An American holiday abroad

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November 19, 2012 by JL Walker

It’s the time of year when so many sit-coms are airing their special Thanksgiving show, with your favorite characters attempting to cook a big meal, family members fighting and then making up, and general holiday craziness ensuing. My favorite example has to be the classic ‘90s Friends: it’s hard to top Monica dancing with a turkey in giant novelty sunglasses on her head. The tradition is a mainstay for American pop culture and one that has been celebrated since before the United States became a country.

Christmas window display

But imagine living in a country where the vast majority of the population have only experienced Thanksgiving through their TV screen. Yes, they too have seen Monica wearing a giant turkey, but they’ve never felt what it’s like to taste Grandma’s mushroom stuffing after an 11-hour road trip, and they’ve never seen the joy on the faces of your extended family gathered around a turkey-laden table, gatherings which really only happen once or twice a year. How can the TV pop culture version of the holiday be translated into something real?

Flashforward from the ‘90s with Friends and Grandma’s stuffing to the early ‘00s, after a flight across the ocean. The little girl with her nose pressed against the car window looking for Grandma’s house has transformed into a young woman setting out on her own and facing her first Thanksgiving celebrations as an adult.

The first big Thanksgiving dinner I organized in Milan was the most memorable, probably because, well, you always remember your first time. I decided to serve a boneless turkey to a group of Italian friends. Think of all the iconic Thanksgiving images in your repertoire (I’m looking at you Norman Rockwell) but take out the nice leg bones jutting up, no wings akimbo. The saggy bird was filled with tradition stuffing, but making that stuffing was complicated. It required several phone calls to Mom, Grandma and Aunt Molly to get ingredient and technique advice on the family recipe. Friends brought various parts of the meal (including excellent Italian vino) and I even enlisted the amazing cooking skills of a close friend’s mom to make the glorious, but deflated, turkey.

Several other Novembers have come and gone since then, each year special in its own way. And, after hearing Grandma chuckling about the boneless bird that year, all subsequent turkeys kept their bones intact as they went into the oven. The constant is that I have always been surrounded by great friends and smiling faces gathered around the table.

It’s funny to celebrate a holiday that’s been such a big part of my culture in a country where it’s a foreign concept. It forces you look at the tradition differently, make new connections and new comparisons. You’re forced to analyze and question something that has always been matter-of-fact. So, in addition to my role of dinner organizer, I have acted as an educator and expert of all things Thanksgiving. It’s been my job as an American to fill in the blanks left by pop culture surrounding the holiday.

One way of describing Thanksgiving to friends in Milan is to focus on the importance of food. American food is not well-renowned over here (the most famous foods from the US are probably hamburgers and doughnuts). But Americans have a very rich and varied history of Thanksgiving cookery. Depending on geographical region and family traditions, stuffing recipes, other side dishes and desserts will be different. Italians, in a country with a wealth of regional cuisine (and a lot of rules!), are very familiar with this kind of culinary variety. Not to mention the various holidays throughout the year when Italian families get together and eat a home-cooked meal.

What’s the hardest part about explaining Thanksgiving in Italy? These are some questions that need to be answered:

Q. Cosa vuol dire ‘ringraziamento’?
A. It’s a time to reflect on whatever it is that you’re thankful for.

Q. Qui non c’è primo, secondo, contorno. Perché?
A. There are no courses served during this meal. Just take a dish and pass it on.

Q. Perché noi lo festeggiamo di sabato?
A. It’s too hard to prepare a full meal when most people are working all day on Thursday, the actual day of Thanksgiving. Saturday celebrations in Italy just give you more time to enjoy the holiday.

Really, the important aspects of traditions like Thanksgiving are coming together, preparing a nice meal and sharing a moment with the people gathered around the table. It’s all about just taking the time to press pause on all other commitments, appointments and obligations so you can focus on spending time with loved ones. Families all over the world take part in holidays like this, under a variety of different names. The name doesn’t matter, taking the time to celebrate does.

Great friends of mine, whose only exposure to this American holiday was Monica’s turkey head and variations on that theme, are curious to learn more about this very American holiday. In doing so, they have become a part of the tradition.

As the ’10 decade goes, Thanksgiving continues to transform itself. If only my apartment could be transformed into a huge space, able to host enough guests to enjoy their vino with the ultimate Turkey Day dish (which happens to use a boneless turkey in the recipe): the turducken.

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