Pour on the Gravy Milan!


Explaining Thanksgiving to Italian can be an interesting venture.  It is not that Italians aren’t curious about our heritage holiday, but it is the total concept of the holiday and the meal that is intriguing to the curious Italian.

For starters, lets talk about the history.  Well, there were our Pilgrim Fathers that shared a harvest festival with fellow Indians in a joint proclamation of thanks, peace, and partnership.  The astute Italian could then possibly respond, “Now at what point did you kill them and boot them out West?”  For those not well studied the New World origins, sometimes I skip this small paradoxical detail and explain the modern significance of thanks and family that this holiday inspires in us turkey-stuffing patriots.  This usually provokes a nice reaction.

The second lesson is the importance of the ritualistic meal.  The idea of a traditional meal is by no means a stretch for this culture focused around the dining table; I would dare say that our devotion to the Thanksgiving staples does not even come close to the year-round observation of their sacred and distinctive gastronomic heritage.   However, as the eclectic star spangled banner waves above our Fatherland’s purple mountains, it will suffice to say that at least one day out of the year, Americans are 100% devoted to serving up a truly traditional American-grown meal (in 1621, yes—now, probably our food is coming from Mexico or Brazil).  Besides patriotic ambitions like the hamburger or ketchup, I believe that this holiday is the most well-balanced, non-greasy example that we have representing our unified culinary roots.  So it’s important!

Ingredients of the Meal:  Given that Italians rarely ever eat turkey, this would lead to the greatest misunderstanding of the cooked dishes; they usually assume that it tastes like a dry chicken, and the turkeys tend to be smaller.  “Mirtilli” is a word in Italian that means all kinds of berries that look like blueberries, and therefore, there is a discrepancy as to what actually are cranberries.  Their attempt at cranberry sauce usually uses dubious “mirtilli,” and the fruit used is definitely not cranberries!  Their corn is not as delicious as our summer corn, and for this reason, they are not good judges (The only time this will escape my mouth).  Sweet potatoes can be found here, but I don’t believe many know the brown-sugar glazed goodness of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes.  Glorious stuffing in its traditional conception is misunderstood with Italian variations of “ripieno” or stuffing.  For the corn bread, I have no clue (I usually make it from a box, admittedly).  Last but not least, gravy is unheard of here.  What?

The gravy concept segues into the next difficult conception of the sauce drizzled on the  “whole” heaping plate.  Italians have a lovely way of eating a long meal in many courses, including an appetizer, first course, second course, sides, and desserts, which neatly separate the pastas, meats, veggies, and sweets.  The idea of literally shoving everything on one plate and drizzling steaming gravy on the heaping pile of cornucopia goodness is definitely a new experience.

Gluttony:  Although this term is easily associated with appetites for the Italian cuisine, Italians usually stop at a reasonable level of satisfaction.  This holiday is created specifically for the stuffing of the human to his brimming limits, mimicking Mr. Turkey.   We are giving thanks for the fact that we can be together and gorge on our feast, pour gravy down our throats, unbuckle our belts, and doze off on the couch in an uncomfortable, hard-breathing slumber!

The next satisfying certainty about our holiday is that we will be eating leftovers for a week!  As I was cooking my own Milanese Italian meal, I was reprimanded with the amount of food I was preparing.  This is coming from a culture that is appalled at the idea of a doggy bag, and they usually make or eat enough to avoid leftovers.  I respond, “This is the POINT! My meal, my rules!”

So there you have it.  This year, I went to the macellaio, or the butcher, and I ordered my special Thanksgiving turkey.  Two other fellow American expats also had placed their orders in patriotic duty.  I cooked up my feast for two days, and I whispered sweet nothings to my lovely turkey, Mario, as he was sizzling in the oven.  The courses were topped off with an American cheesecake and “mirtilli,” specifically blueberries.  My Italian friends were great sports: they piled the food on their plate, family style, we ate like pigs, and we all poured on the gravy, American style, in Milan.

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