In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday, held on the fourth Thursday in November, has its roots in celebrating the bounty of food. Celebrating the harvest -the fact that crops planted in summer survived to be harvested and that there would be enough to last through the winter- was something common to both Native Americans who held corn festivals and the English who settled on the shores of New England in the 17th century.
What is often referred to as the first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, and in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November as the official, national holiday.
For most Americans, Thanksgiving traditions -how you celebrate and what you serve- differ based on what part of the country you’re from. Here at the blog, we’re lucky to know a Massachusetts native who has been living in Bologna for the last 20 years. To give our readers a taste of an American Thanksgiving, we’ve asked Ann to share her Thanksgiving traditions with us.
Growing up in the US, we’ve all heard the story of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth rock and the celebration of the first Thanksgiving, which all took place in Massachusetts. What was it like growing up in the “birthplace” of Thanksgiving?
Plymouth is about a two-hour drive from my hometown. So as a child, I went on many school trips to visit Plymouth rock, where the first settlers were supposed to have landed. It was actually a bit underwhelming because, well, it’s just a rock, and a smallish one at that! I also remember trips to Plymouth Plantation, where we would watch a sort of re-enactment of how the original settlers lived. And there was the Edaville Railroad in the nearby town of Carver that you could ride through the cranberry bogs, which are native to the area. Those are just some of the things that stand out to me.
Take us back to those Thanksgiving dinners with your family, what were they like?
Our extended family actually shared meals together on a regular basis, but Thanksgiving was really a special day for us. It was a time when all of the things reserved only for special occasions -the nice dishes and silverware, the tiny silver salt dishes and their tiny spoons, and huge serving platters- came out of the cupboards.
Things that may have been a normal part of any other meal took on great importance and ceremony at Thanksgiving. Preparation started the night before and it seemed like they were cooking right up to the moment before we sat down to eat. Carving the turkey was an important part of our tradition, and I remember my father using the electric knife to cut the meat into these beautiful, thin slices.
This brings us to the food! Which foods were always on the table for a typical Thanksgiving meal?
Naturally there was a turkey, a large one, probably (20 or 25 pounds), and two types of gravy, giblet gravy and regular gravy, and lots of vegetables. There was the trio of squash, turnips and rutabaga, just stewed and salted; green beans, mashed potatoes, sautéed onions, mushrooms, and always, Pepperidge Farm stuffing and canned cranberry sauce (although my mother would later start making this from scratch). For dessert, it was always a medley of pies: apple, pumpkin, pecan, mincemeat and squash pie. But my favorite dessert was Indian pudding.
I’ve never heard of Indian pudding, what is it?
It is a mixture of corn meal, molasses, milk and raisins. For our family, this is a special recipe that has been passed down through the generations and we still have the handwritten version from my great-great grandmother. I suspect that it’s an acquired taste -to be honest, it doesn’t look very appetizing, and when I’ve made it for Thanksgivings here in Italy, no one seems to like it as much as I do! (The more for me!) For our family, it’s turned into a bit of a sentimental tradition- when any of us makes it, we send a picture of our Indian pudding to everyone else.
Were there other traditions?
As a child, we learned this little turkey song that I still remember to this day (and I’ve taught it to my children, ages 4 and 7), and we would make hand turkeys in school.
Another thing that stands out is that everyone in the family had a role in some aspect of the day. In addition to all of the preparation and cooking, setting the table and procuring the ingredients, someone always had to collect all the leftover turkey so that it could be used to make turkey soup and turkey sandwiches.
Looking back, it makes me smile to think about my father, working alongside his mother and his mother-in-law (it was always the three of them), to pick the meat off the bones.
On the day after Thanksgiving, the whole family -not only my parents and sisters but also my grandmothers and uncles- would take off to Boston for Christmas shopping. We didn’t call it Black Friday at the time, but apparently it was already a national habit, even then.
You’ve been in Italy for 20 years now, how long have you been celebrating Thanksgiving in Italy? I’ve heard horror stories of turkeys so large that someone had to take them to a forno to cook. Any funny stories to share?
My first Thanksgiving here was in 1994. My friend, an American guy, and I organized a dinner with some Italian friends, and it was this big affair. I went to the butcher to order the turkey and he somehow convinced us that we needed not one but two tacchinelle (female turkeys)! When we brought them home, only one of them would fit in our oven, so we had to take the larger one down the street to my boyfriend’s mother (now my mother-in-law) and hope that it would fit in her oven-luckily, it fit.
We spent the entire day cooking and by the time dinner was served, I was completely exhausted. It was my first time cooking a Thanksgiving meal, even after a lifetime of helping, it’s impossible to know how much work and time goes into something like that until you’ve tried it yourself! In the end, we still had an entire tacchinella left over!
We celebrate Thanksgiving most years, often with a mix of other Americans and Italians, and our traditions have taken on a twist. Interestingly enough, it’s my Italian husband who has taken on most of the cooking! Every year, he cooks a wonderful turkey, pumpkin pie made from scratch and a delicious squash/pumpkin dish that happens to be a French recipe.
A dear Italian friend of ours loves Martha Stewart. And every year, she goes through her holiday recipes and chooses a couple of dishes to prepare. So we have a great mix of tradition along with something new.
My kids are still learning the Thanksgiving traditions -naturally, they love the turkey song! Just last year, when my son was 3, he insisted on calling the tacchino (turkey) a tartaruga (turtle). After we’d finished eating, he turned to us and asked, “but what happened to the tartaruga?” and we explained that it was what we had just eaten. Let’s just say that he was a bit dismayed! We’ll see how it goes this year!
Interview by Charlotte
Preface by Monica
Find all the others blogposts on the theme Expats HERE
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