Thanksgiving wasn’t always my favorite holiday. I never liked any of the traditional foods served on Thanksgiving, like stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes. What does that leave – turkey? And our Thanksgivings always involved an arduous eight-hour journey across the entire state of Illinois (where there was inevitably traffic), the entire state of Iowa (where there was inevitably a snowstorm), until we crossed into Nebraska late at night, exhausted and stiff. Then there was the huge family. I was a shy kid and since we spent Thanksgiving at a place called Boys’ Town, there were always tons of people, some of which were new faces every year. It made for a very lively meal, but it didn’t always feel like the intimate family affair that makes Thanksgiving so special.
Anyways, I’ve come to appreciate it much more in the years since I’ve had to spend Thanksgiving abroad. No matter where you go, you can usually find someone who celebrates Christmas, or the New Year on January 1, and even Halloween is gaining popularity in places where Halloween was never celebrated before. But Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and though most Spaniards know it from movies, no one really understands all that Thanksgiving entails.
It’s one of the hardest holidays for expats to spend abroad, especially given that most of the fixings – like cranberries, pecans, sugar pumpkins, thin green beans, even turkey – are almost impossible to find here. But that doesn’t stop most Americans from celebrating anyway, and it definitely wasn’t going to stop me.
When I hosted my very first Thanksgiving dinner abroad in 2005, I didn’t make a whole turkey, but managed to put together a pretty decent meal on short notice. This year, I planned ahead. I wanted to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for Isaac’s family. I ordered a fresh turkey from the market, stockpiled butternut squashes, sweet potatoes, and apples, and had finally come to terms with the fact that there would be no cranberries when my new friend Amy showed up from a recent trip to the States with a bag of Ocean Spray fresh cranberries, and I almost cried with joy. I may have proposed to her. And her husband. And then I made fresh cranberry pie.
On Thursday morning I got up early to head to the market and pick up my 15-pound turkey, freshly defeathered. I went to the spice stand to get juniper berries and peppercorns, and picked up bushels of apples from my customary fruit stand. The rest came from Isaac’s parents’ garden.
On Friday, I spent the afternoon baking pies. Since I couldn’t decide which flavor to make, I just made them all – pumpkin pie (actually butternut squash and sweet potato pie), apple pie, cranberry tart, and even a chocolate-chestnut cake, since I wanted to use up the rest of the chestnuts Isaac’s sister had brought us from Pablo’s father’s house.
On Saturday morning, we packed everything (and I mean everything) into the car and made the 1.5-hour drive to Isaac’s parents’ farm. Though the original house is old, they’ve recently remodeled the kitchen and had a brand new oven (with temperatures!) waiting to be used, and -more importantly on this occasion- a dishwasher.
All morning I cut, roasted, boiled, peeled, mixed, pureed, sliced, sauteed, and cooked away, until we sat down a few hours later to a beautifully roasted turkey, au gratin potatoes (I hate mashed potatoes and besides, Galicians make potato puree so it isn’t a very novel food), pureéd butternut squash (since Isaac wouldn’t let me make a casserole with marshmallows), wild rice with mushrooms, bacon, and turnip greens, a salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, and apples, cranberry sauce with orange, gravy, and applesauce.
As is Thanksgiving tradition, we stuffed ourselves silly. The turkey was incredibly juicy and tender, and, though dubious at first, the Spaniards loved the combination of cranberry sauce on turkey. The tiny jar of jam I’d used to make the sauce was quickly gone and I regretted not having another on hand for leftovers. Americans definitely have their odd traditions, but there are some things we do right!
When we thought we couldn’t eat any more, we took a short break as we chatted and finished off the rest of the wine. And then we made coffee and I brought out the pies.
I swear I could not have asked for these pies to turn out better than they did. I practically shed tears of joy when I tasted the pumpkin pie, which, actually being a butternut squash/sweet potato pie, I wasn’t sure would truly taste like pumpkin. I promise you, it was like tasting America itself, or childhood, or whatever it is that pumpkin pie makes you think of. It was familiar, and comforting, and most importantly – absolutely delicious.
Surprisingly, the cranberry pie was the most popular. Xandre said it tasted like marzipan, which, though I’m not particularly a fan of marzipan, I assumed was a good thing. I made sure to have at least one slice of each, and even when my pants warned me that one more piece would surely be overload, I gazed longingly at the pumpkin pie that tasted like Christmas morning. Then I wrapped it up and took it home and ate the rest sitting on the couch. Delicious.
Later, I sat in the warmth of the kitchen with the oven still cooling down, feeling happy and sleepy with a full stomach and quite a bit of cava, and generally very pleased with myself. Sure, it wasn’t the most traditional Thanksgiving, and I was thousands of miles away from my family, but I had another family who were willing to be part of this odd American celebration, and let me use their brand-new stove, and (against their better judgment) try the crazy combination of cranberry and turkey, and put up with me talking about how the next step was buying our live Christmas tree and putting up lights and singing Christmas carols. For that, I am thankful.
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Note: In case you’re curious, which you’re probably not, here’s what we did with the leftovers: the first day we made delicious sandwiches with turkey, lettuce, swiss cheese, raspberry jam, and Dijon mustard. Then we made Thanksgiving salads with leftover leaf lettuce, shredded turkey, dried cranberries, chopped walnuts, and shredded carrot, but you could add whatever else you’ve got waiting to be used up in the fridge. The third day we made a turkey risotto, and the fourth day I made a turkey stock/soup with the rest of the carcass and meat (and even Cleo got some leftovers), but if I was smarter I would have done it the other way around and used the stock to flavor the risotto instead of chicken broth. Oh well, next time. That is, if they ever let me cook a turkey again!