The Bird’s the Thing

Vertical-Hi Res W_peopleWanted in Rome (Nov 2002) Practically every continent has some version of a thanksgiving festival, from Africa’s Kwanzaa, to India’s Pongal and China’s August moon festival. Each of these cultures celebrates the end of the harvest with a shared feast of the bounty. However, celebrating a traditional holiday outside your native country can be challenging. To those who know the North American-style Thanksgiving found in the United States and Canada, one thing that immediately leaps to mind is food—lots of it.

For newcomers to Italy, tracking down recipe ingredients for this North American holiday can give even the most avid shopper indigestion. Thanksgiving and turkey go together like Easter and chocolate. But finding whole turkeys in Italy isn’t a given. The store manager at a neighborhood supermarket gave a blank look when asked when the tacchini interi or whole turkeys would arrive and then said “mai”—never.  It isn’t like you can make a substitution and no one will notice. One does not have Thanksgiving pork chops or Thanksgiving strip steak. Thanksgiving requires turkey. Consulting seasoned ex-patriots provided some much-needed guidance.

Talking turkey with your local butcher or macellaio is apparently the way to go. With a week’s notice, sometimes less, a turkey can be special-ordered and readied for pick-up. Jill Peacock (originally from Erie, PA) orders her bird from her local supermarket, “Emme Piu’” in Olgiata. Alison Lewis who hails from Chicago spent her first Thanksgiving in Rome last year. She waited a little too late to order and was relegated to purchasing proxy poultry, a chicken. Mauro Ciafani, a butcher in Trastevere, said it isn’t only Americans that order whole turkeys, though not many Italians do. A sign in the display case pictures a turkey and advertises turkeys stuffed with chestnuts or plums, an appetizing variation.

Having discovered the secret to securing a turkey, it is time to begin the hunt for the other rare commodities. Traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin and pecan pies. Thankfully, some ingredients are not a problem; potatoes are potatoes and green beans are green beans. But at the risk of sounding coddled, how does one make pumpkin pie without opening a can of pumpkin puree? Would it be necessary to haul an entire pumpkin home and whack away at it for a similar effect?

Kathy Quinn (New York, NY) has made a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for most of the 29 years she has lived in Rome. She still makes homemade pumpkin puree, but she offered this suggestion for those who are less of a purist: Innocenzi in Piazza San Cosimato. This specialty store, owned by brothers Giovanni and Giancarlo Innocenzi, fulfills a niche by stocking a multitude of ethnic products which are difficult or impossible to find in most other Roman food stores. While here you can also check cranberry sauce off your list. Innocenzi carries other favorites including Betty Crocker brownie mix, Cap’n Crunch cereal, and Old El Paso tortillas and taco seasoning. The word on the street is that they are due to receive marshmallows any day now. Castroni, an intoxicatingly aromatic specialty food store with eight Rome locations (, boasts “Specialita’ da tutto il mondo.” Cranberry sauce and pumpkin puree are also available here, as are Campbell’s soups, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup, and Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies.

Oh, nuts! Hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews and peanuts are easy to find, but have you tried to locate pecans? Niente!  Pecans are mysteriously missing from Italy. After a fruitless search, Alison Lewis substituted hazelnuts in a recipe for pecan pie. Amazed and delighted with the outcome, she discovered that “they tasted exactly the same!” A recent search of Castroni on Via Cola di Rienzo finally netted the elusive pecans.

A few years ago, at a Thanksgiving luncheon sponsored by The American Women’s Association of Rome, the pies didn’t turn out as hoped. Sherrie Satta (Tulsa, OK) relayed an incident where the Italian chef “couldn’t fathom that a pumpkin pie was sweet” so in lieu of sugar he added salt.

One year Anna Felberbaum, who has lived in Rome her entire life, organized a Thanksgiving dinner for 200 students and faculty at one of the local American universities. Cleverly, she employed an American chef to cook the turkeys and pumpkin pies. She ordered the potatoes from a rosticerria. No strangers to the holiday, her American father and English mother capture the spirit of Thanksgiving each year by inviting other families and Italian friends to share the repast, even adding pumpkin ravioli to the banquet.

Peacock usually invites about 20 Italian friends, who “all love Thanksgiving.” But with so many eager guests, she sounded a bit disappointed that there were no leftovers last year and that the turkey carcass was “picked clean.”  And Quinn who always invites friends and her Italian husband’s family says “they expect it now.” Who knows, maybe if enough Italians are invited to share Thanksgiving dinner, Italy will make it a national holiday too. One contributor, who shall remain anonymous, was eagerly anticipating Thanksgiving this year. Her only concern was that her relationship with her Italian boyfriend was a bit unstable and “he’s the one with the big oven.”

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