After living abroad for nearly two decades, I still continue the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving with a handful of my American friends here in Amsterdam. Like many things, once you leave home, you find your own way of celebrating the holidays, building on the celebration you knew as a kid. Celebrating in a different country with a partner who didn’t grow up with the tradition of Thanksgiving has made it all the more interesting to find my “own way” of giving thanks this week.
Growing up, we always had a frozen turkey that my father’s work gave to their employees as a Thanksgiving “bonus”, I suppose. My mother usually prepared it, getting up early to get it in the oven so it would be done by the early afternoon when we would sit down at the table to eat. Our tradition included turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed corn, soft white rolls, lots and lots of black olives, cranberry sauce from a can (for the form more than anything, I guess, since I can’t remember seeing anyone eat it…ever), pickles, more black olives, pumpkin pie with whipped cream and apple pie à la mode, which according to my father was not complete until accompanied by several slices of extra sharp cheddar cheese. This was my tradition of Thanksgiving dinner even as I went to college, making the trip home from Maine for a long weekend full of family and food.
Once I moved to Amsterdam, a weekend trip home was no longer an option, so I had to adapt. A good friend of mine moved over from the States shortly after I did and we decided that for our first Thanksgiving here, we would cook a big traditional dinner for our partners and a group of their (male) friends. Needless to say, it was a new (and expensive) experience for us to find, buy and cook a fresh turkey and all the traditional trimmings in a city abroad. The friends each brought a bottle of wine, which they graciously drank as we cooked. We managed with much help from several cookbooks, producing a fine meal and we were thoroughly exhausted by the end of the day. It was fun (more so for the fellas who got to drink, eat and be merry) and we enjoyed it, really, and yet we didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner following that formula again. My friend has since moved back to the States and, over the years, the faces around the table have changed, but the tradition has continued.
This year, we’ve decided to skip the turkey since we won’t be the only vegetarians to share our table. We have settled instead on a lovely roasted sweet potato dish we recently enjoyed on a rare night out at the nearby Drover’s Dog. After a quick chat with the chef, followed by some discussion at our own table, we’ve managed to replicated it at home, tweaking it here and there to our taste, and we look forward to eating it again. Eighteen years have passed since that first experience cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, and I am fairly certain that my cooking skills and my ability to plan a successful dinner have improved. While it remains a daunting task to get a large number of warm dishes on the table at the same time, we have found a new formula. Many things can be prepared ahead of time…and will be. We share the responsibility for cooking by inviting our friends to bring a dish to pass and we have become more flexible in what we serve. We no longer go to many shops, looking for special (and overpriced) items to make the dishes I had growing up. We now try to eat mostly local and in season, buying much of our food from the local farmer’s market, and try to be more mindful of what the tradition is really about, both for us and for our children we hope: being thankful for life’s bounty, for family, for friends and for the opportunity to share stories and laughter around our dinner table.