicken and a turkey. Actually the correct term is capon, a castrated rooster that grows big and fat. Capon or churkey, the bird makes a splendid meal — excellent meat, and much more moist that an ordinary turkey.
We learned where to get canned cranberry sauce in South Africa which my wife mixed with orange bits and pecans to make her special family relish.
A wide variety of pumpkins are abundant in Zimbabwe and we discovered a specific type, that was white on the outside, flat and had deep orange flesh that made a good pumpkin pie.
Another challenge is that Thanksgiving Thursday is not a holiday in Zimbabwe. And it is hard to make a full T-day meal after returning from a day at work. However, Thanksgiving was never meant to be easy. My favorite Thanksgiving was when I was working at home. I could prepare the churkey and stuff it, roast it and make a good gravy. The cranberry relish and pumpkin pie were made in advance. In those days Zimbabwe produced a cornucopia of fresh vegetables and fruits. We got some South African wine. It was a feast.
It is also a pleasure to share the history of Thanksgiving with people who have never heard the story. It prompted discussions about the treatment of native Americans and how they live in the U.S. today.
Everybody understood and appreciated the sentiment that we all have a great deal to be grateful for and that it is good to get together around a great meal and give thanks.
Cameron Abadi in Berlin:
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and though the ones I've celebrated in Germany have been significantly more abstract than the ones I grew up with in the United States, I think they've been my favorite of all. Now, there are definitely bigger hassles involved: Unless you've ordered ahead, it's unlikely you'll find a turkey; sweet potatoes and cranberries are likewise tough to find; football isn't on television. And since the actual day is likely a normal working Thursday, there's a good chance you won't be able to gather a quorum of people on the actual day, even if someone volunteers to take the day off to cook all the food.
I don't mean to suggest that being forced into an improvised Thanksgiving is in itself edifying. But contemplating eating roasted chicken, rather than turkey, on Saturday, rather than Thursday, night, has always forced a re-consideration of Thanksgiving First Principles: Where do you draw the line? What can't you compromise on and still call it Thanksgiving? And I've always been grateful for that essentially personal thought process.
So, what are my Thanksgiving First Principles? First: I have to be eating together with people I really care about. No BS there. Second: some variation of my mom's stuffing has to be on the table. And so every year I arrange to sit around with a few good friends. And everyone year I struggle to follow the rice-based stuffing recipe liberally spiced with dill and cumin, the one that doesn't even quite taste like it belongs at a traditional Thanksgiving, the one that my
mother herself invented sometime after arriving in the United States from Iran as an adult.
And I'll admit that I'm always rather surprised by that. That it's not the turkey, or the mashed potatoes, or any of the other staples, that are irreplaceable, but one of the things that seems like it belongs least. That the most inviolable parts of the ritual — the ones you're most thankful for — are the most personal.
C.M. Sennott on Jerusalem:
On Thanksgiving of the year 2000, I was Jerusalem bureau chief for the Boston Globe and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was raging in the West Bank and Gaza. It was a wild and busy time and my wife, Julie, was eight months pregnant with our son Gabriel. We had literally forgotten that it was Thanksgiving.
I ran out to the Israeli butcher in the German Colony, where many American expats live. The kosher butcher informed me that whole turkeys were very available but had to have been ordered at least a week in advance. So then I walked down through the Damascus Gate into the Old City desperately searching for a turkey to feed my wife and our sons — we had two at that point and one who she was carrying and, of course, eating for.
My wife was mostly vegetarian before she began having kids, but when she was pregnant she had intense cravings for meat. Ravenous cravings. And she was having one of those cravings. So there was no way I could come home without a bird.
The Palestinian halal butcher offered a whole chicken or perhaps sliced turkey, but there was no whole turkey. Stuffing and cranberry? Forget about it. That wasn't happening.
I ended up bringing home a chicken and some thickly sliced turkey to try to simulate the feast, like any desperate native New Englander in a foreign land. At the end of the day, as I remember it, Julie was happy with the chicken. And the two boys were content in their high chairs to be pulling apart the slices of turkey and shoving them in their mouths. And, as I remember it, we had a lot to be thankful for even amid the swirl of violence and hatred that was then erupting around us.
William Dowell in Geneva:
The average American living in Geneva treats Thanksgiving as a patriotic affair, a way to emphasize that you are still American by foisting the largest turkey they can find on a group slightly confused Continental friends, stuffing it with, well, stuffing, and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to track down a source of cranberries. Most of the Europeans I know are mildly amused at the concept of gorging oneself as an expression of thanks, especially since the anxiety-producing question of the hour is the price and size of the turkey.
The average Swiss or French turkey weighs anywhere from 7 lbs to 12 lbs. But most expats feel that to be truly American, a turkey should weigh more than 20 lbs. The idea is to serve everyone around the table from the same cooked bird. Prestige is an important part of giving thanks. The cost isn’t cheap either. Turkeys in this area run at up to $8 or more per pound. A friend recently drove over night to the U.S. Air Force Base at Ramstein in Germany in order to buy a genuine American bird at $1 per pound. At the going price, the truly thankful ones around here are the Swiss turkeys, who narrowly escape execution during this curious celebration by watching their weight and pricing themselves out of the market. All they have to worry about is Christmas, when even some Europeans zero in on turkeys as the bird of choice.
Barbara E. Martinez on Brussels:
Our first year living in Belgium, we decided to pull out all the stops on Thanksgiving. We invited a group of about 15 American and European friends. We bought pounds of potatoes and even canned pumpkin — in that city of expats, the local supermarket had a handy "USA" section with an odd mixture of "American" foods including marshmallow fluff and microwave popcorn.
But for the turkey, we went local. I stopped by the butcher shop on the shopping street near our apartment about a week before Thanksgiving and asked if he could procure a turkey for pickup the following Thursday. I made sure to ask for "les abats," which an American friend had told me meant giblets in French. Sure, he said. Would I like it stuffed?
That was a question I had not considered. But I did have to work half a day on Thanksgiving, so it didn't sound like a bad idea to have the butcher take care of the stuffing. "What do you stuff it with?"
"Veal, sausage, pistachios, truffles, cognac."
How could that be bad? I went for the stuffing.
When I picked up the turkey a week later it was neatly wrapped and bagged. The butcher instructed me to cut a stick of butter into pieces and placed them around the turkey and roast it for four hours, basting with the butter and drippings every hour. It was only when I got home and unwrapped the turkey that I realized how heavy it was. And floppy. In fact, it didn't have any bones.
And thus I learned that the traditional Belgian Christmas turkey is de-boned and stuffed, mostly with meat. You slice right through it and serve each guest a cross-section of turkey and stuffing. It's a portrait of master butchery. And it's quite delicious, if the richest Thanksgiving dinner I've ever eaten. Our guests took home pounds of leftovers.
The gravy, however, was something to really give thanks for. That heavy, boneless turkey sat on the bottom of the roasting pan and left behind all sorts of fatty, crusty, meaty bits. And those bits were roasted in real butter. With some stock and roux, it became the best gravy I've ever tasted — until we made it again the next year, at Christmas.