Make room for new traditions

The Bosnian girl wanted a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner and fixed it herself.

Larry Crowe/AP
Holiday feast: A turkey with stuffing is the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving meals.

When we said goodbye after last year's Thanksgiving feast, the cook who had made the turkey, stuffing, and gravy already had her nose in a book, preparing for the next meeting of her elementary school's book club. A new tradition had just begun for her. We didn't know then that a new one had started for us as well.

My husband and I were planning a quiet Thanksgiving Day at home, since our family wouldn't be gathering to celebrate until the next day. But that was before the phone rang Wednesday evening. "Joy, how long do you cook a turkey?" It was 11-year-old Dzenaela (pronounced Janella), whose family came to America from Bosnia.

"Well," I said, grabbing a cookbook, "it depends on how much it weighs." Dzenaela's mother, Zlatka, gets a frozen turkey every year from her employer, but she had to work on Thanksgiving Day.

"How do I weigh it?" Dzenaela wanted to know. I told her that it should be on the bag the turkey was in.

"Is it thawed yet?" I asked.

"Not yet, but I've got it in water in the sink," she said. "Mom works tomorrow but we've just got to have a real Thanksgiving turkey dinner."

"What else are you having?"

"Stuffing. Gravy. I'll have Dad get some stuff at the store. What shall I have him get?"

I listed onions, celery, chicken broth, sage, and thyme.

"What's sage and thyme?" she asked.

Figuring they'd never use them again, I said, "Oh, spices that you might not even like. You can probably skip them."

"Oh, we need pumpkin pie, too," she said. "I'm going to eat some even if no one else does. It's traditional."

"Why don't you just buy one at the store?" I suggested. "Get Cool Whip, too. Oh, and be sure to put the turkey in the refrigerator overnight to be safe."

That night I worried about Dzenaela's turkey getting thawed in time, and whether she could figure out how long to cook it. So Thanksgiving morning my husband, Guy, and I headed to their condo to help, carrying recipes, a meat thermometer, sage, and thyme.

We set to work making a timetable – when to put the turkey in the oven, then the stuffing casserole. Dzenaela got busy chopping celery and onions and making cubes of some of her mother's chewy homemade Bosnian bread. She suspiciously sniffed my sage and thyme, but said, "Oh, this smells like Thanksgiving."

"Joy, can't you and Guy stay for my first turkey? Please, please?"

Guy was visiting with Samir, Dzenaela's father, in the living room. When Samir learned that our family dinner would actually be the next day, he said, "Come, come! Have American Thanksgiving with us."

So we did.

But we went home first. I rustled up ingredients for mashed potatoes, scalloped corn, and a salad. By the time we arrived with our contributions, their condo smelled just like Thanksgiving. Zlatka was home from work, helping her daughter find a bowl for gravy. When everything was ready, she called everyone into the kitchen. Dzenaela's two younger brothers had to tear themselves away from a video game.

"Yum, smells good," said 8-year-old Adis, rubbing his stomach.

"Can I have a leg?" asked 6-year-old Denis.

"You made this?" Samir joked. "This is good."

"Yup, my very first turkey."

"What is this?" Samir asked as he dipped into the corn.

"Scalloped corn," I said.

He took a bite. "It's good. You teach Dzenaela this. OK? For next year."

The meal disappeared steadily. Both Samir and Guy had second helpings of everything. Dzenaela did, too.

"Don't forget to save room for pumpkin pie," she said. "It's traditional."

At their condo a couple of days later, I noticed that there was still one piece of the pie left. Maybe they'll like the taste of it better this year.

Yes, this year. Dzenaela wants to make Thanksgiving dinner again. After last year's feast, I made a shopping list for her and also a checklist, which starts with, "Sunday or Monday: Move the turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw."

She suggested roasting the turkey at my house this year since our table is bigger than theirs. I'll have the table set when she arrives. Then we'll work on the stuffing, the scalloped corn, and make a pumpkin pie.

Dzenaela will again be the star of the day, basking in compliments for her second Thanksgiving dinner. Last year she was the only one in sixth grade who roasted her family's Thanksgiving turkey.

Now she's a seventh-grader, and this feast has become her own special tradition. And ours as well.

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