Last Thursday marked our seventh Thanksgiving since moving to Italy. My wife prepared the usual array of dishes: bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, soft rolls, and, of course, the main attraction — a magnificent stuffed turkey.
Italians don’t celebrate it, as it’s widely known as a uniquely North American holiday. They do know about it, however, having watched countless depictions in movies and television programs. The classic scene is of a multi-generational family seated at a long table covered with platters of food. The family members spend hours over the meal, with animated conversations that sometimes devolve into loud, heated conversations.
This description is pretty much identical to a normal mealtime among Italians. So, a once-a-year get-together likely seems a rather weak version. Italians have a name for our Thanksgiving — Ringraziamento. They know this always involves a big, bulging brown turkey as the edible centerpiece.
Italians do not eat turkey that way. Tacchino, as it is called, is available every day in local food stores, although never have I seen it offered in the “full fowl” form. Plump breasts and thighs are displayed on trays in glass cases. Customers ask for breast meat sliced on the hand-operated machine called the affettatrice. One asks for fettine — flat pieces a few centimeters thick.
According to several Italian friends, dining on turkey at all is a relatively recent phenomenon. Turkeys were considered dirty animals unfit for human consumption. Decades ago, a popular form of large poultry was ostrich. One friend recalls seeing many ostrich farms scattered across the countryside. However, with enhanced faming methods, turkey has become more popular.
Turkey meat also comes into play in sausage making and in what Americans call ground round. Several different types of meat, including turkey, are mixed together on the spot in a macerator to form a magnificently tasty burger. I had never been particularly fond of sausages until I ate the ones available here. Now, I can’t get enough. Every butcher shop and food market seems to have its own recipe, and they are all different and amazing. The patties for hamburgers are often made of a similar mix, which infuses them with a rich array of flavors and textures.
It’s difficult perhaps to believe, but the best hamburgers I have ever had in my life have been here in Italy, whether in our own village or a nearby town. Maybe it’s the freshness of the ingredients or the absence of GMO products. Having grown up in the American Midwest, where hamburgers are a food group in themselves, this difference in taste is astonishing. Though a bit embarrassing to admit, one of our “guilty pleasures” is to stop at a McDonald’s for a Big Mac every few months. They are incredibly good.
But back to Thanksgiving. We usually invite a mix of Italians and expats for a lavish T-Day meal. Of course, the fourth Thursday of November is a normal workday in Italy, so dinner is in the evening. Our Italian guests are often perplexed by the placement of all the food on one large plate. Italians eat in courses, according to a rigid progression from light to heavy items. Each course is served on a separate plate in sequence, from carbs followed by proteins and then vegetables. Finally, dessert followed by espresso and often a special liqueur. This ritual is ubiquitous.
One year, a friend was clearly struggling with the cross-cultural culinary experience of everything on a single plate. She stared at the heaps of turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, green beans, and stuffing. I think she didn’t know what to do with it and was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of food items heaped together. Discretely and methodically, she separated the items into their own little groupings. Then, she proceeded to eat each in the “proper” order.
Another year we invited a family with two small children. They were clearly eager to have an American-style Thanksgiving dinner of the kind they had seen on TV and in the iconic Normal Rockwell painting. The big, browned turkey was placed in the center of the table to wide smiles all around. A perfect match with the image of the holiday. However, the young dinner guests were also confused by the piling of different foods on the same plate. I don’t think they had realized that aspect of the dinner. We had to assure them repeatedly that it was the normal American way and not just our own preference.
The following year, thinking we might blend the customs, we served the meal in sequential courses. Before we started to eat, the kids had pulled out their cell phones to take pictures of the great American feast, presumably as proof of our bizarre dining custom to their friends. Seeing the separate courses come out, they were obviously disappointed. They wanted to document the piles. So much for cultural blending.
The first November after arriving in Italy, we asked the village butcher if he could provide us with a whole turkey — a somewhat unusual request. He checked with his source, and indeed he could obtain a whole turkey — un tacchino intero. He asked if we wanted it alive or dead. We’re still not sure if he was joking. At any rate, a week later, with a big grin, the owner showed us the bird he was plucking in his back workroom, a few feathers floating in the air.
Because of the modest oven in our house, the size of the turkey is limited. We cannot begin to match the sumptuous girth depicted in the famous Norman Rockwell painting. Nonetheless, eight kilos (more than 17 pounds) is a generous size. As they say in airline travel lingo, the object is “heavy and awkward.” I have hefted it along the main street in the village to our house, with people sitting in the central café shouting comments as I pass. I’m certain this is the source of mirth for locals. Those crazy Americans are at it again.
This year, to my astonishment, the butcher himself offered to bring the bird to the house. I had never heard of a butcher making house calls. Sure enough, on his way home the evening before T-Day, he knocked on our door and handed the turkey over in a big box with handles.
Italy has adopted one aspect of the American Thanksgiving holiday that gives me pause. That is “Black Friday.” It’s basically the same merchandising gimmick, except that there’s no Thursday holiday to be followed by a Friday of discounted prices. To add further confusion to the concept, Black Friday continues for weeks, despite the day in the name. It’s become a big thing. It’s a curious borrowing of a distinctly North American marketing scheme. I hope in Italy it never turns into the chaos seen in U.S. stores like Walmart during which more than a dozen people have died over the years and hundreds more have been injured from the vicious behavior of crazed mobs.
Not an American tradition that I hope to see copied. Thanks, but no thanks.