Wednesday, November 18

Thanksgiving in Italy-Fine Feathered Friends

This Thanksgiving, I bring my annual tradition of posting one of my earliest entries on celebrating this very American tradition as an expat...Today, or more likely, over the weekend, people are breaking bread (well, actually stuffing) with their native friends and many foreign faces as well. So, wherever you are, enjoy your own Festa di Ringraziamento!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. And it's something that we American 'expats' celebrate pretty much the world over in our adopted countries. In much the same way that Italy (and Europe, for that matter) have adopted Halloween as their own, in industrious Milan or Geneva or London, store owners start stocking up when Thanksgiving comes around the corner. It's become so popular, you now need to order the bird in advance. Those same stores stock their shelves with many items that ordinary Italians would probably have fed to their pigs if they had them.

Although Italians eat lots of turkey, they seriously don't eat - much less prepare - the 12-15kg version –whole. But right around the last week of November, you can ask your butcher to purchase - and then hold onto - the entire bird. And this is terrific. Aside from providing the butchers and cashiers a bit of holiday entertainment, you (along with your bird) become the center of attention. One year, they were so confused by our request, a friend ended up with an 11kg bird for the price of one kilo: €3.95. Even after questioning the amount, they insisted the price was right...Let's just say, given the cost of things in Italy (and a bird that size would have run upwards of €60), we had lots to be thankful for that year!

Surprisingly, Thanksgiving in Italy brings one lots closer to the original Thanksgiving feast. First, there's the shipping of all the canned foodstuffs, probably not unlike the stuff our forefathers brought in huge wooden crates to and from the New World. Americans start filling up empty suitcases with goodies like cans of pumpkin and cranberry, Stovetop stuffing mix, and packs of Jiffy cornbread (because polenta just doesn't do the trick).

Me with one bird that doesn't need
But with a nod to those original pilgrims, I must say, it's the turkey that is the star of the show. While we don't have to quite break its neck and clean out its gizzards (although, if you forget to request it, you might just end up with the whole thing, head and all), we all get a bit tripped up by something never quite seen in an American home – all those feathers. Or, feather tips, rather.

In the USA, when you pick up a turkey, you generally wind up with something very remotely resembling the animal from whence it came. In Italy, you're reminded that this was, in actual fact, a bird – feathers and all. And so, you learn how, exactly, one rids oneself (or one's turkey) of his down without actually peeling the whole skin off, feather tips and all. I can just imagine those early pilgrims trying to figure this one out: with Native Americans furious that their guests were trying to trim away the feathers along with the tasty (and fatty) skin. No wonder so many died of hunger. To get it right and ignoring old traditions of plucking, you find your best gas-powered flame thrower, and start torching the turkey feathers away.

Unfortunately, no matter how long you painstakingly go about de-feathering, there are always a few tough ones left over – kind of like those grey hairs you try so hard to dye. And, while I must say, this process does not make me nostalgic for the huge butterball turkeys with a self-popping thermometer inside, it does add a bit to your preparation time.

Once your table is set for a feast, there's another key issue to handle in serving your feast to your Italian paesani. And that is, contrary to popular belief, Italians do not actually feast. That's especially the case given a non-Catholic holiday, and in the evening in particular. So, your fully expected annual pigging out fête sort of falls a bit flat; with each Italian guest carefully choosing their primo (mashed potatoes & stuffing), secondo (turkey), and contorno (veggies) while questioning why one must eat 'family style' and not one dish at a time. They barely fill their plates and skip second helpings. Stuffing is seen as an alien life form and desserts, well, whoever heard of a dessert made from a vegetable?

So, while the rest of us heap up our plates again and again, and then start loosening our belt buckles, well, judging by our girths, we can see why Thanksgiving is a wholly American phenomenon.


Elizabeth Abbot said...

Your blog came up in a blogging conversation over our pot luck Thanksgiving feast (today's post for photos). You are so right on all accounts, luckily a nearby trattoria took care of the turkey de-feathering (and cooking of the beast) so we just saw the final product.
Once a year a just-throw-it-all-on-a-plate affair is rather liberating that should be sparingly shared with the natives.

Anonymous said...

Also, it should be noted, they have no culture of leftovers in Italy (che brutta figura! Che siamo poveri?) so the whole Thanksgiving thing appears to be more of that American wastfulness & excess. Why on earth would anyone make all that food? We never even attempted Thanksgiving the entire 20 years in Italy so it never occurred to me what you would have to do to get a whole bird (very funny - I can picture the macellaio while you are making this request) which I guarantee will not come in the excess (again) sizes ours do here in the States! Elizabeth - how did the trattoria turkey turn out?

Irreverent Italy said...

Check out Elizabeth's Blog! She shows a pic of the turkey. Looks gorgeous they baste??!! The trick is in the basting. fm

john manjur said...

verry good... i like your blog.

Dave514 said...

Cara Francesca:
Great blog!

Just had my Thanksgiving Day blow-out in Sedona among the Red Rocks.

For me pumpkin, sweet potatoes and yams are a no no,BUT give me rutabagas, turnips and parsnips---that's yummy for the tummy. Then the next day mix in the leftover mashed potatoes and reheat. It's yummy all over again.

Dessert,is always hot apple pie a la mode.

I brought Beaujolais Nouveau which went down well with the gobble gobble.


student1 said...

Davide, sounds wonderful...but what? No Italian wine??

Dave514 said...

I try and mix it up and give my friends different wine experiences. Last year it was Frescobaldi's Lucente.


Harm said...

Good to read this classic!

Margie said...

I had the pleasure of doing Thanksgiving in Brazil for 14 years. I never did get used to reaching inside the cavity and pulling out the feet, neck and head with the dead eyes staring at me! I always had a house-full of Brazilians invited to partake, and while they were used to eating a plate full of food, they too were amazed that we did it with a whole turkey. We ex-pats also had to import cranberries and corn bread mix, but they were sooooo wonderful after a year between servings! Made lugging a heavy suitcase worth it!

BTW, LOVE your site! I'm coming to Italy in October for 3 months, so that I'm there for the birth of baby Jesus!

Irreverent Italy said...

Grazie Margie -- You'll have to peruse the early posts for a Cultural What's What...or...check out my book!
Enjoy your time in Bell'Italia

Unknown said...