28 November 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Thanksgiving Italian Style

CHIAVARI Italy – Last November, when I was still living in the suburbs of Milan, I decided to invite a table full of Italian for a real American Thanksgiving. I knew I would be moving to the Riviera after the first of the year, and this would be the last chance for us all to get together.
it's All AboutTurkey
I like Thanksgiving food, roast turkey and dressing, candied sweet potatoes, veggies, salad, cranberry sauce, hmmmm, makes my mouth water just thinking about it, so all of those things were on the menu. I wanted the Italians to have a taste of the real America but since I also wanted them to be happy, I added pumpkin ravioli with butter and sage as a first course. 

It’s a difficult to find traditional Thanksgiving foods here in Italy, especially cranberries  and sweet potatoes. In other years I’ve gone up to Lugano, Switzerland to do my Thanksgiving shopping but I didn’t make it up to Lugano this time so I had to scratch the sweet potatoes and the cranberry sauce from the menu. No problem. I decided to substitute Italian mostarda for the cranberries – mostarda being a mix of small fruits like apricots and cherries that have been preserved in a spicy syrup, and as for candied sweet potatoes, well, even if I had found real sweet potatoes they don’t sell the type of brown sugar I need to candy them anyway, so they would have to be off the menu too.

What was left was pumpkin ravioli, roast turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, some kind of vegetable, salad and pumpkin pie. That sounded ok. Actually it sounded pretty good. Mashed potatoes, no problem, potatoes we have by the bushel full, salad too. Sara offered to bring her mother’s potato and prosciutto torte, so that was good and Silvia offered her boyfriend Max’s Tiramisu. 

I Would Have Been So Happy to Make Pumpkin Pie
Not exactly American fare, but I did want them to be happy. I wanted to be happy too and so it was a disappointment that pumpkin pie was going to be scratched from the menu because the closest thing to a pumpkin in my local market was butternut squash. Reluctantly I settled on pears poached in sparkling white wine with a dark chocolate sauce.  

Now I had pumpkin ravioli, roast turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, zucchini and carrots, green salad, Sara’s potato and prosciutto torte, Max’s Tiramisu and poached pears with dark chocolate sauce. Now to find a turkey.

I spent most of Monday and Tuesday going around to the grocery stores in Saronno trying to order a turkey. My oven is small so I wanted one that weighed no more than 12lbs. My first stop was the grocery store where I do most of my shopping. 

“I think that’ll work,” the butcher said to me, “but come back tomorrow and I’ll let you know for sure.”

No problem. I’ve ordered turkeys from them before and they always delivered. Next day I went back to find that the butcher I had spoken to was not there, there was another guy. I told him my conversation with butcher No. 1 and asked about my turkey.

“Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “There’s no way I can get you a whole turkey this week, it’s too early. Whole birds are not available until the week after next.”

“But how much of a problem can it be,” I asked. “Just pick up the phone, call the distributor, tell them you need one now.”

He just shook his head. No can do.

Fine. Surely Walter, who has been supplying Saronese mamas with poultry for more than 20 years out of his hole in the wall store in downtown Saronno can get me a whole turkey. 

“I’m not sure,” said Walter. “Let me call my supplier, hang on a minute.” He picked up his cell phone and dialed a number and explained to whoever answered what he wanted. Then came a series of “ahha, ok, I see, hmmm, va bene, etc.”

He put his hand over the his phone and said, “he’s checking, but it’s going to cost you 20€ a kilo.”

What? 20 euros a kilo! That’s about $14 a pound. Are they out of their minds? What in hell do they feed their birds at that poultry farm? Truffles and caviar? We're talking turkey here, not some exotic creature. 

“Ah, hold on a second,” I say fanning myself with my hand to keep from fainting. “Let me think about this for a minute before I commit to spending $168 of my hard earned American buckeroos for a turkey.” 

But before I could even begin to think about it, Walter put his phone down, shook his head and said, “He can’t get it, sorry.”

So even if I had agreed to the outrageous amount of $168 for a turkey it was not available, not even from the guy who makes his living selling poultry. That stinks. Alright now, there are other grocery stores in this town, let me shop around a little more.
Dreaming of Roast Turkey
At Grocery Store No. 2 the butcher shook his head and said flat out, “not possible, it’s too early, sorry.” Now I’m getting worried. I trot up to Grocery Store No. 3.  

The butchers in Grocery Store No. 3 are glassed in behind a tall counter I can hardly see over, and they certainly cannot see me. Not being the kind of woman that is easily deterred, I walk into the back of the store – entering absolutely forbidden territory - and signal to the butcher that I need to talk to him. 

He seems like a nice guy, and I explain what I want. He says okay, he will order a turkey for me, maybe not quite 12 lbs, but at least 8 lbs. I say, “okay, fine.”  I am resigned to taking what I can get.

“Just one thing,” he says, “you have to pick it up on Thursday because that’s when the poultry come in.”

No problem. My Thanksgiving feast was on Saturday, so picking up the bird on Thursday was fine with me. Maybe I should tell you at this point, in case you are wondering what all this to and froing is about, that there are no frozen birds in Italy. Actually there is no frozen meat at all, frozen fish, frozen vegetable, even frozen pasta yes, but meat . . . no.

Allora, with the turkey ordered I felt better and got on with the rest of the things I had to do. Thursday morning I hike up to Grocery Store No. 3 – which is without exaggeration at least a mile from my apartment. I am not exactly thrilled at the idea of walking back home carrying 12 lbs. of raw turkey, but Thanksgiving comes but once a year and some sacrifices must be made.   

When the walked into the grocery store and the butcher saw me, his face fell. “I’m sorry,” he says, “they didn’t send it. Maybe they didn’t have one ready for today, can you come back tomorrow?”
Crap. I was disappointed, he seemed disappointed but it didn’t matter how disappointed we were, there was no turkey to be had that day. Next day I went back, a little annoyed at having to trudge up there again, but like I said, …… Thanksgiving only comes once a year. 

This time, when I saw the hound dog look on his face, I knew there was no turkey in my future. No roasted turkey, no candied sweet potatoes, no cranberry sauce, no green bean casserole (did I mention there is no Campbell soup here?), no pumpkin pie. Time to reprogram the menu app.

New menu. Pumpkin ravioli, two capons with dressing and gravy, mashed potatoes and gravy, zucchini and carrots (my secret recipe), Sara’s potato and prosciutto torte, mostarda, Silvia’s Tiramisu and poached pears. Hummphf, that doesn’t sound very Thanksgiving like to me. 

My first reaction was to make up a bunch of signs and protest the Italian Industrial Alimentary Complex that controls what I eat and when I eat it, my second reaction was to roast up the capons, mash the potatoes, make the gravy and the rest of the stuff, put it on the table, break open a couple of bottles of wine and enjoy sharing a meal with people I really like. Which is what I did. Still makes me mad though.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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