As I headed to the grocery store the week before Thanksgiving, I was overwhelmed with the number of frozen food cases that had been converted from ice cream storage bins into turkey bins.
This, of course, is not unusual in the U.S. Around this time of year, frozen veggies, pita pockets, and other various frozen foods are cleared out to make way for turkeys, ranging from 12 lbs. to 16 lbs. or more.
Last year, however, as I pondered how to hold a Thanksgiving dinner in Ljubljana, Slovenia, there were no turkeys to be found.
Sure, you can usually buy ground turkey meat and other cuts of turkey in an average grocery store, but I couldn’t find a single whole turkey at any store. A group of Americans who had been in Ljubljana the year prior warned my American roommate and me that we might not be able to procure a turkey for the big day, but we were determined that this would happen.
So, four weeks early, we started our hunt.
First, we checked our corner market, a small version of a German grocery store.
Over the next two weeks, we tried every single corner store on every corner we could find.
Still no luck.
With a week left to go, we trekked 30 minutes across the city to a much larger grocery store, housed in the basement of a multi-story department store complex, where they sold exotic things like cheddar cheese imported from the U.K. (which went into the shopping basket for scalloped potatoes) and sweet potatoes (which went into the basket along with the so-called “American nuts,” as they were labeled (pecans) for a sweet potato pie).
We might have found a few other ingredients, but still, when it came to the turkey: no luck.
Finally, we heard rumors that just outside the city center—a 10 minute drive—at a French-sounding grocery store, we might find the one food item that would make or break the authentic Thanksgiving meal we were hosting for curious friends and my family members.
I sent my roommate off by herself, as I stayed home to size up the various foods we’d collected over four weeks, which were stored in cupboards, drawers, and the freezer. We were almost ready for our grand meal: squash soup, salad, homemade bread, stuffing with chestnuts, scalloped potatoes garnished with bacon, sweet potato pie, green beans, and a whole slew of desserts from American-style chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin pie, apple pie, and cheesecake.
When my roommate got to the French-sounding grocery store just outside of town, she called me. I was waiting at home, compiling our list of ingredients, trying to make sure we had all we needed. No pumpkin in a can? No problem. We had a real pumpkin, and we were set to carve it out and extract the insides to make one of our favorite American dishes: authentic pumpkin pie.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I said back, wondering why her voice sounded a bit funny.
“So,” she said.
“No turkey?” I asked.
“Well, yes, I found one,” she said.
“Great!” I said, as I sighed with relief. Really, I felt like dancing around the room. We were going to have a real Thanksgiving! Even if we had to host it the Sunday before Thanksgiving day—since everyone would be working Thursday—it would truly be Thanksgiving.
“Well,” she said again. “I can’t do the conversion from the metric system, but it’s, like, three pounds.”
That certainly threw a monkey wrench into things. A 3 lb. turkey? How were we supposed to stuff a 3 lb. turkey, cook it, and expect to feed eight grown adults?
“Um,” I said, insightfully. “Um.”
“Well,” she said again. “There seems to be another one here, too. I think I’ll buy two.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, buy two.”
I glanced around at our small oven. How were we supposed to prepare two tiny turkeys at the same time, along with all of our other food? All of a sudden, the idea of an authentic Thanksgiving seemed almost impossible.
In the end, we spent 12 hours on Saturday baking and cooking various dishes, and then cleared out our refrigerator to store them overnight. Sunday morning, tiny turkey number two (which was probably closer to 5 lbs. or so) went into the oven.
Miraculously, the Slovenian guests (plus on Kenyan friend) arrived promptly at 2 p.m., to find a kitchen full of American specialties.
Miraculously, they seemed to (mostly) like the dishes, though the turkey we worried about so much didn’t seem to make much of an impression. (In contrast, the cheesecake became a bit of a legend, though, having not seen one before, our guests appeared confused with cutting themselves a slice, and instead of cutting a traditional triangle sliver of a piece carved out geometric shapes from the middle. Needless to say, the leftovers… looked like creative pieces of art.)
But the real fun came a few days later, on the real day of Thanksgiving.
Rushing home from classes at 12:30, my roommate and I sat down and piled up plates of potatoes, vegetables, bread… and what remained of those two tiny turkeys, who had given their lives so that we could have a taste of what we missed most from home on the most American of holidays.
Published this week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.