Thanksgiving in Rome is always tricky because it is not an Italian National Holiday. This presents three problems when you are an American in Rome and want to celebrate the holiday:
- No one gets the day off to brine and baste a turkey.
- No one gets the day off to eat said turkey.
- Few Italians actually understand what Thanksgiving is all about.
Let’s start with the latter first. Italians frequently ask me about the origins of Turkey Day. To which I reply: “It is a day that commemorates the harvest feast of the Pilgrims in the early days of America. After enduring much hardship, the European immigrants learned from the Native Americans how to cultivate the land and hunt for their own food. The feast was celebrated in gratitude to the Native Americans.”
After this response, I usually see a furrowed brow and a quizzical face in front of me. So I add: “After we were tired of being thankful to those same Indians, we slaughtered them, stole their women and their land.”
“Yes!” The Italian in front of me usually exclaims. “This is what I was wondering about.”
The mystery is further solved when I explain what happened in the time lapse between being friends and being enemies, and then the conversation moves towards the turkey. “Why the tooorr-kay?” the Italian asks.
“Because the Pilgrims were dying of hunger. Why else would you eat a bird so laborious in its preparation and so unrewarding in flavor?” I quip.
This leads us back to the other two problems about celebrating Thanksgiving in Italy, which have to do with the turkey. I’m not a big fan of turkey. Despite that and because of tradition, on my first few Roman Thanksgivings, I ordered my turkey a week in advance and was obligated to take on a minimum of 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) of fowl. That was a whole lot of bird for me and my baby daddy. When my kids starting eating solids, it was still too much, but I felt compelled to do something traditional for them. I would wake early to prepare my turkey, and hours later I would “enjoy” the fruits (or fowl) of my labors. But not that much.
In recent years though, I have become the master of Turkey Day improvisation, a kind of American meets Italian Thanksgiving. I have created variations on the traditional theme of turkey. I have been thankful for porchetta as a main dish and have served all my traditional sides (like mashed potatoes, cranberries, brussels sprouts) and several delicious desserts (Hazelnut pie instead of traditional pecan, pumpkin cheesecake and panna cotta).
One year I even pulled off a porcini inspired menu that had very little to do with turkey, but yet everyone was thankful for the meal.
This year… my kids go to American school, and we are surrounded by lovely International and Italian families who know and celebrate Thanksgiving. We have been invited to bring ourselves and a dish to a proper Thanksgiving feast. Our gracious organizer stated that she would order a 7 kilo turkey and requested that we all bring a side or dessert. The only thing that will be missing will be the Macy’s Parade.
This year will not be tricky. This year we will feast on traditional turkey while enjoying the best tradition Thanksgiving has to offer: gathering around a table in friendship and giving thanks for both the food and the company. P.S. I’ll probably bring some porchetta.