Giving Thanks, From Near And Far


For my first Thanksgiving overseas, I went to order a turkey at the poultry stand at a neighboring Barcelona market. “I’d like a 10-kilo turkey, please,” I told the proprietor.

He burst out laughing. “Nena,” he said. “Such a bird does not exist. You are a foreigner. You don’t understand how much is 10 kilos.”

“Yes, I do,” I responded. “I’m from America, where everything is bigger. We have lots of 10-kilo turkeys. I’m having 15 people for my Thanksgiving dinner, and I need 22 pounds of turkey.”

Everything is bigger in America (and bigger still in Texas). The first year my now-husband was invited to my family’s Thanksgiving, he volunteered to buy the turkey. “Honey,” my Eastern European boyfriend told me over the phone, “I’ve bought the biggest chicken you ever saw. It’s absolutely huge.”

“How big is it?” I asked, suddenly worried that it would weigh 30 pounds, take nine hours to cook and not fit in my oven.

“Huge,” he said. So you can imagine my surprise when Oggi turned up at my door in Brooklyn, swinging a small kosher turkey as though it were a lasso. I don’t remember how large it was exactly, but that bird couldn’t have weighed more than 10 pounds.

“You see,” he said, “this is a really big chicken.” Oggi came from a place without turkeys.

Ever since then I’ve wondered: Do Americans eat more because our poultry is bigger? We definitely eat a lot more turkey and more of everything else, too. I’ve learned this from many Thanksgivings abroad, having invited Spaniards, Swiss, Israelis, Serbians and other non-Yankees to share my turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce, cornbread and pie.

In America, you need a lot of food to have leftovers. People eat and eat and eat. In Southern Europe, they pick politely at the food. They nibble here and there, take a sip of wine, go out for a smoke on the balcony. They join in toasts and ask why Americans put sweet jam on their gigantic chickens.

They do not eat as though it were their patriotic duty to do so, because it isn’t. They do not clutch their stomachs, moan dramatically and debate the properties of tryptophan. (They definitely don’t sneak into the other room to watch football.)

People everywhere, however, do grasp the concept of gratitude. I have yet to encounter the language that has no translation for “thank you,” or the culture that does not celebrate its bounty with a meal. Combining the two — offering thanks over ceremonial food or drink — is a Jewish thing, a Christian thing, a Korean thing, a Malian thing. In short, it’s universal.

The universality of Thanksgiving has always been its greatest appeal. It’s also the reason the holiday travels so well. You don’t have to profess a faith, claim a cause or pray; you show up and eat and that’s enough.

While we may belong to different tribes at home, Americans abroad find each other at Thanksgiving, gathering to roast a communal turkey (though we may do it on the weekend if Thursday’s not a local holiday).

Thanksgiving, it has long been observed, is for everyone — a bland, starch-centric palette waiting for each family’s dash of ethnic color. We hear about neighbors’ rice-and-bean stuffing, Tofurkeys jazzed up with hot peppers, pasta side dishes.

My grandmother routinely served a Corn Flakes crumb-topped noodle kugel alongside the turkey, as she did for every holiday save Passover. Bland, beige and rich, that kugel was an excellent substitute for mashed potatoes, which were a Yankee oddity my grandmother never did fathom.

I like the symbolism of Thanksgiving’s New World ingredients: the corn, potatoes and beans that crossed the ocean to enliven Europe’s fusion cuisines. In some form, those staples are likely what my ancestors ate when they arrived from England nearly 400 years ago.

I’m sure they were thankful for those first crunchy ears of corn, just as I was grateful to the point of teary nostalgia when Ocean Spray cranberries showed up in my Spanish mailbox.

And I was even more grateful when I located a Peruvian poultry vendor in the Boqueria, Barcelona’s huge central market. “Pavo de 10 kilos,” he said, jotting down my order. “No problem.”

Thanksgiving may celebrate the Old World coming to the New — but that year in Barcelona, a vendor from the New World came to my rescue in the Old World, delivering the biggest chicken anyone had ever seen.