November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving in Bavaria

Well, it wasn’t best Thanksgiving meal Kevin and I have ever prepared, but it was one of the most fun. Saturday night, we had the Fakhers – the whole family – over for a belated Thanksgiving. It was their first, so we wanted to make it as traditional as possible. And, as I’ve been getting rather homesick lately, I was looking forward to some real comfort food. However, creating a traditional American Thanksgiving halfway around the world proved to be trickier than we had imagined.

For starters, I didn’t realize until I was out of my own culture, how very culturally specific most Thanksgiving-related items are, such as turkey basters. They just don’t have those over here. Or what about meat thermometers and disposable roasting pans? In Germany they build things to last; disposable items are considered bad for the environment and thus, verboten. Consequently, they only sell the BMW of meat thermometers for 40 euro ($80) and heirloom roasting pans for 250 euro (that’s $500!). Needless to say, we decided to take our chances and do without. Oh, and you can forget about pumpkin pie. Not only can you not find pre-made pumpkin pies at the local grocery stores, you can’t even find pumpkin-pie-in-a-can! I asked all the Germans I know where I might find the necessary ingredients and they looked at me in horror, “You mean, you put that in a pie?”

Finding a turkey was the easy part. The German’s love pute – in Bavaria it’s often easier to find turkey breasts than chicken breasts – but they rarely want the whole bird. Goose is their feast bird of choice. Luckily, I found a frozen Turkey at a fancy department store downtown, but like most department store purchases, it was small and expensive. The largest one they had was only 5.4 kilos, or about 12 pounds, and cost about $40. I’m pretty sure I paid less than that for the 20 lb. Kosher-brined, free-range organic Turkey of previous Thanksgivings, but beggars can’t be choosers. In the end, it was enough to feed our six guests and still have a few leftovers – if you’re not too picky about what part of the bird you put in your turkey sandwich, that is.

Stuffing was a challenge, though. Every stuffing recipe I found called for a 14 oz. bag of bread cubes. This was not a problem in Boston, where I could buy bags of “gourmet organic herbed bread cubes” at Trader Joe’s, but Germans buy their bread fresh, every day, from the baker’s. I approximated it as best I could by purchasing two white loaves at my corner bakery, cubing them, and letting them sit out and dry for a couple of days. I mean, that’s probably what the Pilgrims did, right?

Now my favorite Thanksgiving dish is not so much a dish as a condiment. I love cranberry sauce, in particular, the kind that comes from a can and retains its perfect cylindrical form even on your plate, but I knew better than to expect that sort of delicacy here. In fact, cranberries are so uncommon here that German doesn’t even a word for them. So I was forced to make my own cranberry sauce, using 1 part Priesselbeeren jam (whatever a Priessel berry is) to 1 part fresh cranberries, again purchased for exorbitant sums from the fancy department store. It worked more or less, but I never could get it molded into the shape of a can.

The one area where we encountered no difficulties was in the fresh produce department. The Germans really excel at this. Any day of the week you can stroll over to the open-air market in the middle of town and find exotic fruits, vegetables, and spices, as well as picture-perfect seasonal vegetables. I bought beautiful green beans from France, sweet potatoes from Israel, and big red Amaryllis to brighten my table. They even had a wide array of pumpkins, but I refrained. As much as I love pumpkin pie, there was just no way I was going to attempt to make one from scratch. I mean, has anyone in the history of American Thanksgivings ever even attempted that?

Despite all the difficulties in assembling the ingredients, cooking went off without a hitch. Everything came out of the oven just as our guests rang the doorbell, which was fortunate since as soon as they arrived we were bombarded by kisses and gifts and well-wishes from the whole family and couldn’t get back to the kitchen. And would you believe, Christine and Louise even brought a pumpkin pie, which they made from scratch that very morning! I nearly cried.

In the end, despite all our preparations, the turkey and dressing were a little dry and the gravy was too salty, but without any means of comparison, our guests thought it all tasted great. As is usual for little kids, they ate only turkey and rolls, but they said my rolls were the best they’d ever tasted. I was happy to share with them my recipe: Pillsbury sourdough rolls from the can. So much for traditional German bakeries! Our guests didn’t think much of their pumpkin pie, though. The kids wouldn’t even try it. Too “fremd” they said. But all the better for us. Kevin and I had homemade pumpkin pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day.

It was so much fun to get to share our traditions with people who were experiencing them for the first time. The Fakhers have become our ersatz family over here and whenever we’re with them, I feel completely at home, even if dinner table discussion happens in a miss-mash of English, French and German. Although we didn’t have a single family member present and we were celebrating three days late, it was one of my favorite Thanksgivings ever. We might have to try this recipe every year.

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