Celebrating Thanksgiving Abroad : An Expat Perspective

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…” :)

Vecchia Fattoria has Turkey "Clothes Tags"

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.

Getting Ready to Carve the Thanksgiving Turkey

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.

Thanksgiving in Italy - the Buffet


  1. says

    What a feast! Brava, and great tips for non-Americans.

    I would also add for Italians (and perhaps French) specifically that we will not be eating in courses–you gotta put everything on the plate at once and have at it! And then do it again ;)

    YUM :)

  2. says

    One more rule: do not talk about how much better the Italian way of cooking this or that is. This is our tour de force and we have an emotional investment on it being pretty much American, so stai zitto! And that extends to forever concerning Thanksgiving foods. It’s not OK to come back later and explain how much better the food would have been if only…

  3. Joan says

    Totally off-topic (about Thanksgiving) as I’m British but just wanted to say hello since I “saw” you on David Lebovitz’s blog : I’m in Milan (just outside) too and from what I see of your blog we definitely have things in common!

  4. miriam says

    Thank you for putting all of this in writing. I will pass this on to my Italian Thanksgiving participants for years to come!

  5. lieludalis says

    Yea! You got a whole turkey!
    Our oven isn’t big enough for a whole turkey, so I just got a breast this year. Not bad considering the oven instructions were in Dutch or French (we’re in Belgium now)!
    And just because your turkey isn’t food styled, doesn’t mean it doesn’t look GREAT!! It has character (and probably tasted great)!!

  6. says

    good tips! Maybe forewarn Italians on Thanksgiving we ALWAYS eat fruit (cranberries) with meat. hehe

    And it is always nice to offer to help clean up. The host will probably say no but its always nice to for the offers especially after all the time spent cooking =)

    Glad you had a great Thanksgiving!

  7. says

    A worthy spread indeed!
    I certainly agree with your sentiments about surrounding ourselves with people and I love the tips and added on ones here in the comments. I’m still chuckling about some of them, so true so true…

  8. Steve says

    Please do tell where you got a whole turkey in Milan. Sirtori on Paolo Sarpi can get them but they are 7.90 euro a kilo. That’s like 40 euro for a ten pound bird. Yikes!!

  9. lizzy says

    As an American studying at the Universita di Bologna, I made Thanksgiving dinner this year for my close American friends and our Italian flatmates. It was quite the experience — sweet potatoes that were white, large, and changed colors when I peeled them; cooking my first huge piece of meat (a 7 pound turkey breast); a “cranberry” sauce made with fresh berries of every sort, oranges, and dried cranberries….

    quite the adventure for an American cook. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

  10. says

    I am glad I found your blog through the contest!

    I loved reading this post about how we feel about Thanksgiving. I agree 100% – Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday b/c it is all about family and not clouded with gift giving. But living in the US, I take for granted that expats have to explain to their friends what the holiday is all about. I think you explained it perfectly.

    Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog today!

  11. Anna L'americana says

    What a fabulous TG meal! The menu is incredible (nice touch, the flickr notes!) and sort of blends the two cultures a bit (fennel). The list is a great idea (you might need to translate it into Italian…”Questa e la festa Americana piu vicino al cuore…..”). A line explaining leftovers might also help diminish the view that we are all about excess and that this is a decadent holiday, which it ABSOLUTELY is not (it really is about thriftiness right? A $60 Turkey???? No reason for those prices!) What courage you all (several expat blogs) have for not only attempting these TG dinners, but doing it so successfully in the face of adversity (trans: Italian ingredients, ovens, grocers and macellari). Oh, and the turkey label is PRICELESS! Forza Thanksgiving!

  12. says

    Thanks for the post, it’s been a pleasure to read for an Italian watching American culture “from the outside.” We get most of our imagery about Thanksgiving from TV – we had a share of sitcom episodes over the years and a good one this year as well! – and it’s great to read how the feelgood atmosphere is real for everyone involved.

    Do we need to wait one whole year for more?! :-)

  13. Mark Stevanus says

    Very touching article on Thanksgiving. Thanks for putting in writing the sentiments I have every year. One of our biggest challenges is finding a turkey that is smaller, they usually do not appear in stores here until Christmas. Inevitably we always have a bird that weighs between 8-11 kili!

  14. Courtney says

    This is a fantastic list of advice, I will definitely keep it on hand for my Italian friends. Last Thanksgiving I spent at least a week rounding up the ingredients for a traditional TG meal, slaved in the kitchen for two days (though with great pleasure) got out and polished the right amount of settings of my fiance’s grandparents’ good silver only to have 6 people cancel at the last minute. I was crushed and I’ll admit it a little mad that they would treat my beloved Thanksgiving meal as any other dinner. It ended up being fine- those who made it were in love with the food. But I am glad you explained just how important it is to us Americans, and included the cancellation details.
    I am sad that this year I will have just had my baby or will be giving birth over the holiday. I have not yet made any American friends so I think I will be Thanksgivingless this year. Certainly I’m happy about the baby, but like you alluded to, it is even bigger than Christmas for some of us.

  15. says

    Love this post! As an American in Germany, I’ve definitely given way more thought to what Thanksgiving means to me here than I did back home. Your tips for non-Americans are spot on. Thanks for sharing!

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