This Thanksgiving, I bring my annual tradition of posting one of my earliest entries on celebrating this very American tradition as an expat...Today, or more likely, over the weekend, people are breaking bread (well, actually stuffing) with just their own families this year as 2020 has thrown a wrench into normal social plans. So, wherever you are, enjoy your own Festa di Ringraziamento!
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. And it's something that we American 'expats' celebrate pretty much the world over in our adopted countries. In much the same way that Italy (and Europe, for that matter) have made Halloween their own, in industrious Milan, Geneva, or London, store owners start stocking up when Thanksgiving comes round the corner. It's become so popular, you now need to order the bird well in advance. Those same stores stock their shelves with many items that ordinary Italians would probably have fed to their pigs if they had them.
Although Italians eat lots of turkey, they seriously don't eat - much less prepare - the 12-15kg version – whole. But right around the last week of November, you can ask your butcher to purchase - and then hold onto - the entire bird. And this is terrific. Aside from providing those very butchers and cashiers a bit of holiday entertainment, you (along with your bird) become the center of attention. One year, they were so confused by our request, a friend ended up with an 11kg bird for the price of one kilo: €3.95. Even after questioning the amount, they insisted the price was right...
Let's just say, given the cost of things in Italy, we had lots to be thankful for that year!
Surprisingly, Thanksgiving in Italy brings one lots closer to the original Thanksgiving feast. First, there's the shipping of all the canned foodstuffs, probably not unlike the stuff our forefathers brought in huge wooden crates to and from the New World. Americans start filling up empty suitcases with goodies like cans of pumpkin and cranberry, Stovetop stuffing mix, and packs of Jiffy cornbread (because polenta just doesn't do the trick).
But with a nod to those original pilgrims, I must say, it's the turkey that is the star of the show. While we don't have to quite break its neck and clean out its gizzards (although, if you forget to request it, you might just end up with the whole thing, head and all), we all get a bit tripped up by something never quite seen in an American home – all those feathers. Or, feather tips, rather.
In the USA, when you pick up a turkey, you generally wind up with something very remotely resembling the animal from whence it came. In Italy, you're reminded that this was, in actual fact, a bird – feathers and all. And so, you learn how, exactly, one rids oneself (or one's turkey) of his down without actually peeling the whole skin off, feather tips and all. I can just imagine those early pilgrims trying to figure this one out: with Native Americans furious that their guests were trying to trim away the feathers along with the tasty (and fatty) skin. No wonder so many died of hunger. To get it right and ignoring old traditions of plucking, you find your best gas-powered flame thrower and start torching the turkey feathers away.
Unfortunately, no matter how long you painstakingly go about de-feathering, there are always a few tough ones left over – kind of like those grey hairs you try so hard to dye. And, while I must say, this process does not make me nostalgic for the huge butterball turkeys with a self-popping thermometer inside, it does add a bit to your preparation time.
Once your table is set for a feast, there's another key issue to handle in serving your feast to your Italian paesani. And that is, contrary to popular belief, Italians do not actually feast. That's especially the case given a non-Catholic holiday, and in the evening in particular. So, your fully expected annual pigging out fête sort of falls a bit flat; with each Italian guest carefully choosing their primo (mashed potatoes & stuffing), secondo (turkey), and contorno (veggies) while questioning why one must eat 'family style' and not one dish at a time. They barely fill their plates and skip second helpings. Stuffing is seen as an alien life form and desserts, well, whoever heard of a dessert made from a vegetable?
So, while the rest of us heap up our plates again and again, and then start loosening our belt buckles, well, judging by our girths, we can see why Thanksgiving is a wholly American phenomenon.