An Italian Thankgiving
By Suzanne Dunaway
ne might ask, “Why Thanksgiving in Rome?” I might ask, “Why Thanksgiving at all, in Rome or anywhere else?”
I am not religious, never have been. I don’t particularly like turkey, except for the marvelous dressing my mother made the day before and which disappeared magically each November into the deep cavern of yet another enormous bird. The outside of the stuffing turned crispy and golden as the turkey cooked. You could snack on the dressing for days, even weeks after. All it took was a little gravy to warm it up.
Our giant bird carcass was competition for the loaves and fishes of the Bible. It could transform into sandwiches made on homemade bread with mayonnaise and cranberry relish or a rich turkey soup to end all soups; or it could be a concoction of turkey meat, vegetables, a little rice and a dash of white wine that kept winter at bay and sustained us for the Christmas holidays to come.
A Texas Thanksgiving (Texas is my birthplace, though these days I don’t mention it often) was always full of raucous relatives: women from six to 60 baking cookies, pies, and savory breads. There was always someone at the bar putting together a mean milk punch laced with Wild Turkey bourbon (milk, sugar, nutmeg, and a large jigger of bourbon for each serving — presented cold). There were myriad children chasing after one another into and out of the kitchen until they were banished to the backyard or told to “go out in the street and play!” And there were maiden aunts who clucked over them all and spoiled them rotten.
After dishing out the slices of moist bird — with little mounds of mashed potatoes hollowed out with the back of a ladle to catch the gravy, numerous side dishes of green beans, asparagus, carrots, tiny white onions in cream and the essential cranberry jelly — the surfeited uncles would arrange themselves on various couches like giant hens on nests to sleep off their culinary feat, snoring and snorting to amuse the children who continued their after-lunch antics by prodding overfull stomachs and lifting eyelids, until one of the uncles, like a great whale, rose up threateningly from his warm cushions with a roar, and the children, screaming in delight, raced for the yard again.
As for the banquet itself, there was always and ever the aforementioned famous cornbread dressing, which my mother also made at Christmas as a gift to our friends. The cranberry sauce was often spurned in favor of a sizzling hot pepper jelly that could blow your socks off with its pinch of habañero or peperoncini.
Pumpkin pies were festooned with roasted Texas pecans and made light by folding in egg whites instead of mixing ingredients all together “in a clump,” as my mother used to say (she subscribed to Gourmet magazine in the 1940s when any other woman in Texas thought tuna casserole was like a dish from Taillevent and petits pois were called petty poys).
And so I offer you our family’s version of The Turkey, The Dressing, The Pepper Jelly, The Mashed Potatoes, The Gravy, and The Pecan Pie (walnuts will do, since pecans are elusive in Italy — you’d have to order from Georgia or Texas to get the real thing), and whether you believe in a higher being or not, you, no doubt, can find many things in life to be thankful for.
Living in Italy, for one, and friends with whom to share your special holiday.
Cooking it up
A turkey is preferred but capon may be substituted
• Choose a large enough, deep enough pan for your bird and hope it fits your oven.
• Have ready a liter of chicken broth for basting and for the gravy.
• Do not roast 20 minutes to the pound as all recipes tell you. The bird will continue cooking out of the oven for some time. Roast 15-17 minutes to the pound for a juicy bird.
• Fold a long sheet of foil in half, crease it again in half to make a thick “tent” for your bird’s bosom. This will keep it from drying out. Keep this over the bird during roasting, except for the last 20 minutes. Or do as my grandmother and mother did: soak a piece of thin cloth in melted butter and drape it over the breast of the bird. You will always have tender breast meat if you do either of these things.
• Baste continually with melted butter or olive oil, every 30 minutes. A large, soft, paint brush works well, or a large spoon or turkey baster.
Sprinkle your bird with paprika when you take off the foil. This will give it a lovely color without changing the taste.
• Slosh in about 3 cups of chicken broth and 2 cups of vino bianco each time you baste to keep the dripping from sticking to the pan. When the turkey is done, remove it from the pan to a serving plate. Heat the drippings in the pan and add 2 tablespoons of flour, scraping it into the drippings to make a thin paste. Cook for a minute, then add more broth and a little wine. Cook until thick and serve with the turkey.
• Let the bird rest before carving. A large bird needs about 10-15 minutes to gather itself up and be ready for the knife. You will lose less juice from any meat, fish or chicken if you wait a few minutes after cooking and before serving.
Evelyn's Cornbread Dressing
Heat oven to 200 C
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of sugar
1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil
1 cup buttermilk or sour milk
FOOD & WINE
Sicilian vintages are as ample and eclectic as the varied landscape of the southern island, whose wine fame is growing.
Natural wine is growing in popularity, but you still need to pay attention to find the genuine article.
For a wine lover, it's good-bye to all that with a plunge into the world of Italian craft beers.
In the 1970s, the author and his family trekked from Rome to Ostia with food and libations, and strict marching orders from paterfamilias.
Red wines run the gamut from light to full bodied, so learn to know what you like.