Last Thursday was Thanksgiving. In Italy, I’ve heard it called “the one day when Americans eat better than Italians.” Many Italians (and perhaps non-Americans in general) have heard of Thanksgiving. Maybe they also know it involves a turkey and a lot of eating.
Hosting Thanksgiving in another country means that you have to make a lot of choices. Who to invite? Where to get the ingredients? Who hosts?
Over the years, mostly due to space limitations more than anything, I’ve given the precedence of inviting Americans (+ spouses) to the event. It is a common belief among my friends that it is the Americans who are more in touch with the sentiment behind the occasion, and therefore enjoy it more.
But whose fault is it?
It’s perhaps my fault, not having ever communicated to non-Americans what Thanksgiving means to me, especially as a host.
The origins of Thanksgiving date back to the 1600s, and though birthed as a day to give thanks after the harvest and to God, the modern-day celebration is largely non-denominational other than each individual family’s saying of grace or lack thereof. Many new vegetables and foodstuffs were introduced to the Pilgrims by the Native Americans, including squash, corn and beans, which is why these ingredients are usually present in some form at the meal.
Avoiding a political discussion where we discuss the tragedy that befell the Native Americans in the years to follow, the modern-day Thanksgiving itself is probably the least commercial holiday America has. Which is why, of course, Black Friday was invented the day after – to catch up on a day spent largely with family and friends (and perhaps watching American football on TV) and shopping your hearts out.
Tips for Non-Americans at Thanksgiving
This is probably the most important holiday of the year for your American host.
Thanksgiving is or was probably the least-likely holiday that your American host spent alone. In fact, we want to surround ourselves with friends and family. I love Thanksgiving, the being together, whether with friends or family, and the lack of pressure surrounding gifts that Christmas has, and the non-denominational holiday spirit. The cold ensures close quarters and that we will spend time together – talking, drinking, and of course, eating. I want to spend it with people that I feel can appreciate the evening, or at least my enjoyment of it.
Treat the invitation like you’ve been invited to the host’s house for Christmas dinner.
In the U.S., the most asked question before Thanksgiving is “Whose house are you eating Thanksgiving dinner at?” Through the years I have received invitations to Thanksgiving dinner with people who were not my immediate family, and offered them as well.
You wouldn’t invite just anyone to your house for Christmas (or equivalent) dinner, so it is an honor to be invited to Thanksgiving. Likewise, you wouldn’t refuse an invitation to Christmas dinner last-minute, so you wouldn’t do the same with Thanksgiving. This will also help your host with planning the right amount of ingredients and desserts to have on hand. Of course, abundance is key on Thanksgiving (as are leftovers), but a timely RSVP is appreciated.
Ask your host what you can do.
Especially in the expat kitchen, we might not have all the tools on hand (I had a friend bring a potato masher this year), and it’s almost a guarantee that we can’t find all the ingredients needed. Your host will probably spend all day in the kitchen (gladly!) but ask what you can do, and don’t be upset if you get asked to bring a dish. Actually, expect it!
Contributing something to the meal is part of the original sentiment of Thanksgiving, and it becomes a bit of a “potluck” meal this way. Potluck is an American institution, perhaps as ingrained into our culture as apple pie, and it is the beauty of “everyone contributes” and it makes the meal more special knowing every dish has been carefully prepared by someone different.
Thanksgiving therefore isn’t just the host’s dinner, it’s OUR dinner.
Check if it’s an open invite.
Back to the space issue. Someday I’ll live in a “villa” (single-family house) with space for many Thanksgiving participants. But for now I live in a one-bedroom apartment with squeezes in 10+ on a very good day. Most hosts want to invite the world, and if they do, they will tell you to spread the word. But if they don’t, don’t invite other people or mention it casually without clearing it with your host first. Probably every invite extended was a carefully thought-out invitation.
There may be some “feelings” time involved.
It depends on the group, but sometimes your Thanksgiving group will spend some time talking about what they are thankful for. This is, after all, the main sentiment of the holiday. Don’t be afraid to be thankful for more than just the meal in front of you.
Did I leave something out?? What tips would you give?
Thanksgiving this Year
This year, due to a combination of better suppliers and some international trippers, we had most of the usual suspects on the buffet table, with a few new surprises. I miraculously ordered a 7 kilo (~16lb) turkey on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and my local macellaio responded to my pleading smile and ordered it, even though it meant they had to accept a pack of 3 birds. They even cleaned it well and left me with a minimum of feathers to deal with.
The funniest part about the turkey was the company label that was stuck into it like a clothes tag. I checked inside the turkey to see if they had left on the anti-theft device, too. Another side note: “Vecchia Fattoria” is funny because it’s the beginning of the Old Mac Donald song in Italian – “Nella Vecchia Fattoria…i ai i ai…” :)
After a slight hesitation that it wouldn’t fit in my oven, I developed a patented upside-down baking tray reinforcement for my roasting pan that would allow me to rotate and remove the turkey as necessary for basting. Those dark pieces on the turkey? Just some of the stray pieces of onion and other roasting veggies.
If you want to know what we served that night, click on the photo and it will take you to my Flickr page where I inserted notes on the picture.