My first November in Naples was cold and wet. We lived in the basalt-dark center of the city. Our tiny apartment had no refrigerator to hold a turkey, no oven to cook it in, no American friends to invite us for a taste of home. I didn’t know how much I loved Thanksgiving until it was impossible. Maurizio, with loving persistence, found a restaurant that did offer turkey breast and although it was white meat (I like dark), and just there on the plate, no stuffing, no sweet potatoes, no nothing, well I had Maurizio and was thankful for that.
Soon, though, I got work teaching for the University of Maryland at a naval base. With this post came the right to shop in the PX for turkey (large, hormone-enhanced), cranberries and orange sweet potatoes (the Italian versions are white), and so forth. Neighbors brought their children to see “the animal” defrosting in my refrigerator. We invited friends, pushed two tables together, and made a feast. And it was good. Still, if you look at the two images, it’s clear why for our Italian friends, Thanksgiving was culinary ethnography, an affront to the rules of la cucina italiana.
First, there’s the whole beast, roasted, in its nearly natural state, plunked down on a table. It must have seemed so . . . carnivorous. Then there’s the mixing of salty food (turkey) with clearly sweet food (cranberries) which just, well, isn’t done. And all those foods with different tastes and textures, the aforementioned salty and sweet, touching each other on the same plate. Not done. Then the fact that you see the whole meal right in front of you, no ceremonial presentation of course after course: the pasta course, the meat or fish course, the salad, all the delightful expectation gone. No eggplant in sight. All the time and confusion of passing serving plates back and forth until a dozen people are served nearly a dozen items. So tedious, such a long wait before the sacred words of grace from the hosts: Buon appetito.
Our friends were good sports, indulgent of my little fantasy. By the dessert course, all was forgiven, all culinary oddity overlooked with the appearance of pecan pie, a stunning revelation, soon to be affixed to every dinner invitation: “And could you bring a torta di pecan”? Within a few years, casual comments began in September: “So, Pamela, are you making that dinner again, the one with turkey and marmalade and torta di pecan?” Thanksgiving — it’s a portable feast.