Translating Thanksgiving

by Laura A

Thanksgiving has passed now, but I thought I’d say a little bit about the preparation process. After all, before Thanksgiving, we were all too busy shopping and cooking, right?

Thanksgiving takes on a new dimension for expats. First of all, it becomes nostalgic. We’ve adopted a new language, new foods, a new way of life, and sometimes new holidays. Thanksgiving is our chance to be American.

Secondly, it’s a holiday that Italians are curious about. After all, it involves food, and almost all Italians love to talk about food. So right away we have an interested audience and get to be ambassadors, sort of.

But expat Thanksgiving requires a few adjustments to the menu.

Surprisingly, the turkey is easy. I just go downstairs and order it from the butcher, who has several American customers and knows the routine. “Ciao, cara! I’ll order you a female turkey,” he says, and I hear him ask the vendor to add another turkey to the order, and to make it as small as possible. The main problem is getting it into my IKEA oven.

Pumpkin pie has its own adjustments. Italians are curious about the Halloween pumpkin. I think this is partly because the idea of having a whole different word for one variety of winter squash makes them think maybe they’ve missed out on some category of good food. Then they want to know if pumpkin pie is connected to Halloween, since they don’t really celebrate that either. And they’re not really sure when Thanksgiving is (that floating holiday thing is confusing), so maybe they go together? And naturally they seem disappointed when you tell them that a Halloween pumpkin isn’t much good to eat. How American! What’s the point in getting rid of a few seeds when it ruins the taste?

Naturally there’s no Libby’s canned pumpkin available for the pie, but a large orange winter squash, sold in large slices this time of year, works just fine. What’s harder is finding a good pie recipe that doesn’t use evaporated or condensed milk. This year I made two using a new recipe. They look sort of fluffy and taste almost like they have the whipped cream already added, but I’m not complaining!

The dressing is particularly tricky. Since our family’s traditional dressing is cornbread based, I’ve tried to substitute with every possible type and consistency of polenta, including polenta mixed with flour, but nothing works quite as well as the old standby, White Lily Self-Rising cornmeal. This year I brought back a bag in my suitcase, and that seems to be the only acceptable solution.

And finally there is the cranberry sauce. Even before we moved to Italy, our family jokingly said that this was the one item on which we would not go organic, local or foodie. Nothing but Ocean Spray smooth jellied cranberry sauce, with the lines imprinted from the can, would do. But finding the necessary can in Torino is becoming increasingly tricky. At first there was a gourmet store, Paissa, that carried at least the whole-berry version in a jar, but they moved and when the store finally reopened, its stock was much reduced from its former exotic glory. Last year an American friend brought me two cans of cranberry sauce from the military base in Vicenza. But our friends moved too. This year I walked all over town, in the rain, following false leads and eventually discovering that the distributor of Ocean Spray had stopped carrying it.

Part of the problem with finding some of these ingredients in Italy is that it’s hard to describe what they are. This is definitely the case with cranberry sauce:

Sapete dove posso comprare un vasetto di sugo di mirtilli rossi? (“Do you know where I can buy some cranberry sauce?” Only I’m not sure sugo is the right word, because it means something more like a pasta sauce than chutney.)

Succo di mirtilli rossi? C’è un negozio bio in Crocetta che l’avrà. (“Cranberry juice? There’s a healthfood store in Crocetta that should have it.”)

Mirtilli rossi? Cosa sono? Vuol dire ribes? (“Cranberries? What are those? Do you mean currants?”)

È un tipo gelatina? (“Is it a kind of gelatin?”)

And finally, I heard one store employee say to another:

“Do we have cranberry sauce?”

“Cranberry sauce? What’s that?”

“You know! Americans use it to stuff the turkey on Thankgiving!”

But no can or jar, smooth or whole, made its appearance. Finally, on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I gave up and decided it was time to start cooking what I had. Sarie dejectedly posted on Facebook that this would be the first Thanksgiving in her memory without cranberry sauce. Within an hour, she had a message from an Australian friend, saying that she thought there was a can of unexpired cranberry sauce left over from our American friends’ dinner last year. A few more phone calls and a trip on the subway, and I had the precious jar of Ocean Spray in my purse. It may have been the last jar of cranberry sauce left in Torino. And we ate every bit of it.

For next year, I’ve figured out what to do about the cranberry sauce, at least. There’s an online American food vendor in France I can order it from. But the cornmeal, that will just have to go into my suitcase.

And all of the other days, I’m fine with eating agnolotti and ragù, polenta and turgia. Va bin parej!

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