My husband and I sharing his first Thanksgiving. I convinced him to carve the bird.
And So It Begins . . .
My Facebook feed is filled with posts in the days leading up to Thanksgiving lamenting the 82 °F California weather. For friends and family back home, the typical Indian Summer is taking the cozy, autumn festiveness away from the picturesque season most Americans associate with their beloved holiday: crisp, slightly chilly afternoon touch-football games; apple-picking in flannel shirts; snuggling up near the fireplace with – God forbid – a pumpkin spiced latte. In Bratislava, my home now for what’s nearing on three years, the brisk jesenný weather screams out for a fall holiday and the smell of roast turkey, too much wine and stuffing, and the company of beloved friends. This year, it dawned on me, I needed a touch of American tradition. This year, damn it, I would host a Thanksgiving but better. One where the friends who helped me transform a foreign country into a home can celebrate and share thanks for the important things in life. A Friendsgiving!
An American Immigrant
Millions of humans immigrate for myriad reasons. My reason was love. I adored my career in San Francisco and home in Oakland; I felt bonded with the sister with whom I lived and loved my whole family in general; some of the best friends I will ever know I left behind. It was bittersweet, but it was worth it.
Still, it was a stretch to say Bratislava was “home” even deep into my first year. My first November (2016) I was still in adjustment [read: survival] mode. Many of my now close friendships were in the process of being built. I was adapting to my new country, a different language, a completely distinct career from the one I had fostered in SF. The idea of throwing a party or worrying about keeping tradition – or even realizing if it was something I would miss or not – was the last thing on my mind. Then the US Presidential election came and my whole universe, along that of countless others the world over, suddenly got turned on its head.
For the first time in my life I experienced what so many immigrants and expats before me have felt: a sense of homelessness. Of course, my life in Bratislava was and is fortunate. A gorgeous flat, a loving, supportive husband, and new friends that really care about me – check, check, check! But the concept of home is loaded and tied closely to things we may not consciously understand. I enjoyed my new life, but still felt slightly detached. I missed California and the familiarity of my old life, but my birth-country seemed to be increasingly turning into a place I no longer recognized or wanted to be associated with. I was in cultural limbo. I put my head down, rolled my sleeves up, and worked hard to move forward with my current life here, giving the least amount of thought I could to the past and focusing only on the present.
Time Heals Most
“I want to host a Thanksgiving this year,” I tell Peter. “Well, not a Thanksgiving really,” as if clarifying this for my Slovak husband will suddenly explain to him exactly what to imagine, “more like a ‘Friendsgiving’, you know!” He didn’t.
“Hmmm,” he says hesitantly, “I’m not sure. No one will know what to do. We don’t understand Thanksgiving here, only from movies and TV. Our apartment is too small. And what about the food? Will people know how to eat it? I’m just not sure…” He trails off. I’m not deterred: “It’ll be fine. I know it.”
This is the attitude I have forced myself to adopt over the last year. For months after my first November here my life felt upside down. As they say, though, “time makes the heart grow fonder,” and in this case it was fondness for life in Bratislava that grew. With that, paradoxically, I developed a softened sentiment for my old home, too. America proved to be a place where positive change still can happen in total ugliness; I felt more at home in Slovakia day by day. Things were going to be fine.
Now I simply needed to successfully achieve an American-style Thanksgiving feast for 12 people using Slovak ingredients, in a 20+ square meter living room, with three days to prepare, all under 100 euros. Things were going to be fine!
The shop window at Farmy Lúčny Dvor where we sourced our giant whole turkey.
The Game Plan
The menu is straightforward: Turkey, Mashed Potatoes, Sausage Stuffing With Apple and Thyme, Green Bean Casserole, Sweet Potato Casserole, Cranberry Sauce, Gravy. Simple.
Of course, as some of you may know, Thanksgiving staples are completely regional and the yearly “mac-and-cheese or nah?” debate seems to fill social media threads this time of year. Corn, too, brings controversy. As does biscuits vs. cornbread. And let’s not get into “dressing vs. stuffing” (for those lost, study the picture below).
“Traditional” Thanksgiving featuring all the above mentioned delights, credit: Country Living.com – my spread wasn’t quite as chic.
