The first Thanksgiving I ever had in Spain, when I was studying abroad at 16, we had trouble identifying the mashed potatoes as such, because they were the consistency of gravy – almost, but not quite, entirely unlike mashed potatoes, to use Douglas Adams’ words. Our cranberry sauce was canned, smuggled over in the suitcase of one of my classmates’ mothers. There was no pumpkin pie, but rather a sort of folded dough with pumpkin slices. Voilà, a sort of Henri Rousseau interpretation of Thanksgiving dinner by the local Spanish chefs.
Maybe that’s an unfair assessment – in a tradition of its own, my Thanksgivings were always a little odd. At home, my immigrant parents would make turkey, but surround it with Russian sides – cold cuts, pickled vegetables, mayonnaise-y salad Olivier, or some dish involving beets. At college in Boston, I was always the adopted stranger at other families’ meals, among them a Hungarian-Chinese extravaganza with an ex’s multicultural family, or the dinner that consisted exclusively of beige and orange food, an alarming portion of which was mashed. I’ve tried cranberry bread from grandmothers’ recipes and overstuffed myself on pie buffets and eaten an extraordinary vegan rice stuffing (that was much superior to the Tofurkey served with it). I even love the kitsch of the classic mushroom soup and green bean casserole (though I will never accept marshmallows anywhere near my sweet potatoes). Despite the difficulty of defining “traditional Thanksgiving,” I love the idea of cooking with friends or family – biological or chosen – and eating dishes that have some meaning for the cooks. So naturally, being in Spain again this year for Thanksgiving, I couldn’t let the tradition slide. I planned an ambitious menu and brought home a bulging grocery bag of apples, leeks, squash, and a celery bunch the size of a small tree that turned the heads of my genteel old-lady neighbors. In my hunt for cranberries, my lifelong belief that I knew the word for “cranberry” in Spanish was shattered when, at the Boquería market, I was handed a teeny box of some 6 shriveled blueberries. For 6 euros. A Russian store off the Rambla serendipitously provided me with frozen cranberries and the rye bread for my stuffing. Ravioli with squash and hazelnuts took the place of turkey, and apple crisp the place of pie.
I started cooking the day before, alternating kitchen shifts and English-lesson planning. I burned myself on browned butter, I stabbed myself cutting squash; at one point I seasoned the cranberry sauce with liberal amounts of salt instead of sugar, and had to put all my kitchen wiles into play to rescue it. Despite these minor setbacks, I served bread stuffing and cranberry sauce and not one bite of meat to a group of Catalans, Spaniards, an Englishman and a token American; my guests even humored me by going around and sharing what they were grateful for. We ended with a culturally-appropriate toast of local cava. Here’s to weird Thanksgivings, wherever we may be.