For the length of my adult life, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. Not burdened with religious associations or the need for gift-giving (and spending), this is a holiday about food, loved ones, and celebrating American tradition.
In college, it meant coming home to see family and friends, and there were always tons of social happenings and great food to enjoy. Post-college, living in New York City, it was more of the same -- sometimes fewer friends coming back to our hometown, but lots of family, food and so many of those closest to me. Then I moved to Rome. Suddenly, I was living in a country where the fourth Thursday in November was not a holiday. Where even my English-speaking friends weren't all American. Where I had to take the day off to celebrate.
So that first year living in Rome, in 2000, take the day off I did! I was working in a restaurant called Le Bain (French-sounding name, but Italian food....with sushi. Italians trying to be progressive. A story for another place and time). I'd had the idea to host, along with my American roommate Leah, the first official Roman Thanksgiving among our group of friends -- expats, many of them. We didn't invite Italian friends. We invited some Brits and a Canadian for good measure, however (and to show them -- show off, really -- what an American feast looked like). And so we got to planning what was a wonderful joint effort and coming-together of American ingenuity in a land where finding Thanksgiving essentials we usually took for granted (cranberries, pecans, sweet potatoes...and even, well, whole turkeys!) were difficult to come by. What a project. And what a blast!
And so there were trips to the various markets around the city, Campo de' Fiori being the most central and one of the largest (and most expensive!). The stall that would become my second home in the market, Da Claudio, would order "strange foreign ingredients" for me upon request in subsequent years -- I like to think the reason Rome now has access to fresh cranberries, American sweet potatoes, and butternut squash is thanks to my long discussions and litigation with the guys about availability and seasonality and what we need for our American feasts. But this year, this first year, I didn't know enough to order these things in advance, and I wasn't yet established as a chef in the city. So, Castroni was our fallback for a lot of things. This mythical international food store has so much great product, and you pay through the nose for it. But it's worth it. A good meal always is. And no one understands that line of thinking better than the Italians.
I remember the morning of Thanksgiving: it was pretty chilly that year, especially since in subsequent years in Rome, I remember wearing a t-shirt to run last-minute errands. The only way to procure a whole turkey in Rome is to order one well in advance, and I'd ordered one from a trusted butcher shop in Trastevere, who delivered as well. They knocked on my door early in the morning with a 6 kilo bird (15 pounds, which I worried wouldn't be big enough. How quickly I learned that in Rome, the turkey is only the meal's centerpiece in name!). And it still had some feathers intact for me to pluck off, oh joy!
Once that turkey was safely in my fridge, I called my friend Patrick back to tell him I was ready to be picked up. He'd called me extremely early that morning -- he always had to get up early to open his laundromat -- and when I'd answered my cell groggily (I worked until after midnight at the restaurant the night before), he sang in my ear: "goooooood....mornin', good MOR-nin'!", the song from Singin' in the Rain, which of course also includes a "buon giorno!" This became our go-to song to sing into each other's ears, either over the phone or in-person, when we wanted to annoy each other in a very goofy way. So, Patrick swung by on his scooter and we were off on a run for plates, cups, and flatware, etc. He knew of a place in Monteverde that had some such colorful items, and we laughed and sang "Good Mornin'" the whole ride to the store and back.
Our friend Elizabeth, whose sister is a florist in Chicago (and who knows a thing or two about flower arranging herself) helped with the table setting too. And finally, around 7 or so, everyone started showing up. Remember, this is not a holiday in Rome and some guests were coming straight from the office.
We had some American friends visiting among our group, including my older brother. We decided the best way to cobble together a feast would be to dole out food responsibilities to every guest, initiating what would become our tradition: everyone brings a dish (or is assigned one), a bottle of wine, and a small monetary contribution to defray the costs of table settings and flowers and the like. This worked out incredibly well, as everyone participated.
|Me proudly holding my first Roman tacchino, 2000|
I took care of the turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and 2 kinds of stuffing, along with several desserts: Leah and I each took a stuffing and if I remember correctly, she made a brown sugar cake while I made a chocolate swirl cheesecake and either an apple pie or a chocolate pecan pie. Maybe all 3. Friends brought salad, vegetable sides like carrots and sweet potatoes and broccoli and zucchine and of course Martin's favorite, creamed corn (he's from Iowa).
November and December in Italy means novello, the young red wine that's meant to be consumed un-aged (many people know the French version, beaujolais nouveaux), which happens to go well with turkey and all the trimmings. We seemed to have endless bottles of it, certainly more than one per person. And I believe we consumed all of it!
It was quite the festive evening: relaxing and warm and delicious, and all the more rewarding for the fact that we were able to pull together and recreate our personal versions of Thanksgiving together, as old and new friends gathered around a table in our adopted home, The Eternal City.
I hope everyone had a buon giorno di ringraziamento...Happy Thanksgiving!