My Thanksgiving celebration this year was an extravagant affair: a 30 pound turkey, 26 guests, creamed onions, pickled eggs, mashed potatoes, sausage stuffing, tubs of creamy gravy, glazed carrots, pumpkin pie – as well as less-traditional fare such as fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta, almond tarts, dense pane duro bread, and gutsy wine produced by a next-door neighbor. I say ‘was’ because I anticipated the feast by a fortnight to coincide with a vacation in Sicily. The dinner was held in a farmhouse in the countryside surrounding Ragusa in the south-east of the island, and it taught me a lot about Thanksgiving’s wonderful adaptability.
Thanksgiving dinner has a few fundamental elements: a turkey at the center of the table, some sort of potato dish nearby, and a pumpkin pie at the end of the meal. However, Thanksgiving is a holiday with fairly loose rules – as befits a national feast day in a country with as many individualistic states and disparate ecosystems as America.
Yankees from the Northeast lade their tables with platters of red flannel hash, cream biscuits, and cranberry-apple relish. In the New England states – terrain of potatoes, apples, and root vegetables – the local produce is also employed in breads thickened with potato starch, turnip and rutabega casseroles, creamed onions, and apple pie wrapped in a lard crust.
In the South, you are likely to find dishes based on local crops like pecans, corn and sweet potatoes. Deep orange yams and sweet potatoes are covered with a browned crust of marshmallows, dried corn is cooked in heavy cream, and corn turns up in succotash or spoonbread. Southerners stuff their turkeys with cornbread and oysters, and the traditional cranberry sauce is flavored with orange peel. A pecan pie heaped with honey-sweetened whipped cream accompanies the traditional pumpkin pie at the close of the dinner.
Midwestern Thanksgivings reflect the region’s Swedish and German populations, with sausage stuffings, savory casseroles dense with pumpkin and turnips, and pickled beets and cucumbers. Left coast Thanksgivings are the least traditional of the lot. Some traditional ingredients like sourdough bread are incorporated into turkey stuffing or bread pudding, as are locally grown oysters. In the Pacific Northwest, local game and wild turkeys are often incorporated into the feast.
Most American schoolchildren are well versed in the mythic origins of Thanksgiving: the Pilgrims and Indians met together at a common table and feasted on turkey, potatoes, and popcorn. New research into the historic holiday suggest that the meal actually consisted of venison, wild fowl, lobster, boiled vegetables (no potatoes) and stewed fruits. Cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie arrived on the scene later.
As I learned this year in Sicily, what you eat at Thanksgiving matters very little; the camaraderie, the over-eating and drinking, and the quaint traditionalism of the event are what makes it so special. Our ‘cranberry sauce’ was a jam-like mix of berries, vinegar, and sugar – more an agrodolce than a relish. The heavy piquant flavors of the Sicilian vegetables moved the taste of the side dishes far away from ‘traditional,’ and the sausage turkey stuffing was perfumed by the wild fennel seeds used locally to season pork.
My Sicilian friends had raised a small turkey on their farm, which reached about six pounds and then stopped growing. We decided to let the little turkey live, and bought a bigger bird to accommodate the crowd. When I started calling local butchers to order the whole turkey, they assumed I was pulling some sort of practical joke. I overheard one butcher telling his wife (in heavy dialect) what I had asked, and I heard her shouting at him to hang up the phone – it was a prank. Another told me yes, he had a whole turkey, and only mentioned in a second phone call that the turkey was missing a leg and breast. Finally, when the beast arrived, it was not in the oven-ready pop-out thermometer condition of American supermarket turkeys. I spent an hour on my knees with tweezers picking out the pinfeathers, and we chopped off the head and the feet with a cleaver.
My hosts, the Campo family, fired up their outdoor bread oven, which soon proved too slow for a 30 pound bird. We trucked the turkey to a friend’s house, and after 6 hours it emerged glorious and golden. The impact of a whole roasted turkey on a group of Sicilians who have never seen more than one turkey leg in one place at a time was wonderful (after living a year in Sicily, I still harbor secret doubts that Sicilian turkeys are grown in some obscene modern fashion with eight limbs each – you see only legs and thighs at the butchers, hardly ever any breasts or wings). After the oohs and aahs had subsided, it emerged that none of us knew how to carve a whole bird. Turkey carving is one of the rare intact realms of male dominance in America – at least in my American experience – and I had never done more than watch as my Dad or Grandpa sliced the breast meat into even, perfect slices. I rose to the occasion with a wide butcher’s knife bought at Palermo’s Vucciria market, and managed to sound out reasonable slices.
Like many Americans, seeing a fat roasted turkey on the table tells me that another year has officially passed, summer is all the way done, and it’s time to get ready for Christmas. In my second year of expatriot life, I am continuing the tradition, and I will continue hosting outsize Thanksgiving dinners wherever life takes me, happy to share one of America’s best holidays, where the only objectives are conviviality – and that turkey at the center of the table!
Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.
Photo: © Norman Rockwell, 1947