What is the definition of Thanksgiving? According the dictionary there are two:
1- The expression of gratitude
2- An annual national holiday commemorating a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, held the last Thursday in November in the United States.
But to me, it was always so much more than that.
I grew up in an Italian-American household in Brooklyn and thought that everyone celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday the same way that I did. It wasn’t until the 3rd grade that I found out otherwise. The teacher went around the room asking everyone to share their Thanksgiving traditions. Everyone’s version was pretty much the same with some minor variations when it came to the sides…except for mine. Sure, my family had a big fat turkey with all the traditional fixings. But to my amazement, none of my friends mentioned anything that preceded it. I was nervous when it was my turn to share the details of my family’s Thanksgiving tradition. But I shared nonetheless. By the time I was finished, I looked around at my classmate’s reactions – a mix of wonder and disbelief. But shortly after, everyone had made their way over to me trying to get an invite to my house for Thanksgiving. Maybe next year I told them - my mom would need at least 2 months’ notice to prep for that kind of turnout.
The eating commenced at 1:30pm sharp. As the guests started trickling in, so did the hors d’oeuvres. We had every type of variety – the “traditional” Thanksgiving starters of cornbread and pumpkin bread, the modern-day staples like pigs in a blanket and pizza bagels. Sometimes we even had mixed nuts that no one every ate. But the third plate of apps are what set my Thanksgiving apart from the rest. In between our cornbread and cocktail wieners, we’d be noshing on some fine imported cheeses, olives, roasted peppers and an assortment of salami from the mother-land. And macaroni pie (which was probably misinterpreted from those Italian ancestors that came before us).
A normal person would have filled up on this alone, but our family had built up some strong stamina over the years.
After the antipasti came the primi and secondi. Every year, we alternated between stuffed shells and manicotti (I know, more “Italian-American” than proper Italian). With the pasta came more carbs – my cousin’s coveted rice ball recipe. Not quite a suppli, nor an arancini (since there was no meat to be found inside) but still oh so delicious. The second plate followed shortly after that – traditional sauce meat consisting of meatballs, spare ribs, beef and sausage. And lots of Italian bread for scarpetta!
After another short interlude (courses were strategically spaced out about every 30 minutes) out came the second secondi…a 17-pound turkey and all the usual sides: stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potato mash, broccoli bake, stuffed mushrooms (I know, still Italian) and brown sugar glazed carrots. Similarly-themed was our dessert course- half American, half Italian-American. We had pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie…even key lime pie. And on top of that…Italian torte and biscotti.
We used to have fresh ham too (I guess someone realized that we needed to add more American dishes to the American holiday), but my family decided to give that up when we stopped having Thanksgiving Friday (for all those family members who couldn’t make it the day prior).
It took years of training for me to learn how to properly pace myself for this day-long feast. Sometimes a nap was needed, sometimes a walk. Most of my cousins left around proper dinner time (i.e. 7:30pm) but some stayed behind to help us clean up. After which, we would make another plate of everything we had already eaten throughout the almost 7-hour day.
This is the reason I love Thanksgiving so much. No commercialism which is so typical in America. No holiday songs or movies, no cards or gift-giving. Only eating (and drinking) with your loved ones. The purest form of celebrating and one that still managed to stay true to the original meaning the holiday was founded on. The only thing that I love more than Thanksgiving itself are the leftovers I have to look forward to the entire week after.
But where did this Italian-American Thanksgiving come from? How did a full-fledge Italian Sunday Supper sneak its way into this traditional turkey dinner? And why?
There’s no real answer out there, which is why I came up with my own. Perhaps it came from the Italian immigrants who wanted to celebrate the American holiday in the traditional way, yet at the same time wanted to keep their own old, cultural traditions. So, they sprinkled in their family recipes into the mix, making the holiday more of their own.
And what about the Italians living in Italy nowadays? Thanksgiving isn’t really celebrated outside of the expat communities living there. The traditional turkey dinner is hard to replicate given the availability (or lack thereof in this case) of certain ingredients. I’ve been told it’s nearly impossible to find a whole turkey in Italy and even if you do, most Italian ovens are too small to accommodate them. There are some establishments, like Hard Rock Café in Rome, that try to appeal to those wanting to celebrate Thanksgiving the good ol’ American way (or at least something close to it), but my advice would be to do what my Italian ancestors did. Use the ingredients right in front of you, mix them with some of your own family traditions and create a Thanksgiving uniquely your own.