Operation: Italian Thanksgiving – “La Festa della Gallina”

Ciao amici!  This is my first collaborative post with the C.O.S.I. (Crazy Observations by Stranieri (Foreigners) in Italy) blogger roundtable team.  A fun, talented group of expats taking on Italy one day at a time. We all post once a month on a common theme with different points of view. You can connect to the other members’ fantastic blogs here.  Also, if you would like to share your own experience in Italy about our monthly subject (this time it’s regional foods with a Thanksgiving spin), just use the hashtag #COSI when posting.

For as long as I can remember, in my house Thanksgiving had another name: “La Festa della Gallina” (The Feast of the Chicken).  This term was coined by my immigrant grandfather, Papa Guy.  Every year we would joke about it and ask him to explain the significance of Thanksgiving; he would just shrug his shoulders and ask to pass the stuffing.  It was a holiday all about food – an exorbitant amount of food – and that was good enough for him.

The Italians don’t have much of a clue about how or why this unique holiday is celebrated (then again, neither do some Americans) – but they are quite intrigued by it (Ma quanto pesa ‘sta tacchino?! How much does this turkey weigh?!).  The only saving grace is the fact it’s essentially all about food, as most of their holidays are, which they can certainly relate to and appreciate.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as an expat, as with many other things, has been an adventure and an evolution.  I like to think I’ve mastered it over the course of passing six of them in a country where it doesn’t exist.  But it hasn’t been easy.

My first year here, I’m pretty sure I had either inadvertently forgotten about it, or ignored it all together for the sake of assimilation.  The second year, my husband (then-boyfriend at the time) knew I really missed being at home that day.  I called him from work, glued to my computer screen watching the live streaming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ridden with nostalgia, tears rolling down my cheeks.  So he very sweetly surprised me with an evening out at the Hard Rock Café Rome, where they have a special menu every year.

The third year, I was motivated to see if I could remotely pull off a mini-Thanksgiving for two.  I quickly realized though, since Italians don’t eat a lot of turkey in general, at a last-minute glance the bird was no where to be found.  So, I asked myself: what looks like a turkey and tastes like a turkey, enough to pass off as a turkey?  The biggest chicken I could find, that’s what!  And it was then, during that first attempt at a Thanksgiving re-creation abroad, that I finally understood and celebrated the true meaning of Papa Guy’s “Festa della Gallina.”  I whipped up some mashed potatoes and peas and called it a day.  Gimmi was mildly impressed.

By the fourth year, I finally got my act together and was ready to attempt a true reproduction.  I successfully formed a troupe of brave Italians to share my table with whom, incidentally, were way more excited about it all than they should have been.  Hey, it’s not every day un’americana invites you to Thanksgiving dinner.  But little did I know the search for proper ingredients would be una vera rogna (a royal pain in the…), and they would cost a small fortune when I finally tracked them down.

One of my most enthusiastic friends directed me to her favorite macellaio in Parioli (a wealthy area of Rome).  Never had I seen a more glamorous meat market; it looked like a film set of handsome actors making jokes and suave glances between their choice cuts.  They could get us a turkey, but it would take a month and cost €75.  “Were they going to have to go on a group hunting trip to the Tuscan countryside and shoot it themselves?”  I wondered.  The famous specialty foods chain in Rome, Castroni,  turned out to be the best resource for all the rest of the accompanying delicacies – but at what cost?  A can of Ocean Spray cranberry jelly was €8?!  Porca troia!  I’d have to sacrifice next month’s rent to put this meal on.  But I was committed; there was no turning back on Operation: Italian Thanksgiving.  And it was a grand success.

Last year,our group reunited again and had a fantastic time cooking and enjoying together.  I had created a new tradition in my new home, and it felt great.  Oh, but I did wise up and ordered the turkey from my local butcher.  He only wanted €30.  Had a great laugh when I went to pick it up though.  The conversation went something like this:

Macellaio: That’ll be 60 euro.
Me: Seems like a lot – the guy I ordered from said it would be around 30…
Macellaio: 30 euro, for a 35-pound turkey?
Me: 35 pounds?? I asked for a 10 to 12-pound turkey!
Macellaio: Ooooh, wait a second – you ordered the female turkey… You must be the other American (good to know there were only two of us in town, and she had the bigger oven).

Pulling off a stellar Thanksgiving in Italy means adapting to what’s available and unifying it with as much tradition as possible.  Trust me, your average peas are much better with a little pancetta added in for good measure anyway.  Italy makes everything taste better, so of course, Thanksgiving does, too.

Happy Feast of the Chicken to all!

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9 thoughts on “Operation: Italian Thanksgiving – “La Festa della Gallina”

  1. Great post…not only about the food itself, but about the subtle art of assimilation. I’ve gone both routes; ignoring Thanksgiving completely, and trying to recreate it abroad. I think now I’m at the point where I acknowledge it, but don’t go out of my way to over- emphasize it. And by the way…benvenuta!

  2. I nearly died when we picked up our first turkey in Rome and it cost €60.00. that was Christmas of 2012 and yes, I live in Parioli. 🙂 It was a 7 kg bird. That was our first year in Italy and when I told the macellaio I wanted to pick it up on Dec 24, I had a moment’s pause as I thought maybe it will be frozen? I asked “È surgelato?” The macellaio puffed up his chest, looked me in the eye and said “Surgelato? Non qui!” I could almost hear him muttering under his breath “Stupida americana.” We’ve become regulars at that shop because the quality is extraordinary and the service fabulous, but we do eat less meat than in the U.S.

    Last year we had a huge Thanksgiving celebration for 11 Italians, cramming an 8kg turkey into a tiny Italian convection oven. Chilos, centigrade and convection combined into the most challenging turkey preparation, but my it was the best, thanks to Italian quality!

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