Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday. This is what I love about it: the expressions of gratitude, the central focus of spending it with loved ones, the way it marks the beginning of the holiday season, meaning I can start playing my Christmas music and looking through my holiday recipes. It means the start of holiday baking: cookies and pie crust, cinnamon and butter. A warm, fragrant oven and a sweet, sticky mess. Children asking for a taste, and then to lick the bowl. Early evenings at home, holiday parties and the promise of lights and music and bustle and cheer.
This is what I hate: never spending Thanksgiving with my family.
Yesterday was my thirteenth consecutive Thanksgiving in Italy. The first few years, I did nothing. I pretended it was a normal day, except for a phone call from my parents. Then, one year, I decided we would celebrate the weekend after and I tried my hand at making a turkey in a miniscule oven. The top was singed and the bottom fried in its own juices because, despite my asking for the very smallest turkey the butcher could find and removing all the oven racks so I could place my roasting pan on the very bottom of the oven, the breast still touched the top. There was stuffing (and wine). And I think I might have done some potatoes and an apple pie. We invited another couple over, and we probably would have invited a few others, to make it more festive, but our table was tiny and we only had four chairs.
My most memorable Italian Thanksgiving was our first in the mountains, where we moved the year Seven was born. I invited the in-laws over for turkey and stuffing, twice-baked potatoes, yams and apple pie. My father-in-law and brother-in-law ate more stuffing than I thought possible and I let them take the rest home with them.
When we moved away to the town where I live now, we had our biggest Thanksgiving ever, with a group of families from Seven’s school, and I did it potluck style. One guest brought eggplant parmesan, which went surprisingly well with my turkey, although another guest, who had lived in the United States and therefore knew better, was perplexed. There were so many of us I had to set up a buffet in the kitchen and two long tables in the living room; the kids had their own. It felt like a real Thanksgiving, with a bunch of familiar faces around the table and far too much food, the children shouting and running around, everything just a little out of control, and it was by far the most authentic of my Italian Thanksgivings yet.
Last year I was graciously invited to Thanksgiving with a group of Americans and Italians. It was a large group, and there were a lot of Americans, but not Americans I knew very well. It was too close to what it should have been that it made me sad, because it wasn’t. I brought my mom’s yams, and the turkey was delicious, but everything else was not right. Nothing was the way my mom does it. There were no crescent rolls. I came home and all I wanted to do was make a pumpkin pie because my house didn’t smell the way it should on Thanksgiving, but they don’t sell Libby’s or allspice here.
After that, I knew. Thanksgiving in Italy only works if you do it with Italians. And you need it to be a different group of guests each time, so they are all very excited about it and don’t know what to expect. It means you can choose all the dishes and make them yourself from scratch, so you are so busy that you don’t have time to feel homesick. It means that when your guests ask about Thanksgiving, you can give them your family’s version and to them, just as for you, that will be the only way to do it right. Then, by the time you sit down to eat, you are already stuffed from taste-testing all the dishes your mother makes at home and your house is excessively warm and excessively fragrant, with that rich, nearly nauseating smell of turkey. You are flushed from the heat of the kitchen and the wine the Italians have been slipping you as they watch, mesmerized, and somewhat repelled, while you whisk gravy made from turkey drippings.
This year, I am doing a Thanksgiving dinner party on Saturday night. It is my kids’ weekend with their dad, and the mere thought of spending Thanksgiving weekend alone in my apartment was unbearable, so I invited a bunch of childless friends from out of town to distract me. There will be house guests, six to be exact, and a few local guests for dinner to fill out the table a little more. There will be turkey and stuffing and there will be wine. There will be my mother’s yams and gravy and homemade cranberry sauce. My guests have offered to bring roasted potatoes and onions and fennel, and I am doing a pumpkin pie and an apple pie and, if I have enough time today, there will be holiday cookies because I cannot resist showing off the highlights of American holiday baking. There will be a warm, fragrant oven, humming all day long and the unmistakeable smell of a roasting turkey, so rich I’m sure they’ll smell it all the way down the stairs. There might even be biscuits. There will definitely be a centerpiece made out of a large squash. As far as authenticity goes, I don’t think that’s half bad.