It’s taken me a few weeks to process the ordeal of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner for 6 Italians in a kitchen that is not my own, having to convert temperatures, cups, grams, milliliters, ounces, and improvising half of the ingredients, transporting most of the food on a train for four hours, including one apartment power-outage and a trip to the police station.  But now that all of the vittles have finally, hopefully, been digested, I can write about this experience from the relative calm of my mid-December apartment in Rome.

My MBA program gave us a few days off to celebrate Thanksgiving in any way possible in this country that does not celebrate in any way, period.  Some of my classmates had pot-luck parties in their apartments, others went to American restaurants where turkey-and-stuffing buffets were being served.  But since I have a certain Italian in Turin to impress with my cooking skills (this is the one meal I can make better than his mother), and some days off, I planned a Thanksgiving meal for two in that coldest of Italian cities.  We also planned to make a long weekend out of it and explore the surrounding Alpine villages.  It was all going to be so awesome and meaningful.

I suggested, since I was going to be making a lot of food, that he invite his American friend to join us with her Italian boyfriend. Wouldn’t that be cute? Two American girls and their Italian gentlemen friends, bonding over gravy and hilarious cultural misunderstandings.  I’m not sure how he relayed this invitation to her, but the next thing I knew, the dinner was going to be held at her house and we were going to be cooking it together.  For the four of us plus two other couples, all Italians.  Cooking with her was fine; although I had never met her I was looking forward to spending the day with another American expat in Italy and getting our hands quite literally up a turkey.  But cooking in your own kitchen is one thing… cooking elbow to elbow with a total stranger in a strange kitchen with a strange oven is quite another.  Not all of you, but SOME of you reading this know what I mean.

Anyway, my menu planning was meticulous.  The idea was to buy everything special here in Rome at Castroni, not knowing where to get these items in Turin after I arrived.  Here is what I was able to find at this oasis of a store:

  1. Bruce’s canned sweet potatoes (or yams, depending on where you’re from).  You’re not going to find the fresh ones anywhere and these are delicious and easier to mash anyway.
  2. Marshmallows
  3. Pecans (7 euros for a tiny bag)
  4. Canned pumpkin
  5. Evaporated milk
  6. Cornbread mix
  7. Bisquick
  8. Cranberries (sauce, but not jelly)
What a find!

What a find!

While I was there I got some spices, too, but I suppose I could have gotten them anywhere.  So! I paced all these very heavy items into a rolling suitcase and, the day before Thanksgiving, boarded a train north to Turin.   I went straight to the grocery store, where I got a million other things.  Dried cherries.  Aluminum pie pans.  Apples.  Flour.  Sugar.  Soy milk/butter/cream for Mr. Lactose Intolerant in the driver’s seat.  Eggs.  Produce of all sorts.  Dried porcini mushrooms.  Good bread.

I made the two pies – pumpkin and apple with lattice AND cinnamon crumble topping – the night before.  I made the crust from scratch because, first of all, it’s always better than store-bought, and also I wasn’t sure if Italian ready-made crust is the same.  Plus I wanted to cut some dough for the lattice over the apple pie and, oh yeah, I needed to make sure the whole thing was lactose-free.

It was the best pie crust I’ve ever made. It consisted simply of flour, margarine (I assure you I usually bake with real butter), water, and a little salt.  I will never buy a ready-made pie crust again. I think I ate half of it raw, just pinching it off as I rolled.

And speaking of rolling, I was staying with an Italian bachelor. If you think he had a rolling pin, you’re wrong.  If you think I looked around for a substitute and settled on a roll of Saran wrap, you’re right.

The next morning I got up at what seemed like dawn (I was making pies until 2 AM), and went across town to his friend’s lovely apartment near the train station.  Her very nice boyfriend was there, and so was her roommate, and a cat.  We left to go pick up the turkey she had ordered from a butcher down the street.  Carrying it home, cradled in my arms in a plastic bag, it felt every bit like a small child. Unsettling, but funny. I was relieved it had been plucked.  Well, mostly.  She and I broke out her tweezers to get some stubborn bits still stuck in the skin.

Taking a break from cooking  on this Torinese balcony.

Taking a break from cooking on this Torinese balcony.

Over the next several hours, we made stuffing (the most wonderful stuffing I’ve ever had, thanks not to my hands and sense of smell but to the wonderful ingredients available at the typical grocery store (dried porcini mushrooms instead of button, fantastic crusty bread, fragrant parsley, for example), and also thanks to the existence of Castroni in Rome (pecans!!).  At some point, the use of the oven AND the microwave at the same time was too much for the centuries-old apartment building’s currents and the electricity went out.  No one panicked, and it was back on soon thanks to the Italian in the house who was used to it.

Stuffing before going into the oven.

We also made sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, several salads, white potatoes with bacon, carrots in orange juice and brown sugar glaze, cornbread, biscuits – what else? – oh, finally the turkey.  Then there were the pies to reheat, and voila’! It was suddenly twelve hours later and time for the guests to arrive. I was so excited I could hardly stand it.  The Italians loved the food, and I got to make a nerdy speech about the historical origins of Thanksgiving.  Everyone was just beyond nice, and one guy, it turned out, was a huge fan of the great state of Tennessee (random????) which delighted me utterly.

Hard to believe this is an Italian table.

Hard to believe this is an Italian table.

After the last dessert plate was cleared, we all played Taboo in Italian (which I did as well at as I do in English, I am thrilled to report), and the other American gal brought out some sugar cubes soaked in pure alcohol and mint leaves, which somehow didn’t melt in the process.  We all ate one and they were terrible.  But funny!

What the Italians did not know is that cooking that meal was like some big elimination challenge on Survivor or something.  Or like, the physical challenge in Double Dare.  Can you answer this question or do you want to take the physical challenge?  Physical challenge? Ok, cook a Thanksgiving meal in a strange country with a Celsius oven and everything measurable in grams and only about 75% of the usual ingredients and utensils available!  I am amazed anything, let alone everything, turned out well, given that I ended up eyeballing almost all the measurements and hoping for the best on the temperature.

Brown sugar.  Many of the dishes for which I was responsible required brown sugar.  I had asked the American girl several times over email if she was sure she had it.  She kept saying yes, and I found it hard to believe that brown sugar could be so impossible to find in Rome yet so easily available in Turin, but I didn’t want to sound too know-it-all and took her word for it.  She did not have brown sugar, she had CANE sugar, which indeed is very easy to find but is not the same thing.  The whole point of brown sugar – the very soft, fine, caramel colored sugar you heap packed into every chocolate chip cookie recipe, for example – is that it is so easily dissolved.  Cane sugar is the opposite – large, hard grains that float and crunch when you sprinkle them onto a cappuccino.  Real brown sugar should sink into a cappuccino in a syrupy lump.

What would my grandmother do?  WWMGD is how I get through most dilemmas in the kitchen.  What would she and my great-grandmother have done around in their Virginia kitchen during the Great Depression? Abandoned the half-made dishes for lack of brown sugar? Substituted relatively flavorless bleached sugar?  No.  So, I measured out the crystals of cane sugar into a small plastic bowl, turned a pepper shaker upside down, and used it to grind the cane sugar into fine brown sugar myself.  I just totally MacGyvered it the cane sugar into fine brown sugar and called it a day.

The weekend was cut short because my host had a work trip to make, so I had to go back to Rome the next day.  The tragedy of it all was that I was flying back and could not take leftovers.  I am already planning next year’s menu…and plan to cook it in my own home.  Wherever in the world that is.