Thursday, November 23, 2006


Two Memorable Thanksgiving Feasts

Thanksgiving dinner has always been a part of my life, I don't think I've ever not sat down to a formal feast. I imagine most Americans would say the same thing. But two relatively recent Thanksgiving feasts stand out as being spectacular.

Thursday, November 28, 2002 we sat down in the early afternoon for our usual pig-out, with most of our extended family present - the three of us, my 80 year-old mother, my wife's 75 year-old mother and father, my brother and his wife, and my brother-in-law and his wife. We had just sat down and begun passing around all the platters, when the phone rang. It was our second son, B, calling from Phoenix to proudly announce over our speakerphone the birth of his daughter, our first grandchild. More importantly she was the first great-grandchild for our parents. I distinctly remember the look on their faces on hearing the news. For them, it was maybe more momentous because at their advanced age and declining health, they had to be wondering if they'd be around to see another great-grandchild. The atmosphere for the rest of the dinner and that evening was more emotional than normal - we all felt a satisfying and joyous feeling of passage. But also a semisweet feeling, maybe, that we were also sensing the real meaning of life.

Indeed, in the four succeeding years no more babies have been born to our children or any of their many now-adult cousins - until now - B's second child is due in another month.

But, my wife's mother died suddenly, a month later; her father and then my mother both died within the year. That was our last family gathering. Now, Thanksgiving brings up both fond memories along with a little sadness.

Thursd... er, Saturday, November 28, 1998 (it was not a local holiday) we sat down for our most unusual Thanksgiving dinner, (very) late in the evening at our massive dining table that seated 20 in our casa grande in Rada Tilly, Argentina. Joining us were new friends from Indonesia, India, the US and of course many from Argentina. There were 22 of us, plus a handful of kids. Only the three of us and the newly arrived expat couple from the US had any sense of what Thanksgiving was really all about, but we had come to know all our guests quite well in 11 months we'd lived there and wanted to share something special with them. So many of them had opened their lives to include we three norteamericanos, inviting us to asado after asado (a uniquely Argentine barbecue). It was time we showed them an American feast. Of course everybody knew something about the US custom of celebrating Thanksgiving, and more-or-less why (the long arm of the media). They were eager to join us.

We persuaded a local butcher to secure two large pavos (turkeys - they were so large I wasn't really convinced they weren't ñandues - the small wild cousin of the ostrich). We scoured the shops of the city (and raided a few pantries) for essential ingredients. By the time the day rolled around some of these shopkeepers had called after dredging up another "find". We eventually managed to find or substitute (except for marshmallows) all the essential ingredients for the traditional meal, but everyone also offered to bring something from their own kitchens. We had been convinced to try drunken turkeys - by injecting cognac deep into the meat before cooking. Of course we drank too much ourselves and overdid it, and we were lucky that the other American couple had cooked a third, smaller turkey at home. In deference to our Argentine guests I also fired up our indoor parilla and prepared an asado. The strong winds had fortuitously died down, so we had all the doors and windows open for the cool springtime seaside night air.

Eventually we gathered, and took our seats. Before we started passing the platters up and down that long table, I took a moment to thank all of our guests (en español, even!), and briefly explained the origins of the feast (they called it "el dia de acción de gracias"). Then I told them how thankful we were for their friendship and for how they had welcomed us foreigners into their community and into their lives, making us feel at home. Following a moment of mutual reflection, and then a heartfelt round of toasts, we dove in.

Everybody bravely sampled each other's national dishes (including that intoxicated turkey). Everyone partook of the numerous bottles of wine (dinner guests always bring wine and chocolates). We even persuaded our Argentine friends to taste some of the pies. None of them had ever tried a pumpkin pie before. Pies were not in their usual diet, and certainly never eaten at night (sweets similar to pies are eaten for breakfast, or occasionally lunch). Conversations in at least three languages. As the wine flowed the translations became easier and more fluid. The kids had long ago abandoned their side table and were running wild through the house and in the yard. The party lasted until well after three a.m. (not unusual by their standards).

Even now, years later, we trade emails with many of those guests, particularly at this time of year, reminding each other of that most unusual international thanksgiving fiesta.

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