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From Monte Bianco to Zucchini Bread
My favorite American holiday has evolved into a feast of old and new traditions, and a showcase of who we are as an Italian-American family in Rome.
In early November, we usually start receiving phone calls from Italian friends asking which Thursday of the month they should block for our Thanksgiving dinner. Our Italian guests always show up with an American cheerleader’s spirit and Olympian appetites.
The year an Italian radiologist friend of ours pulled a chair up to the carcass of our devoured bird with a butcher’s knife, and started carving turkey shreds for leftovers, I knew I’d won over a population to this annual feast. Or maybe it was the year I found another friend alone in the kitchen gnawing off a turkey wing like a caveman.
There was also the year an Italian asked me why there was no bread on the table amidst the piles of side dishes.
“It’s in the turkey,” I answered, referring to the stuffing.
(I always forget to buy bread, which most Italians can’t eat without — not only for its taste but also for its practicality in serving as a pusher to forkfuls of food.)
Then, there was the year that the turkey was too big for our small Roman oven and we had to amputate its legs to cook it. That November, my husband singed his hair upon opening the over-stuffed oven, and donned charred bangs for a few days thereafter over his slightly-melted eyeglasses.
For Americans, Thanksgiving is as important as Christmas, if not more appreciated for a variety of reasons: we exchange thanks instead of gifts. We offer a meal to someone who might not have family nearby. We relish in a non-religious holiday without a commercial component tainting it. [n.b. Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving in America — not the entire week before, as it is in Italy.]
I’ve celebrated at least a dozen Thanksgivings in Rome. They are almost always exclusively with friends as I’ve lived overseas, far away from my American family, for the past twenty-five years. We have established our own Italian-American traditions, built new friendships while cherishing the old, made friends feel like family, and started a Kiddie Table for the next generation.
Long ago, my husband and I figured out our roles in the kitchen. He cooks; I bake. He could be a chef. I’m forever his sous chef. During the work and school week, I’m the survival, short-order cook — I prepare meals to nourish us. On weekends, he takes over as chef-in-residence, and someone always seems be coming over for dinner.
For Thanksgiving, he does the bird. I do the desserts. We conquer and divide in making the side dishes. We have never made it potluck, because we don’t feel we can ask Italians to bring American dishes. It’s just easier, albeit a bit exhausting, that we do it all.
I've watched my Italian husband embellish the American tradition of cooking a turkey, each year with more love, enthusiasm and creativity than the year before. His turkeys are better than any I’ve ever had in America. Referring to my mother's recipe which she clipped from Gourmet magazine years ago, he stirs her apple-prune-sausage stuffing for hours, and sprinkles it with his own culinary touches of Tuscan sausage and breadcrumbs of pizza bianca. Her handwritten recipe has survived all our moves, and has been christened with turkey fat, gravy, cranberry sauce with port swirling inside it, and kiddie doodles. It’s my most cherished recipe, and I reveal it here for those who salivate thinking about it. Forget the chestnuts, it’s all about the sausage, apple and Marsala-soaked prunes.
Donning a chef's white coat with his name sewn on its lapel, my husband presents the roasted turkey to our guests as if this tradition were part of his own family long before I came along. It’s the one meal that he comes home early from work to prepare, usually at 2pm in order to serve dinner at 8:30pm to our guests. It’s one of those rare occasions where we are both working in the kitchen together at the same time, juggling recipes diplomatically as we try to be both respectful of our ways of cooking and open-minded to new traditions. The sun sets earlier, shadows enter the kitchen in the late afternoon, our jazz playlists settle in to the background, and we work as one. In Rome, our kids go off to school and sports as if it were a normal Thursday, and wake up the next day as if it were a normal Friday. For those six hours or so we spend together in the kitchen, we produce a meal that has evolved out of an understanding of each other’s cultures.
This year, we made a mind-blowing Ottolenghi side dish of Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Cinnamon-Butter Yogurt and Chestnuts. It required more work than the turkey and stuffing combined, but, there were no leftovers. Its pomegranate seeds splashed all over my husband’s white chef’s uniform.
“Don’t you want to put on something cleaner, Papi?” my daughter asked when she saw the Jackson Pollock splattering of purple dots all over his jacket. He stood up tall, arched back his shoulders, and nodded no. He who had strangled his ingredients to delicious oblivion was proud to show the blood, toil and labor of it.
I've watched my Italian butcher mature from a young boy to a young man. He hunts down turkeys that are probably raised on spaghetti alla carbonara or rigatoni all'amatriciana. And, every year, he makes his 7-kilo delivery to me on his moped, with the raw turkey wobbling between the handlebars and his legs. Our dog goes crazy once the bird comes home, as if a newborn has arrived and she’s not sure whether to lick, love, or eat it. She often does all three.
Every Thanksgiving that we celebrate in our Roman home, I am grateful to our architect who transformed our former bedroom into our kitchen. (Now, instead of a queen-size mattress in the middle of the room, we have a marbled-top American island, the keystone of our Thanksgiving buffet.) She found us the same oven that was purchased by the Canadian Embassy in Rome, big enough to cook a North American-sized bird without plastic surgery involved.
The one thing our Italian friends love, and now associate with our Thanksgivings, is zucchini bread. There’s never a slice left at the end of our feasts. This year, I had to make five of them because my kids kept eating the ones I had prepared ahead of time. And, by now, I deliver two loaves to elderly friends who love the treat with their morning coffee. Many American families might offer pumpkin bread or a cinnamon-spice bread at Thanksgiving. But, because my mother also always served zucchini bread, I have carried on the tradition. Our Italian friends can’t get enough of it — it’s not as well known here as carrot cake, for instance, which, by now, is sold in many Italian bakeries and coffeeshops. It’s sweet, and served together with the turkey instead of with the desserts.
In my previous post, I made it clear that I’d prefer a Monte Bianco to a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. We ended up having both. Plus, an apple pie, which I made for the first time in my life. At the last minute, I screwed up the whipped cream (it turned to butter) so, in between courses, I sent my daughter out running to fetch some whipped cream and vanilla gelato at the nearby gelateria. Of the three sweets, however, in my opinion, Her Majesty still reigns.
Over the years, I've watched my Italian friends become my overseas family, embracing my traditions as I have theirs. Throughout the year, they win me over with their own innate hospitality wherever I dine with them -- whether in Puglia or Piemonte. If there's one day in which I can thank them for making me feel at home in Rome, it's Thanksgiving.
And, this year, I wanted to give a special thanks to all my readers. YOU. All 424 of you subscribers. Two months ago, I began writing this newsletter on a whim, and I had no idea where it would take me. It has widened my readership, led to an opportunity to write for another publication (!!), and become a launchpad of conversation among friends, family and colleagues. This is my 11th missive, and I’m not stopping. Please keep reading, and sharing my work with others. And, please know that I am extremely grateful to have you as my readers. You inspire me to write, and, for that, I give thanks.
I wish I could send each one of you either a zucchini bread or a Monte Bianco as a token of my gratitude.