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.

I just ordered my turkey for this year. The butcher tried to persuade me to order two smaller birds, "No oven can fit a bird as big as you want." But I insisted, having crammed them into ovens before. In fact, this year some friends are allowing us to use their Umbrian country home so we are going to cook the bird in a wood-fired pizza oven that I have no clue how to really use.

The turkey, while not commonly sold whole in Italy, is no longer so difficult to find. The other "must-haves" for Thanksgiving are trickier. Each year we embark on an expensive and exhaustive tour of various markets to secure the necessary ingredients.

There are two stores I know of that sell American pumpkin-pie mix along with the required evaporated milk needed to mix it all up. But if you don't get to those stores early enough, you are likely to find the shops sold out -- so two weeks out we trudge across town to secure our cans.

This year my mother is here for her first Thanksgiving abroad. She couldn't believe that we had to push the kids' stroller a mile across town to a tiny store to find our treasured pumpkin-pie mix. She also couldn't believe the price -- nearly $6 a can plus $4 for the evaporated milk. She doesn't know yet that there is no such thing as frozen pie crust already prepared in a convenient tin ready to fill and pop in the oven. We have a little rolling out to do still.

But this year we were in luck; our specialty store had a little American table set up, with the pumpkin and the cranberry sauce and the pecans all on one table.

About $100 later, we had enough to make the six pies and three carrot cakes with pecan frosting that are always on our Thanksgiving table. We bought enough cranberries that each guest will have a tablespoon to sample. My mom offered to make the sauce from scratch but whole cranberries are scarce. I just heard a report that they were spotted in Campo dei Fiori this year for the first time. Maybe we will have fresh cran-orange relish this year.

I try to ignore the exorbitant prices that I pay for a sweet potato, called an American potato over here. At the bigger vegetable markets in town you can find yams, too. But when I lived in England for all those many Thanksgivings before coming to Italy, it became tradition to have roasted parsnips as one of the 12 vegetable dishes.

Luckily, a great Australian colleague who lives in London and comes to our home every year for this holiday is always willing to shove a dozen parsnips in her purse. It is always a last-minute dash from the airport to get them in the oven on time but we haven't missed out yet.

The guest list has its regulars and they have come to expect some of the dishes that I prepare each year: Brussels sprouts in a cheddar-cheese sauce; roasted parsnips from London with orange zest; mashed potatoes; stuffing with fennel; and sausage. But we all like a little variety, so each year I bring in a few new dishes.

I learned my lesson trying to pull recipes from American cookbooks. Ingredients that add pizzazz to American cooking just don't exist here. There is no sour cream, no graham crackers, and if it's Cheez-it crackers you're after for a favorite baked squash dish, look for an American relative to bring it over. I have become a great innovator when it comes to following a recipe.

In the kitchen, with all willing hands on deck, chopping onions or piercing zucchini rings with slivers of red peppers, the pleasure of this shared experience we call Thanksgiving is evident in bursts of laughter . For the foreigners who come knowing nothing about the meaning of Thanksgiving, they always walk away from the table somewhat in awe.

Hopefully, the idea has now spread to South Africa, Iraq, Russia, Lebanon and so many other corners of the world from where our friends come.

My wife and I are especially grateful this year to share Thanksgiving with our new twin sons, Mattia and Zachary; it will be the first time they partake of our treasured tradition.

My family and I are thrilled to jump over the hurdles each year to share this American holiday with friends new and old; this one meal is set aside to offer for others what we are all thankful for and with the promise to reunite the next year to do it again.