In the land of mopeds and pasta, a turkey feast
Growing up, I celebrated Thanksgiving at home in upstate New York. Since moving to Italy eight years ago, I have tried to channel into my Roman living room the alluring smells and lackadaisical afternoons of my childhood: a potluck pigout, a blend of family and friends, a hymn belted out around the piano, fall foliage, and crackling wood in the fireplace. And always there was a mishap: the year my brother knocked over the homemade pumpkin soup, and the countless times my father lit a fire in the den without opening the fireplace flue.
I wish I could say I had helped out in the kitchen when I was little, but somehow it seemed as though the food just appeared. When the tray of shrimp and dipping sauce debuted in the den, Thanks- giving at home had begun.
It's a little different in Rome. My Italian butcher delivers the turkey on his moped, propped up between his legs and the handlebars. Faxes whip back and forth across the Atlantic as my mother sends copies of her recipe cards.
On the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I go on treasure hunts around Rome to find scarce sweet potatoes, nonexistent cranberries, and overpriced pumpkin-pie filling.
Italians often blink their eyes rapidly when I explain the importance of Thanksgiving for Americans: a time to give thanks, to reunite with family, and to cook and eat all day.
"It sounds like the way we spend every Sunday," they say.
Over the years, I have tried to show them how Thanksgiving distinguishes itself from an average Italian Sunday.
For starters, I say that Americans manage to transform the taste of a dull bird that is virtually ignored for the rest of the year into a banquet masterpiece.
No church or religion imposes the giving of thanks - we demand it of one another.
As a child, I remember squirming at the table when my father would question us the way he might a freshman in his Shakespeare class on what we were most grateful for that year. I always managed to mutter something.
Over the years, my gratitude grew. Giving thanks at the family forum became a rite I cherished - even if it did occasionally make me sweat before grace.
On Thanksgiving, Americans celebrate sitting still to eat, I tell Italians, a habit perhaps more European than American these days.
In my family, we help out in the kitchen in the morning, start eating around 3 p.m., and finish with a walk outside and a late afternoon nap. We strike up conversations with relatives, and in the process, we set up a forum to talk about the importance of things that we might otherwise leave unsaid.
My Italian husband has responded enthusiastically to my "preaching" about the importance of Thanksgiving. He embraces the tradition of cooking a turkey with love and flexibility.
With my mother's faxes in hand, my husband stirs her stuffing for hours and throws in some of his own ideas - maybe the finest Italian sausage from Campo de' Fiori or day-old pizza bianca from the bakery down the street.
Gradually, the childhood scents of both Italy and the United States seep into our Roman kitchen.
For our Thanksgiving meal in Rome, we set up the living room table as a buffet. People eat off plates held on their laps. No pasta is allowed - the only "primo" is often a "zuppa di zucca," or pumpkin soup.
The Italians might complain about the absence of bread on the table, which we don't serve because my family didn't.
"Isn't it enough that it's in the stuffing?" I ask.
Often Italian guests feign horror at the amount of food at the buffet. But by the end of one Thanksgiving evening, an Italian doctor had pulled a chair up to the buffet and began dissecting the turkey with the carving knife and his fork. We rarely have leftovers.
Our Italian Thanksgiving has become a delicious blend of Italy and America. It's a noisy feast that begins at 8 p.m. and lasts until midnight.
No one is ever quiet enough or seated to say grace. Often the doors are open to the garden, letting in the warm Roman air of November.
But many other things are the same as I remember from my childhood: Sometimes the conversations, often three or four at a time, feel like bids at an auction. A cellphone rings and suddenly the entire room is involved in the conversation.
At the end, the Italians thank me for bringing a stuffed turkey, and America, into their lives.
Of all our turkey feasts together, my husband and I have never had Thanksgiving in America. One year soon, we expect it will happen.
I've told my mom she better have some bread for him. And he has even admitted he will try the purée of marshmallows and sweet potatoes that I haven't yet dared serve in Rome. Just as long as he can finish with an espresso.