Having a Happy Thanksgiving in Rome

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday; it's a time to share traditions with family and friends, to eat well and toast those things for which we are grateful.

The holiday is particular to North America and, while meaning no disrespect to our Canadian neighbors, for me it is true Americana -- festivities that everyone from all walks of life can partake of and enjoy.

So when I was transferred overseas almost 20 years ago, it was a tradition that I was determined to continue to celebrate. And with only a few exceptions, I have been hosting international Thanksgivings every year. But it isn't easy.

First of all, I always invite too many people. Of course, there is the inner circle of friends who invite each other to all celebrations. Then, any American who doesn't have other plans is welcome. Also, we always have foreign friends who come and sample turkey for the first time and share in the meaning of the holiday. And, in recent years, my new wife and her Italian family have joined the smattering of my relatives who came from the states to celebrate the holiday and visit the sights of Rome.

The number at the table is usually between 40 and 50; the most I have had is 75. And because tradition must be followed, it has to be a sit-down dinner with real plates, cutlery and glasses.

Forgetting the food for a moment, this is a real challenge. I have borrowed silverware and returned it to the wrong house only to fix the mistake the following year. I have taken tables and benches from the wine bar down the street and carefully carried the neighbors' best chinaware through the streets of Rome. The tablecloths never match and the decoration is simple. We push the furniture out of the way and everyone squeezes in shoulder to shoulder, always with the banter of two or three languages going on at different parts of our mishmash of a table.

Everyone knows the essentials of a Thanksgiving meal: a turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries and a pumpkin pie. My father, who was not a farmer but in the produce business, made sure that we always had a veritable cornucopia of vegetable dishes to serve. That has become our tradition. There must be at least 12 different vegetables on the table.

Let's start with tales of the turkey. I was nearly scared off when I first moved to Italy by the story I heard from friends of the American woman who had found a butcher to supply her the not-so-common turkey for her holiday. When she showed up to collect it on Thanksgiving eve, the butcher proudly presented a bird without the skin. He couldn't imagine what she would want with it.

Next comes the problem of the oven. Europeans don't have the big ovens you find in the United States. My 25-pound turkey takes up the whole oven and takes the whole day to cook. One year the oven door wouldn't close, so I shoved aluminium foil around the door to create a seal the best I could.

A few hours later, turkey juices were flowing out from the too-small pan, creating puddles across my kitchen floor. In later years I got smart enough to ask to borrow a friend's slightly larger oven. When it was time to collect the bird, four guests hoisted the pan and bird onto a plank, parading it down the street like a royal on his throne.

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