Giving thanks. What a wonderful reason to take a day off and fashion a feast with family and friends. This old fashioned, narrow view of Thanksgiving--one of the only non-commercial holidays in the U.S.--has also made it feel to me like the perfect way to be a good ambassador.
The most valuable part of my UB experience was my roommates, both grad students. I have no idea how I landed in this remarkable apartment on Winspear as an undergrad in 1970. Martha was from Peru and made ceviche every week. Florence from Haiti was dating Zeb, a fellow from Pakistan. I found myself in a multilingual, global community meeting students from all over the planet. I remember feeling positively giddy. And putting on a full Thanksgiving feast for one and all was the most natural thing in the world. The best face of America for my new friends from around the globe.
That was just the beginning of my Turkey Ambassador endeavors.
When I accepted a job in Bogotá, Colombia in 1974, I made it a point to celebrate Thanksgiving every year. Halloween you can keep. St. Patrick's Day was just one of dozens of Saints' Days there. But Thanksgiving proved to be the perfect way to not only maintain a lovely American tradition, but to share it with my friends in South America. The most challenging parts of the meal were cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. After the total fail the first year trying to use real pumpkin to make a pie and subsituting strawberry jelly for cranberries, I convinced a friend to smuggle in cans of Libby's pumpkin pie filling and some Ocean Spray cranberry sauce - whole berries, please. I became known for my Thanksgiving feasts over the years I spent there.
And then there was the Great Thanksgiving Dinner in Italy. It was November 1981, I believe, and I was staying with Gianna Castellucci, a young medical student in Florence. Her beautiful apartment less than a block from the Ponte Vecchio was the perfect setting for a Thanksgiving feast and lovely way to thank her for her wonderful hospitality. She invited more than a dozen of her friends, I shopped for days. No pumpkin meant that an immense apple pie filled the bill. Cranberries were once again a challenge. But turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy and lots of very fresh veggies, paired with scrumptious fresh bread and excellent gelato made for quite the feast. Then, as we were cleaning up, one of the guests asked me if I wanted some heroin. I was aghast. Turns out he was participating in a program designed by my host to help users quit. I declined.
Sweet potatoes turned out to be the most challenging ingredient to find in Germany. It was November 1984, and we'd only been in Jülich, a tiny town between Aachen and Bonn where a large nuclear research facility attracted scientists from around the world, for a month or two. I invited about a dozen friends from Australia and Romania, and of course, our new German friends, too. What better way to contribute our American traditions to this multinational experience? Then I went shopping. My Thanksgiving menu requires two kinds of potatoes and two different vegetables. That was the year that fennel (fenchel in German) became part of the annual menu.
The turkey was imported from Bulgaria (and exorbitant), as I recall. And mashed potatoes were easy. But I searched high and low for sweet potatoes. Just as I was about to give up, I spotted a tiny lady wearing a turban sitting just outside the Kleiner Kö, a small shopping center in downtown Jülich. I parked my bike, lifted my toddler son to the ground, and went to see what was on the woman's table. Three sweet potatoes! I promptly purchased all three, paying a ridiculous price--several Deutsch Marks for a few puny potatoes. Worth every pfennig, I remember thinking. "Was sind diese?" What are these called? I asked. "Afrikaaner Kartoffeln," she replied. I thanked her, added the precious potatoes to my laden bike basket, and then realized there would not be nearly enough sweet potato to go around. I turned to walk back over and ask if she could find three more afrikaaner Kartoffeln for me. She had vanished! Had the sweet potatoes not been so delicious I would have thought her to be but an apparition.
Then back in Boulder, including scientists and grad students from Greece and Germany at the table with my growing family. Anyone who had no place to celebrate this delicious tradition. When my son and daughter were old enough to reach the counter, they would sometimes join me in the kitchen. I would get up at 5:00 AM to start the stuffing. They would get up at 6:00 or 7:00 to do the stuffing, squishing the mushy bread between chubby fingers, arms inside the bird right up to their elbows. A mess, but what a wondeful mess it was. I think their favorite part of the meal was having sherbet before starting dinner. My mother claimed it "cleansed the pallet." It certainly made it a memorable meal for small children. I loved spending the day cooking Thanksgiving Dinner, inevitably forgetting to bring one item--just one--to the table. Squash one year, dinner rolls the next...
I give thanks for all of these opportunities to share a wonderful tradition with friends around the world, and to continue growing and celebrating this delightful reminder to be grateful with my family this year and for years to come.