Being that my guests had never eaten many of these foods, I decided to keep it as “Norman Rockwell” as possible and focus on quality recipes over trendy menus and techniques. Sourcing the ingredients brings its own set of challenges, though not as many as we expect.
I request two days off work to prep – Thursday (real American Thanksgiving) and Friday (Friendsgiving). A joy of sharing traditions from one’s country is the thrill of perceiving familiar occasions through the eyes of those experiencing them for the first time. Slovaks love when newcomers to this country get a taste of Easter traditions here or try borovička for the first time; I adore hearing stories of their impressions of trips to the US and I am even more enthusiastic to treat friends to a totally iconic American holiday. Of course, this also means being solely responsible for the cooking of our “traditional Thanksgiving” feast.
The night before my mini “holiday,” Peter and I make the trek to Tesco Extra with medium expectations and many questions: Will we be able to find fresh whole cranberries? Will Tesco actually have celery this time? Or will I need to substitute this crucial stuffing ingredient and, if so, how? Okay, what about frozen cranberries? Shoot! We just remembered we should provide snacks – grab meats and cheeses! Sweet potato casserole: Wait. Are there even marshmallows here? Yeah, get pecans instead (Yes! They carry pecans now!!) F-it. Grab cranberry anything!!!!!
“Things are going to be fine.”
The turkey is much easier to source, though. I read somewhere that whole turkeys can be hard to find here because Slovaks do not generally eat them. Thankfully, Farmy Lúčny Dvor was mentioned in the post and after only four naggings my amazing husband calls them up and orders a beautiful 9.5 kilo bird!
So, food: purchased successfully (we eventually find a jar of surprisingly delicious cranberry sauce. And the best darn fried shallots from Ikea Grocery, of all places). Turkey: perfect. Time enough to get things done: not an issue. Guests: confirmed and eager to attend! And yet . . .
American Sized Food in A Slovak Sized Kitchen
European ovens are small by American standards. This is especially true of my dinky, one-rack Ikea oven that barely holds a roast chicken let alone one of the largest edible birds known to man. With three casserole dishes to bake, this means cooking duration is just as important as space. I stay motivated and decided to go the spatchcock route. How hard can it be?
Turns out butchering a giant turkey and cracking its ribs and breastbone flat like an open book is hard work. With my husband away and my kitten refusing to get involved, I climb onto the kitchen counter and WWE-style fight the bird into position with my knees. While this final shape means compromising oven space during roasting, the cooking time is reduced by over half and the white and dark meat stay juicy and perfect. For readers wanting to cook a huge-ass bird with all the trimmings in your own small oven, I recommend this technique 100%. Perhaps get a friend to help, though.
Meanwhile, I prep as much food as possible the day before the party. I roast turkey wings for stock I will use the next day for gravy (spoiler alert – my gravy doesn’t turn out and Ikea comes to the rescue in the form of their cream gravy mix. Thanks again, Ikea!)
I move on to the Green Bean Casserole prep and – my favorite after mashed potatoes – the stuffing! Ah, stuffing. The Anglo-American dish of bread, stock, eggs, herbs, and fats. It’s a must have. Traditionally, recipes like the one I use call for “breakfast” sausage – a mild pork or chicken blend with extremely American spices such as sage, thyme, rosemary and, of course, brown sugar. This time I use fresh Slovak klobasa. It feels like a special nod to my husband’s culture and a marriage of traditions. Also, it’s all Tesco has.
Mushrooms for homemade Cream of Mushroom base in the Green Bean and Fried Shallot casserole. Prepped and ready to bake Klobasa Stuffing with Apples and Riesling. For those counting, why yes, that IS a new bottle of wine you see!
Nearly Show Time
Hours away from the main event and panic is slowly starting to creep in. I have been calm until now (things are going to be fine) but I slowly realize it’s 4pm – 16:00 for you everyone-elsers – and the turkey is still dry-brining in the fridge. It needs an hour to come to room temperature and 90+ minutes to bake at 230 °C. Earlier that day I brilliantly send word out to our guests that doors will open earlier than the invite says – come on down!
Dirty dishtowels are flopped in crumpled piles around my flat. Despite best efforts, dishes are not cleaning themselves the way I expected them to. Cassidy, who the day before was a perfect kitty angel, is suddenly intent on eating butter and claiming territory over all available counter space. Layers of clothes are removed due to grease stains and spills; I am down to bare necessities when tragedy strikes.
