For those whose heritage includes someone who has proclaimed thanks in a land distant from where s/he was born, and/or broke bread with the locals, this day has a particular ring to it. For anyone who has commemorated the specific holiday in lands distant to their own original homes, there is an odd symmetry to the original Thanksgiving event. This New Yorker classic-in-the-making will bring special pleasure to all who have commemorated the Thanksgiving holiday in far off lands:
Thanksgiving without borders.
BY JANE KRAMER
…I am what you might call an amateur of Thanksgiving. My family prefers the phrase “regrettably hospitable,” but I would add strategically hospitable, because Thanksgiving dinner has turned out to be the stealth weapon of my reporting life. Everybody knows something about Thanksgiving, though not necessarily what we eat or why we eat it.The word has entered the global lexicon; like Mickey Mouse, Elvis, and Obama, it opens doors. I discovered this as a young reporter, attempting to interview a Berber woman in a tent encampment a few hundred miles into the western Sahara, where I was pursuing a misbegotten story about nomadic women’s rights.
Her name was Fatma, and she was squatting beside a charcoal brazier, cooking her family’s dinner and answering my questions about oppression with the terse forbearance of an earthling suddenly confronted with a chatty alien, when I thought to ask her what was in her pot. She said it was goat—or, rather, pointed to a goat tethered outside her tent—and, smiling for the first time, asked if Americans ate goat at “the big feast of the hunters and the Christians.” We talked for an hour, through my increasingly bewildered (male) interpreter, during which time I learned that there was no word for “feminism” in her language, or, for that matter, for “recipe.” But she knew about the big feast. I stayed for the goat. It was very tasty.
By now, I can say that most of the people whose lives I’ve invaded since then, notebook in hand, sooner or later asked me about the big feast, and, if they didn’t, I told them. (The exceptions tend to be politicians, who, being not much given to what I would call a fruitful exchange of thoughts, will talk about food only if it’s their food and reflects highly on their status: Silvio Berlusconi, say, enthusing over the white truffles slathered on his pasta, or François Mitterrand, whose bird of choice was a two-ounce songbird, plumped for a month on figs and millet, drowned in Armagnac, and then roasted and eaten whole, beak optional, with your head draped in a linen napkin—the better to inhale the perfume of steaming brandy.) The subject of food, and kitchens and cooking, can lull even the most reluctant and suspicious people into conversation, and when I add Thanksgiving, where the food is not only plentiful but familial and friendly, to that conversation, they will shed any lingering doubts as to my good intentions and tell me what I came to hear. But it also means that at the end of the day, when my notebooks are full, I tend to be so overcome by the sense of friendship I have engineered—or so grateful, or perhaps so guilty—that I invite everyone to join my family for a Thanksgiving dinner. Anytime. Anywhere. Sometimes they come. Once, our doorman buzzed on Thanksgiving morning to say that my “guests” had arrived from Italy. I opened the door to a rustic couple whom I had last set eyes on years earlier, writing about a group of Communist peasants with a dairy coöperative (you turned in your cow, and got back a stock certificate with her name and her snapshot on it). They had recently sold their farmhouse to a rich German, left the Party, and, never having been on a plane before, decided to take me up on my invitation. They picked at the food. The next night, I made spaghetti.
I inherited my Thanksgiving strategy from my mother. It is said that families produce a good cook, or a good gardener, only every second generation, but, given that I am a good cook and my daughter a spectacular one, I have to assume that we are correcting a generational imbalance—making up for the fact that my mother, whose talents lay more in pruning rosebushes than in stirring pots, was a terrible cook and my grandmother worse. My mother’s one culinary achievement was a bland but passable Thanksgiving dinner. (Her stuffing was onions, celery, white bread crumbs, and a pinch of salt.) But it was memorable compared with what usually passed for culinary excitement in Providence, Rhode Island, in the Eisenhower fifties—a place where ordering Frenched chops at the butcher was considered flashy or, as my mother put it, “something they do in New York.” And part of what made it memorable was the collection of hungry foreign people—professors from Brown, musicians in town for a concert, war-refugee doctors my father had met on his hospital rounds—who sat in our dining room then, praising my mother’s stuffing as something exotic and American, or, you could say, authentically bland. It was a beautiful room, a room for feasting—the result of years of assaults on estate sales and hapless dealers who, as she liked to say, arriving home with a twenty-five-dollar cache of Georgian silver or an eighteenth-century Connecticut corner cabinet, “didn’t know what they had.” After she died, I moved almost everything in her dining room to my apartment in New York, hoping to move the spirit, if not the stuffing, of those Thanksgivings with them. My husband is an anthropologist, and it took a while for all that mahogany and silver to settle in with the Sepik River ancestor masks and assorted Pacific totems in their new room, but, once they did, I wrote “Thanksgiving” on a manila folder and started clipping recipes.
My stuffing began as a recipe from the Times, circa 1974: onions, green bell pepper, and celery hearts, sautéed in butter, mixed with corn bread and some crumbled toast, and bound by a cup of chicken broth and a few raw eggs, according to the yellowed page that is now disintegrating between my daughter’s Indian-pudding recipe and one for parsnip-and-pear purée. (Thanksgiving that year was “Southern,” the paper said, “plus a few trimmings of European inspiration”—which may or may not explain the red cabbage I started making then.) The stuffing has expanded over the years, with my kitchen confidence, to accommodate sausage, orange juice, parsley, thyme, sage, and an extravagant amount of toasted and chopped pecans. It is still expanding, but in 1976, when I got out my mother’s stuffing spoon and served my first Thanksgiving dinner at her table, I followed every recipe I used down to the quarter teaspoon. Clearing out a closet the other day, I discovered a box of snapshots from that Thanksgiving, taken by my friend and, at the time, downstairs neighbor Jane O’Reilly, who had appeared at my door at nine in the morning, bearing fresh coffee cake to fortify us for a long day’s cooking. One of those pictures is on my desk now; I am basting what looks like a twenty-pounder, balanced precariously on the open door of the oven that preceded my new stove. There are children and dogs underfoot, and grownups hovering with pot holders and coffee cups in their hands. We are all laughing. Thanksgiving looks easy, and it probably was, back in those early feminist days before the idea of the perfect meal invaded the heads of otherwise accomplished women, convincing them that voluntary servitude in the kitchen was the secret of their liberation.
At last count, I have cooked Thanks giving dinner in seven countries, starting with Morocco. The year was 1968. The city was Meknes. The bride—me—was cooking without benefit of silver, recipes, or a table. And the groom, deep in field work with a brotherhood of hospitable Sufi curers and musicians who danced their patients into trance in amiable, if occasionally bloody, exorcistic rituals, had decided, by way of reciprocation, to introduce them to Thanksgiving. Our larder, when I got this news, consisted of bread, Boulaouane wine, and several sacks of eggplants, Meknes being some months into an eggplant season that threatened to last all winter—and did. I had never tasted an eggplant in Providence, or, for that matter, at Vassar, where I went to college. My first experience with eggplants was in New York, at graduate school, and they were still as exotic to me as my mother’s stuffing was to the Europeans at her Thanksgiving table. I had already made grilled eggplant, tagine with eggplant, couscous with eggplant, soup with eggplant, and even eggplant stuffed with eggplant, and whenever I was tired of eggplant we would drive to Rabat for a steak smothered in pizzaiola sauce—the specialty of a restaurant called La Mamma, which was frequented that fall mainly by diplomats who were also tired of eggplant but not, in my experience there, by Sufi exorcists. So I made do…
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