“What are you going to do for Thanksgiving?” If it weren’t for the e-cards from family and friends, Thanksgiving could easily pass unnoticed when living abroad. Everyone has heard of the holiday. The colorful images of robust turkeys, friendly native people and buckle-shoed Pilgrims have even lent a certain popularity to what may be America’s most characteristic celebration.
Children love the turkey. When teaching English in Italy, the holiday presented an excellent opportunity for cultural exchange. Nothing beat a hand turkey art project with the little ones. “How clever,” said the parents. A downloadable coloring book featured the bird performing a host of action verbs to escape the dinner table. “Run, turkey, run! Jump, turkey, jump! Swim, turkey, swim!”
THANKSGIVING IN ITALY
It isn’t the lively caricatures that capture the hearts of the Italian people, but the plump, golden turkey as the centerpiece of familial conviviality. Thanksgiving represents the epitome of food and family, an irresistible image for a country that intrinsically identifies one with the other. So, eating a breaded turkey cutlet, pan fried to perfection in the local, extra-virgin olive oil with a side of escarole sautéed in garlic and the aforementioned oil along with a few slices of rustic bread, doesn’t constitute Thanksgiving, even if washed down by a glass of the region’s full-bodied wine when alone in one’s apartment.
The butchers in the polleria (poultry shop) on the corner weren’t aware of our Thanksgiving. When I asked for a turkey cutlet, they told me that there weren’t any left. “But it’s Thanksgiving,” I said. He went to the back, cut and bread another one. “Buona festa!” Happy Holiday, he called after me as I left.
THANKSGIVING AT THE ANGLO-ITALIAN CLUB
Although I enjoyed that cutlet on the fourth Thursday of November, I celebrated the holiday on the following evening at the local Anglo-Italian Club where I had been invited to present an American Thanksgiving. A popular topic, there was a large turnout. I had prepared a power point presentation from the colonial period through the present, deepening my own familiarity with the holiday’s history and its visual representations over the course of time, before and after football.
The Italians focus on the meal, the abundance, the family. Turkey, corn, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin, our Thanksgiving staples, New World foods that have enriched the world’s palate. The Wampanoag Indians certainly didn’t have the choice of jellied cranberries or even potatoes. Pumpkin, yes, but not pumpkin pie. Turkeys were considerably thinner, but so were the people.
The meal has developed, expanded, been adjusted according to our collective and individual tastes. Turkeys roasted in the oven, cooked in paper bags, on the grill, in a deep fryer; sweet potatoes with maple syrup or brown sugar, baked with marshmallows, mashed; corn pudding, corn bread, spoon bread, creamed corn, succotash; turkey stuffing and turkey dressing with sausage, apples, walnuts, oysters; pumpkin pie, apple pie, sweet potato pie, pecan pie. The Italians asked questions, jotted down a quick recipe. I told them to call the Butterball hotline if they wanted to know the best way to thaw a turkey. “Americans are so practical,” they said.
We sang Lydia Child’s nineteenth century classic “Over the River and Through the Wood” and laughed at photos of presidential turkey pardons. They were drawn to the happy families around bountiful tables, and identified with Norman Rockwell’s 1945 poignant image of a returning soldier peeling potatoes in the kitchen with his mother. Such a simple action, representative of homecomings throughout world history.
Thanksgiving is a universal holiday, to be shared, relatable to all, even peoples as dissimilar as those found at Plymouth in 1621. Almost four centuries later, we stuff both our turkeys and ourselves, thankful for what we have and hoping for continued prosperity, as described by one of the Pilgrim’s at that first Thanksgiving so many years ago: “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” (from Edward Winslow in Mourt’s Relation, 1620-1621)
I had many wonderful experiences while living in Calabria. Read more about this fascinating Southern Italian region in Calabria: The Other Italy, my nonfiction book that explores daily life, culture, history, the arts, food, society and tourism of Calabria. Available in paperback and electronic formats.
Read other holiday themed blogposts: Away in the Manger in Italy, Images of Calabria at Christmas, Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s, Lent in Italy – Corajisima, A Calabrian Tradition, Curiosities: The Easter Hand and Easter in Calabria, The Processions of Badolato.
Would you like to visit Calabria? Check out the itineraries of my Calabria Tour page.
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