In an attempt to be clever, I add an impromptu dish of homemade paté to the menu. It uses up the turkey liver that comes with the bird; it’s yet another nod to the favorite dishes of my husband’s culture; I get to use the Vilmos that’s been taking up space in our bar. In a non-clever attempt to taste the paté, ingeniously I stick a long-handled metal spoon into the running food processor. Paté goes everywhere. The remaining clean clothes I have on are a mess. Turkey liver, butter, and pear alcohol coat my hair. Guests arrive in 3 hours and counting…
Things Are Better Than Fine
In the days leading up to our party, Peter is worrying more and more about the logistics of pulling an event like this off with limited space and time and resources. In what I have gradually acknowledged as an extremely American trait, I’ve largely feigned blind optimism. Now, I am half-dressed and covered in runny liver, behind schedule and alone.
Haven’t I felt this way before, though? Okay. Maybe not in this exact circumstance, no. But when I first told my friends and those who supported my career back home I would be immigrating to Slovakia, and they reacted with discouragement and derisory, I felt more alone than this. My initial culture shock and isolation while waiting for the Slovak Alien Police to officially approve the biggest commitment to change I’ve ever made was more lonely. Completely altering my profession and starting from the bottom at 37 years old was more nerve-wracking.
I calmly wipe down the walls with the last clean towel I can find, turn off the burners, pop the bird in the oven, pour a big glass of wine, and look towards the evening’s future.
Keeping it old school Hungarian-Slovak: paté spiked with a bit too much Vilmos in lieu of Cognac. Most of this will end up Jackson Pollocked. In other news, the make-shift dining room turned out rad (imagine it with more chairs. And people. And straightened blinds).
This Is How We Do It (And Why)
As Montell Jordan once said, “It feels so good in my hood tonight.” I relate.
Peter manages to escape work early and put some final touches on the apartment: setting the table, setting up the bar, making the meat and cheese platter. Our dear friends Kate and Roman show up to help – there isn’t much for them to do, but their presence is cheerful and excited. It sets the tone and we ease into event-mode. As more company arrive, I realize Peter was right about one thing: no one knows what to do.
Not being sure if there is a “Thanksgiving protocol” to follow, our friends stand around awkwardly at first. We ply them with starters and sparkling wine, I repeat the story of Thanksgiving in rounds as new guests appear and the process begins again. The turkey is a colossal hit. We all crowd around Peter as he carves his first ever meal that size. Should it take 20 minutes to carve a bird? Nevermind. It’s a romp.
Sitting down for dinner, I explain that in some homes people say “grace” before eating, but we will go around and name something we are grateful for instead. Several jokes are made about being thankful for Tinder – how my husband and I met via the app (yes, it’s true) while he and his friends – the very same that join us tonight – were on holiday in California years ago. Suddenly a bottle of domáca orechovica, the beloved walnut liqueur many families still make by hand, appears like magic. It is one of my favorite Slovak traditions: family parties are never without with homemade wines and liqueurs. And now our little family party has some, too. Because that’s what this is. A family party as much a Friendsgiving. Peter and his cousin and their childhood friends set out to America once for a dream vacation. Peter returned with a pen-pal that turned into a long-distance friend that turned into a wife.
Sipping on my orechovica, I consider the people sitting around me: Peter’s dear cousin and his new fiancé; their childhood pals that are more like brothers and sisters; my new cherished friends, ones I made on my own and now introduce to the fold. I am thankful for the ability to immigrate here, to accept this adventure. I am thankful that I choose to share my own tradition and even more thankful I have people to share it with. I am thankful for the traditions and ways of life that have been shared with me.
This evening has turned out better than fine. It has turned into a reminder of why we travel, and love, and grow into foster-family units such as this one. And of how blending traditions and customs never means needing to lose them completely.
Collage from the evening. There would have been pictures of us sitting around the table and posing for glossy magazine-esque party interactions over stylized plates of food, but when you tell your Slovak guests, “We supply the food, you bring the booze,” they do not disappoint. P.S. My childhood friend Christine joined the dinner in the form of a framed picture of us, our Freshman year.
Only one question remains: how am I going to convince Peter to throw an American-style Christmas party?
Author: Jennifer Brown