I hadn’t intended to do a full-blown Thanksgiving with my Austrian in-laws for fear that it wouldn’t feel the same. Thanksgiving Thursday was an ordinary workday, and our celebration would have to take place on Saturday. At that point, I figured it would be like any other Saturday when the family eats lunch together because that’s what happens when your relatives are also your neighbors. What if they don’t like the food? What if they miss the point of it? I was ready to shrug it off.
I had it all wrong. Thanksgiving turned out to be very special. Looking back, I realize that a) my defeatist thoughts are quite crippling, b) I was the one missing the point, and c) blessings come in many forms.
It was my brother-in-law and his girlfriend who motivated me to celebrate Thanksgiving. They called Juergen with the idea to surprise me with a dinner, knowing it’s my favorite holiday and wanting to take part in an American tradition. Their thoughtfulness and enthusiasm is what the holiday is all about– and exactly what I had taken for granted. After explaining to them that the point is to prepare the meal together, Juergen let me in on the plans. I’d have to take the lead in cooking so I can introduce them to the flavors of Thanksgiving. Everyone was on board with their contributions, especially Juergen who was responsible for translating recipes and converting measurements. So in the spirit of giving and sharing, we were to host the first Thanksgiving feast at our Austrian table.
My Austrian family was completely fascinated with Thanksgiving. They bombarded me with questions about typical customs, seeking validation for how the holiday is portrayed on TV. Thinking of Chandler Bing’s traumatic childhood Thanksgiving on Friends gave me a good chuckle. They knew that food, family, and gratitude are central to Thanksgiving, but I explained that there is no prescriptive way to celebrate. How Americans experience the holiday is varied and personal. They were intrigued by the idea of Thanksgiving as a homecoming, that it’s the busiest travel time of the year, that family members live so far away, and yes, it’s normal to travel such distances to be together for this meal.
Their other questions were likewise amusing and refreshing: Do you really cook a whole turkey? Do you get dressed up? Like in the movies where the cranky old man wears a sweater vest and a bow tie? Why do all the family secrets come out at Thanksgiving? (Thanks, Hollywood.) If the food sits out so long, doesn’t it get cold? Do you just put it in the microwave if you want to eat it again? What do you do with the extra food? Who do you invite? Who hosts it? Are restaurants open?
As for the food, I’d say that preparing a Thanksgiving meal in Austria is tricky but not impossible. With the following adjustments, we were able to pull off a successful feast:
- I ordered a 4 kg (8.8 lb.) turkey from Draxler in Graz. This was plenty for 9 people. It was the freshest turkey I’d ever prepared, or eaten, for that matter. I don’t think I can go back to frozen turkey.
- We have the Smart Car of ovens: cute and standard for Europe, but insufficient for a badass bird and a few oversized American casseroles. Strategic timing and maneuvering required!
- For pumpkin pie, I used butternut squash instead of a sugar pumpkin (the orange one).
- Despite the abundance of berry varieties here, I couldn’t find fresh cranberries so I used dried ones for the sauce. I think next time I’ll use pomegranates.
- One time we brought marshmallows to a backyard bonfire, and no one was impressed. They’re a curious American novelty, along with spray cheese and peanut butter, and I knew they wouldn’t be taken seriously at an Austrian dinner table. So I nixed it from my yam dish (sshh, don’t tell my Dad).
- Both kale and pecans are nowhere to be found; brussels sprouts are available but pricey.
- Condensed milk comes in a tube. Don’t mistake it for mayonnaise or toothpaste.
With our first Thanksgiving in the books, and more to look forward to, I’d like to wish you a wonderful feast this holiday season. For those who feel far away or alone, you’d be amazed at the good that comes from sharing a bit of yourself with others. Cheers!