Americans may not agree on much this November, but there’s a strong consensus that Thanksgiving is a rather special day when we stop to show our appreciation and count our blessings. Ideally, we put our differences aside and gather with loved ones to share an abundant turkey feast with all the trimmings. This year, many will celebrate alone, while others will downsize at the dinner table as the need to socially distance during the pandemic continues. One way I’ve been dealing with holidays and milestones since the spring lockdown here in Helsinki is by revisiting fond memories of past get-togethers and imagining the new ones waiting in the wings.
When I was growing up, my parents either hosted extended family at their home in Upstate New York or would drive my sisters and I on the heavily congested Taconic State Parkway down to our relatives in Queens. Whatever stressful traffic jams we encountered while waiting to cross the Throg’s Neck Bridge were soon a distant memory as the aroma of Grandma’s roasted turkey and Grandpa’s homemade apple pie permeated their home. Within minutes, we were all gobbling up generous portions of mashed potatoes, gravy, string beans, succotash (lima beans and corn), cranberry sauce, and cornbread. At the time, I had no idea that these were precious memories in the making—ones I’d cling to over the years when I lived far away.
After leaving the U.S. and moving overseas in 2001, I was determined to keep my family’s holiday traditions alive while creating new memories. For my first expat Thanksgiving I invited a small group of Hungarian friends and colleagues from International House in Budapest, where I was studying to become an English language teacher. They were eager to experience their first feast, as for years they’d been celebrating vicariously through episodes of Friends and American films. My not-so-modest goal was for my dining table to resemble the Hollywood ones they were familiar with. I also hoped my guests would come away with an appreciation of this American holiday.
The first challenge was finding a Butterball brand whole turkey, which is what my mother used to roast. It looked so easy: simply put the bird into the oven, baste its drippings occasionally, and then wait for the built-in thermometer to pop up when it was cooked. Voile! I asked a local friend, Mariann, where I could find such a low maintenance turkey. She seemed confused by my description, which was probably because turkey was not a regular staple of the Hungarian diet—at least not then.
“Oh, you’re going to Istanbul!” she said, “Lucky you.”
“Nem, nem,” I said, shaking my head.
After we’d exchanged a few Charades-like gestures, Mariann nodded and said, “You mean egész pulyka.” She wrote down these words for “whole turkey” and advised me to buy one at the Nagyvásárcsarnok (Great Market Hall), the city’s largest and oldest indoor marketplace. I’d not been there before, and with much anticipation rode the tram over the Freedom Bridge to the Pest side of the city.
A stunning Art Deco building with a glittery roof of yellow and green Zsolnay tiles greeted me. Inside the cavernous 10,000-square-meter space, two levels of vendor stalls offered various grades of sweet and pungent paprika, strudel, embroidered linens, and Tokaji wine. I could have spent days exploring all three floors, including the basement (over the years, I did), but on that November day, I was on a turkey-finding mission. Unfortunately, there was not a Butterball in sight.
After fortifying myself with a plate of deep fried lángos flatbread smothered in tejföl (sour cream), I retraced my steps, but to no avail. Eventually, I found a butcher and showed him the Hungarian words Mariann had jotted down. Through a forest of hanging sausages, he motioned to another vendor across the way. I thanked him and made my way to the poultry stall. As I approached, I noticed a large number of defeathered birds dangling from hooks above. I looked away and handed the vendor the note; he directed my gaze back to the birds.
“Those are egész pulyka?” I said, wincing.
He nodded. “You like?”
I shuddered. How could I tell him, especially in a foreign language I did not yet comprehend, that in my American culinary vocabulary “whole” meant headless and neckless? Did he expect me to finish the job back at my flat? Not only was I loathe to test out my butchering skills, but I couldn’t imagine stuffing the turkey inside a shopping bag and escorting it to my flat via taxi. It was also way too big to fit into my snug oven.
Unaware of my dismay, the vendor pushed aside his featherless flock as if they were embroidered shirts, and plucked a stray feather here and there from their smooth flesh. “This one?” he said, shaking a turkey thigh at me. I started to feel woozy.
“Nem,” I told him, and then walked away as fast as my wobbly legs would take me. Once outside, I half-considered becoming a vegetarian. Maybe in the new year…
The next day I continued my turkey quest with a visit to Match supermarket, but again, not a Butterball was to be found. However, I came across an assortment of fresh turkey pieces, which I purchased with gusto. Even though I’d envisioned serving my guests a perfectly symmetrical America-style whole turkey on a silver platter, at that point, I was relieved that I would be spared the fuss and muss.
On Thanksgiving Day, I cooked the meat, made gravy with the drippings, baked the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, boiled corn on the cob. If my friends were disappointed in the lack of an egész pulyka, they were too polite to show it. Instead, they seemed delighted by the abundant feast of tasty and colorful foods, ones not normally part of their everyday diets, and oohed and aahed over dessert. I was content that my new friends appreciated the efforts I’d made to satisfy their curiosity about Thanksgiving.
Today, as my husband Otto and I get ready to celebrate alone (not by choice, but for safety reasons) I’m thinking back to that first expat Thanksgiving and the many others I have since hosted and celebrated with non-Americans. (Luckily, Butterball-style turkeys are sold in Finland.) After living in a foreign country for so long, it’s gratifying to continue to share this treasured tradition from my homeland. Even though there are fewer side dishes on this year’s dining table, gratitude will feature prominently on the menu. Otto and I will give thanks for each other and the loved ones who aren’t with us, reminisce about Thanksgivings Past, and look with a hopeful heart toward Thanksgivings Future.