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Tales from Thanksgivings Abroad: 4 Countries, 5 Different Celebrations

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When a Thanksgiving-celebrating human finds himself or herself outside of U.S. for the holiday, he or she can try to recreate the meal (often with difficulty), ignore it completely, or go halfway.

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Photo by James Ransom

One might ask relatives to fly a Tofurkey from Cleveland to Israel (it's a true story—just scroll down), while another might have a meal that is recognizable as Thanksgiving only in atmosphere. When we asked Mediterranean food expert and writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins what she does for Thanksgiving in Italy, for example, she said her "menu bears very little resemblance to a typical American Thanksgiving, centered as it is around a spit-roasted pork turned in front of the fire in the big living room fireplace and usually featuring Sara's chestnut-stuffed ravioli as a starter."

Today, we have tales from Thanksgivings abroad in Israel (by Rebecca Levinsky), Peru (by Erin McDowell), Rome (by Chris Behr), Florence (by Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm), and Scotland (by Haley Preibe).

And while they don't all involve turkey, they do all share a holiday spirit.

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Photo by James Ransom

Israel

The year that I was in Israel, my parents visited in November and in May, and each time they brought every single item on the list that I sent them.

Somehow, my working mother found time in her busy schedule to find every single item listed in the scavenger hunt: anti-itch cream from Target, a foam mattress pad for my cot, books, and "Speak Now" (the Taylor Swift album released that fall). These things provided comforts that I found myself missing, helping to temporarily alleviate my homesickness.

But the ultimate cure came from the food they brought: Miracle Whip so I could make my grandmother’s egg salad, chocolate chips for my cookies, nutritional yeast, and whole-wheat pasta.

In May, a takeout order of my favorite pad thai. And in November, a frozen Tofurkey. I had been a vegetarian for three years, and each year had enjoyed a Tofurkey roast at Thanksgiving dinner.

Photo by James Ransom

A few days after Thanksgiving that year (a celebration on the actual holiday had been eschewed in favor of a nightclub party), I snuck into the industrial kitchen where we cooked the communal meals on my program. Between the lunch and dinner shifts, there were a few hours of the day when the kitchen wasn’t in use. This kitchen was the stuff your nightmares are made of: dishes that were never really clean, huge ovens with no temperature gauges and ingredients that couldn’t be less natural. But for my Tofurkey, it was enough.

I explained to passersby what I was doing, what a Tofurkey was (a round loaf tofu with rice inside), and why I was making it (Thanksgiving). Intrigued and slightly grossed out, my friends left me alone to prepare my American holiday celebration. I cooked the Tofurkey in a pan much too large for its size, basted with a spoon, and adjusted the oven every few minutes. It wasn’t the same as vying for oven time and keeping tabs on my baster in the busy holiday kitchen at home, but I’ve always loved cooking alone, and especially on a program with fifty of my peers, this little time alone in the kitchen, surrounded by familiar smells, was wonderful.

When I finally brought the “bird” to the table, my friends were genuinely interested in tasting what I can only imagine they thought was a weird but gourmet American treat. But I’d come to realize after a few years of experience that people often slice off more Tofurkey than they can stomach. And a Tofurkey flown in specially by the two best parents in the world was not something I was willing to waste.

Photo by James Ransom

But I also knew was that sharing this small part of myself meant a lot. One bite could help explain Thanksgiving traditions, my cooking, my home. So that Shabbat, when I sat down at the table, my Tofurkey in front of me, I had a small plate on the side of little chunks for the curious.

Unsurprisingly, my Israeli friends didn’t like the Tofurkey any more than my family in Cleveland liked it. But I thought it tasted just like home.
- Rebecca Levinsky

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Peru

My dad always tells this story about when he was in his twenties and in the Peace Corps in Peru. He was gone for a long time, and letters took weeks to go back and forth (and of course he did not have access to a phone or our now-beloved Internet). He felt very isolated and was often homesick, but he was busy enough that he was usually able to keep it out of his mind.

One day he woke up and realized that it was Thanksgiving; the weeks had run together and he hadn't kept track of dates. He was feeling especially sad, missing his family and the traditional Thanksgiving meal. A farmer who worked with him saw that my dad was upset and asked him what was wrong. My dad explained Thanksgiving, how it's a day with a big feast where you celebrate with your whole family. The man listened to my dad's story, then got up and left, telling my dad to wait there.

He returned an hour or so later with the classic lunchbox of the workers in the area: the three metal bowls which stack and lock together. In one was the obligatory rice served with every meal; in the second was a piece of boiled yucca; in the third was the tripe, a specialty of the area, which they often stuffed and slow cooked for special occasions yielding a juicy and tender end result.

