A vegetarian Spanish Thanksgiving, and other oddities

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. thanksgiving prep 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.

Place is not time

I can’t decide whether it is more jarring to come back to a place that has changed radically in your absence, or to a place that has changed little while you yourself have. This year seems to be an alternating series of changes and returns. Most recently, I took a weekend trip to Zaragoza, 11 years after I spent my junior year abroad there, and spent my two days trying to line up my memories of the place with the city as it is now.

It started with seeing my host family again, a couple who had made me a part of their lives for 9 months when they were only a few years older than I am now. To my eyes, they have changed little, but two new members have sprouted up in the family photo – their two daughter, 9 and 5, adorable troublemakers. This year, a new American host student lives in my old room. We have little in common, and yet there was a Back to the Future feeling of meeting my old self – or perhaps it was just nostalgia getting the best of me.

As we looked through the older daughter’s communion photos, catching up on years of milestones, my Spanish “dad” pointed out one the guests: his mother’s exchange student. I had a sudden flashback of Christmas dinner with my Spanish family, 11 years ago, in their pueblo – seafood stew, festive clothing, a room filled with extended family, and me, the sole American. Perhaps the nostalgia was for this feeling of being “adopted,” a fairy-godmother-like magic of being granted membership rights in a new family. I kept having to remind myself that I hadn’t lost that – here I was, still able to reconnect after so many years. I even had time for Sunday morning churros con chocolate with my Spanish grandmother, at her initiative. We chatted over our decadent breakfast, churrería windows steamed up against the cold, and I felt a bottomless gratitude for not being forgotten.

zaragoza muralsIn other ways, I fought the feeling all weekend of trying to squeeze into a much loved dress that no longer fit. Little has changed in this town – still the beautiful old center, extending out from the festively-tiled Basilica of Pilar, still the arches of the Paseo de Independencia and the looming Corte Inglés on my old route to school, the pastry shop I used to frequent still on its corner. I walked the streets as if in a Sunday paper spot-the-difference puzzle: a new tram, a few bright new murals, and, jarringly, a brand new Taste of America market (though surely I missed Russian food more, when I was here). How is it possible for a place to change so little and feel so foreign?

Time has a habit of erasing jagged edges, and I remember my year in Spain as a colorful montage: me in Aragonés dress at the Fiestas del Pilar, me in Romanesque churches and Gothic cathedrals, me hiking in the Pyrenees from fall foliage to snow, me digging into paella at elaborate weekend lunches with extended family. But it’s easy to forget all the time that linked the highlights. Many days, I was homesick, I felt like an alien, I couldn’t talk or explain myself, I was bored and lost. I idealize this year, I know, though I am not entirely wrong to. I was 16, and I had left my home and friends to live with a different family in a different language. The experience changed me. What is wrong is imagining that the feeling from my highlight-reel memory would flood back as soon as I stepped off the bus and into those familiar houses and streets. Place is not time, and I am 27, not 16, though I admit with some embarrassment that a part of me hoped that immersion in the place could recapture the time as well. The reality is banal: things change. For my next visit, it’s time to pick a new favorite bakery.