Ah, life as an expat in Italy. Though not always easy, of course, it is a sweet life on the whole. One of the upsides of living so far from home was the closeness this bred among friends. And nowhere was this bond more evident than over a huge meal -- which, for those of us who are or were Americans living in Rome, means Thanksgiving.
The first year I spent Thanksgiving in Rome, I was new, and bold enough in my kitchen job to ask for the day off of work. I made sure that our group of friends had our very own expat Thanksgiving to celebrate, with family favorite recipes and more side dishes than we could fit on any table. That first year started a tradition among us for the Big Rome Expat Thanksgiving. We had some basic rules to follow: everyone was to bring a dish (usually a side dish but sometimes an appetizer or a dessert), a small donation (to help pay for decor, plates and utensils, etc.), and a bottle of wine (in Rome in late November, that meant a lot of bottles of novello, the light, young wine perfect for drinking with turkey). The only guests allowed, with some degree of flexibility on a case-by-case basis, were Americans, close English-mother-tongue friends (often Brits), and significant others. The significant other category was usually the only way Italians were invited to join in our very American traditional feast.
This didn't mean that our table wasn't full of its fair share of italiani. So many in our famiglia romana had a spouse or S.O. who was Roman, or at least from somewhere on the Italian peninsula. Some of our Americans were half-Italian, our Italians half-American. But at the Thanksgiving table, everybody was an honorary American.
Of course, Italians and particularly Romans are furbi: sly, especially when it comes to good food. So our Italian friends who knew they had no claim to a place at our expat Thanksgiving table also knew that there would be plenty of leftovers, and on a Friday, and really, that was the best part.
"Thanksgiving," my friend Matteo once claimed, is the American holiday "piu' figo di tutti." It was a sentiment echoed year after year by my Italian amici: Thanksgiving is the best American holiday, by far. It's because it's a secular celebration that's ALL about eating -- certainly as much as any Italian saint day or celebratory feast day. Italians can really appreciate that. And so can we, as Americans! My favorite part of the whole production was enjoying the leftovers, whether simply reheated or made into one fabulous panino, or converted into a sort of shepherd's pie, American style.
I remember with particular fondness one Thanksgiving in the mid-aughts, when my friend and stand-in for little sister, Tilly, ended up sleeping over after the Thanksgiving meal, and we stayed up late eating il secondo dessert (dessert, part two) and binge-watching the American version of the series The Office until the wee hours. And, we put a dent in the excess of wine we had left over.
We woke up late the next morning (ok, afternoon) and my Italian friends began calling. What are you doing for lunch today? they'd ask. Are you at home, and might it be okay if I passed by to say hello? Some would ask, how about doing an aperitivo at your place tonight? Can I come by around 5 pm? We all knew it was a put-on. We all knew what they were getting at. And anyway, I'd promised my dear Italian friends for whom we'd not had room at the expat Thanksgiving table, that there would always be room for them to enjoy our feast the next day (when everything tastes better, anyway). I'd walk them through all of our dishes -- some regionally-inspired, like Martin's creamed corn casserole, others personal family traditions, like my Mom's spinach pie, and others historically traditional, like sweet potatoes and succotash.
Gareth always loved his glazed carrots. GB made cornbread. I insisted on making whole cranberry sauce from fresh cranberries (the search for which is worthy of a separate blog post!), and I always wanted a few different types of stuffing because, well, stuffing is personal. And the desserts! I always made something chocolate, an apple pie, and either a pecan pie or chocolate-swirl cheesecake (or Lizzy made a pumpkin one)...and on and on. My Italian friends' faces would light up when I'd go through the history of the dishes, and why they were served on our holiday table, and who made them and why. And then we'd all dig in. Many of the flavors on Thanksgiving were completely new to the Italians enjoying them (cranberry sauce, pecan pie, corn casserole). Some were familiar (stuffing is like a warm panzanella, with no tomatoes or cucumbers or vinegar! Corn bread is polenta-adjacent!) All were delicious, and devoured. In my not-so-humble opinion, my apartment in Rome was always the site of some of the best dinner parties anyone has attended, expat or no. But no organized dinners were quite so joyous as the meals we shared among friends-as-family, reheated in casserole dishes and Pyrex platters, heaped onto paper plates, and washed down with Italian wine and great conversation on those late November afternoons.