But on this day—what, with the short notice and the need to immediately cheer up my dad—they threw it in a pot of boiling water, yielding a chewy, grey mass. There were three large pieces boiled with a bit of salt. The farmer sat with my dad and watched him chew and chew and chew the tripe. "It was like eating rubber bands—but it was a true example of its the thought that counts. I was not alone for my Thanksgiving meal."
- Erin McDowell

Photo by James Ransom

Rome

As the head chef at the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy in Rome, founded by Alice Waters in 2007, I lead a group of staff and interns in creating seasonal, locally-sourced meals for the American Academy in Rome's fellows.

During the year-long fellowship, I feed the fellows Italy-inspired food, some of which grows in our own garden. But, on occasions like Thanksgiving, the kitchen has the opportunity to gather around the table for an Italy-inspired American feast, merging our native traditions with our Roman locale. I even ask the traveling fellows to "import" cranberries in their suitcases, as they do not exist on this continent and I feel that Thanksgiving just would not be the same without it.

We bone-out and roll our turkey in the style of "porchetta," rolling the turkey meat around sage pork sausage.
-Chris Behr

Photo by James Ransom

Florence

Last year, I cooked turkey for the first time. By myself. In Italy. For 20 Italians, including my host mother and father, Olivia and Gabriele. I was in pastry school in Florence, which meant I had a command of all things food, they thought, including the ability to defeather a turkey. Which, brings us to Italian Thanksgiving hurtle one: The turkey Gabrielle bought came with nary a feather plucked or talon removed.

Hurtle two was deciding what thanksgiving americano items to cook for Italians who don't celebrate the holiday, let alone know what pumpkin pies. This brings us to hurtle three: ingredients—and lack thereof, say, cranberries or pumpkin purée (I found a squash and made my own, don’t worry).

And, now, let me introduce hurtle four: Italians, or at least my host mom, don’t like to measure anything, which means no spoons, no cups, no nothin’. It’s do-it-by-feel, intuition-based cooking. I like to measure. I love my scale. There was some near, “Wait, what’s 167 grams of flour?” meltdowns.

Despite all this—and some serious problems being able to mash potatoes—dinner was, in a word, wonderful. The turkey’s skin turn mahogany thanks to lots of butter and basting. Stuffing (“Pane!” or “Bread!,” my host father exclaimed), hit the right notes of familiar and strange, interspersed with carrots, celery, and apple. A leek and chard gratin stole the show. Buttermilk biscuits flew off the plate. There was maybe only a couple slices left of the pumpkin and pecan pies and apple galette. It was perfetto.
- Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

Photo by James Ransom

Scotland

Living in Scotland for four years while I was at university, I certainly picked up a variety of British habits; however, overall I found myself acting more American in some ways than I had ever been at home. Thanksgiving is case and point.

Never before had I felt compelled to make sweet potatoes with marshmallow on top, for example, but in Scotland I found myself asking how could I possibly deprive my British friends of this quintessential American tradition.

Never before had I hosted 25 plus people, cooked an 18-pound turkey, a bajillion sides, and three pies (obviously, I had to make pumpkin, apple, and pecan) and yet, it seemed like there was no other way to introduce my British friends to my favorite American holiday or to adequately compensate for the fact that I was not actually in the U.S. with my family.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

And hosting Thanksgiving abroad pushed me to branch out from some traditions. I made my own cranberry sauce because I couldn’t find Ocean Spray’s canned jelly. Pumpkin pie also got a makeover thanks to a Canadian friend who made it from a real pumpkin. And one year, when Haley Sonneland was at St. Andrews for her semester abroad, we even had Thanksgiving cookies shaped like the United States and Obama’s head.

I learned some pro turkey-roasting tips from my friends who cook turkey every Christmas with their families. My favorite was covering the turkey in bacon for the first half of roasting to keep in all of the moisture and add flavor to the jus. I also adopted the British (actually this may have just been my friend Georgie’s) tradition of naming the turkey before popping it in the oven.

I also felt a much closer, personal tie to my feathered friend because I had to order him/her three months in advance to be specially fattened and taken to the chopping block for me. I can’t say I enjoyed ordering an execution, but the local, free-range turkeys did taste incredible.

Returning home after my time abroad, I found myself slipping back into my family’s routine. My first Thanksgiving back, I tried to introduce British-ized cranberry sauce and bacon-wrapped turkey, but the bacon was rejected for my Dad’s approach and I was the only one who ate the sauce.

But my family does now serve an extra side: a sausage and apple stuffing I learned to make in Scotland.
- Haley Priebe

Photo by James Ransom

Did you track down a turkey in Trinidad or import cranberries to Carthage? Share your Thanksgiving abroad experiences in the comments!


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