As an expat, holidays are always a bit different from what they once were. You can recreate traditions, but without the familiar places and, most of all, the familiar faces of family and friends, the holiday can feel quite flat. Of course, there are new families created and friends found, but it’s never the same. The holiday that feels the most that way to me is Thanksgiving, since it doesn’t exist here in Italy. Even though they have a name for it–Giorno del Ringraziamento–it’s just the fourth Thursday in November. Since I know Thanksgiving will look very different for many people in America this year, I thought I’d share a few stories from how expat life has created a whole new set of Thanksgiving traditions for me in Amalfi.
Recreating Thanksgiving on my own in Italy seemed daunting the first few years I was here. Then one fine Thanksgiving my husband decided to grill tuna in the house and the smell the rest of the day convinced me that whatever effort would be worth it to not ever have to smell tuna all day on Thanksgiving. Thus began the journey to learn how to make Thanksgiving dinner completely from scratch since many of the ingredients are hard to find here.
But first … you’re likely wondering about Steinbeck’s salty turkey. I’m sure most of you Amalfi Coast enthusiasts have already read John Steinbeck’s essay “Positano” that was published in the May 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. If not, you can read it here on the Le Sirenuse website. Do you remember the ending? This morning I woke up thinking about it and was surprised I’ve never shared about it here. In the essay, Steinbeck introduces John McKnight, an author who had spent a year living in Positano while writing a book. John and his wife Liz appeared have settled in well to Positano, but then as Thanksgiving approached something was missing.
“Then the year turned and Thanksgiving began looming. Now an American living long abroad may become completely expatriate. He may speak foreign, think foreign, eat foreign, but let Christmas or Fourth of July or Thanksgiving come around and something begins to squirm inside him and he finds he has to do something about it. Johnny and Liz McKnight speak Italian fluently, read, eat and live Italian. But when Thanksgiving came near in Positano, the McKnights found themselves dreaming of roast turkey and dressing, of cranberry sauce and plum pudding, of mint juleps. They got to waking up in the night and thinking about it.”“positano” by John Steinbeck
Now I don’t know about plum pudding or mint juleps, but cranberry sauce is something I do wake up thinking about in the night. It’s my favorite part of Thanksgiving and there’s just no way it would be possible to recreate Thanksgiving without it. Now I was willing to be flexible since fresh cranberries are impossible to find on the Amalfi Coast. Anyway even if I had them it wouldn’t be the same. For me the Thanksgiving memory was grinding fresh cranberries with my Mom using my Grandma’s old meat grinder we’d find some way of attaching to the counter. It made a big mess and it was wonderful. Many years ago a kind expat (I wish I could remember who it was!) shared a recipe for cranberry sauce made with dried cranberries and cranberry juice – both things I can find in Italy. I have to order the dried cranberries in advance and then I usually take a deep breath and brace myself before going into the farmacia to pay €6.50 for a bottle of cranberry juice. It’s worth it to save a holiday. The cranberries are so good that I’ve made them for my family when I go back to America for Thanksgiving celebrations. Sometimes forced change can bring new and tasty traditions into your life.
Back to the McKnights. Their turkey arrived in a crate tied to the top of a bus. Naturally. The turkey settled in to its new surroundings and what was likely a fine view from Positano out to the sea. Now you know how we like to do what our parents and grandparents did on Thanksgiving. Well, Johnny McKnight remembered his grandfather’s advice to give a turkey a good dose of brandy before killing it because it would prevent the meat from being tough and bitter from the stress of the experience for the poor animal. Not having any brandy on hand, McKnight gave the turkey a good dose of Grand Marnier, which caused the bird to relax and appear to settle in for a nap. With a good mint julep in hand, all seemed to be going as planned.
Until it wasn’t.
“The McKnights do not know what happened. Johnny thinks the turkey may have had a bad dream. They heard a hiccupping gobble. The turkey rose straight up in the air, and screaming triumphantly flew out to the sea. Now we must go back to the sea laws of the Amalfi Coast. In the hills above the towns of Positano and its rival Praiano, watchers are usually posted. They not only keep watch for schools of fish but for anything which may be considered flotsam, jetsam or salvage. These watchers saw the McKnights’ seagoing turkey fly to sea and they also saw it crash into the water a couple of miles off shore.
Immediately boats put off from both Positano and Praiano. The race was on and they arrived at about the same time. But the turkey, alas, had drowned. The fishermen brought it tenderly back, arguing softly about whether it was a matter for salvage court. The turkey was obviously out of command. Johnny McKnight easily settled the problem with the rest of the bottle of Grand Marnier.
They cooked the turkey that afternoon and sat down to dinner about eight in the evening. And they say that not even an extra dose of sage in the dressing completely removed the taste of sea water from the white meat.”“positano” by John Steinbeck
And that’s how it ends. Not just for the turkey, but the entire essay on Positano. In the back of my mind that has always been a bit of a warning about trying to recreate things too much like they were at home. I’ve never tried to cook a whole turkey here in all these years. For one, because I had a tiny electric oven in Scala. Second, the butcher in Scala made an incredible rollè di tacchino, a turkey roll, that was stuffed with pancetta, sausage, and herbs. You know what? It’s a heck of a lot easier to cook. Even better, I control the salt and don’t have to barter with any fishermen using Grand Marnier.
Over the past decade, I’ve created many new Thanksgiving memories, things I look forward to, and recipes I return to every year. Dressing is made from scratch by chopping up bread and toasting it to make bread crumbs. My husband then has to go on a mission to round up enough celery, since in Amalfi it’s usually just given out free along with parsley when you ask for it at the fruit and veggie shop. But a stalk or two. This year he was more than successful and I’m worried no one else in Amalfi will have celery all week.
In America, Thanksgiving often kicks off the holiday season. Growing up, it was tradition to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas on Thanksgiving evening. This morning I dug out my DVD of the 1966 version, which I’ll watch with my husband tonight. Watching him enjoy Seuss’s crazy made up words and understanding it more and more every year has become a favorite Thanksgiving memory. (My tip: If it doesn’t sound like a word, it’s not.)
Oddly enough, the holiday season kicks off in Amalfi right around the same time as Thanksgiving. One of the two major celebrations for Amalfi’s patron Sant’Andrea (St. Andrew) takes place on November 30th. Given the proximity to Christmas, the town usually just puts up holiday lights for Sant’Andrea. On Tuesday the lights went up around the fountain in the piazza and along the main streets. The town’s Christmas tree went up in Piazza Flavio Gioia yesterday. Yep just in time. While completely unrelated, as (I think?) the only American expat in Amalfi, I appreciate the timing.
And that’s our Thanksgiving in Amalfi. This year, the cranberries have been made and the dressing is ready to pop in the oven. I’ve got my Grandma’s silverware out and ready to set the table. A family touch that means a lot to me on this day. We’ll enjoy lunch with my favorite rosato wine Vetere from Azienda Agricola San Salvatore 1988 in Paestum. An Italian touch for our Thanksgiving day in Italy. I wish you a happy Thanksgiving if you’re celebrating and however you may be celebrating this year. Otherwise, happy fourth Thursday of November!
Psst … If you’re curious to read more about expat Thanksgiving experiences in Italy this year, don’t miss Thanksgiving Will be There Next Year by my friend Ginger DiGaetano over on Italics Magazine.