When I tell people I was in Tuscany for Thanksgiving, their first question is — with a note of concern — “Did you have turkey?”
Americans love Thanksgiving dinner. And many of us simply can’t fathom counting our blessings without an oversized portion of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Our agriturismo host, Isabella, understands this, so very early in the planning stages she reassured her nervous American guests: “And of course we will celebrate Thanksgiving with a special Thanksgiving meal — one with a Tuscan twist.” Well, phew!
In typically thoughtful fashion, Isabella had arranged a fantastic feast, which happened to be at one of my favorite restaurants in the region (Ristorante Daria, in the tiny hill town of Monticchiello). Months before, Isabella had conspired with the owner/chef, Daria, over a list of traditional Thanksgiving dishes. And the gang at the restaurant had come up with a delicious mashup of American and Tuscan.
The first two courses were the most Tuscan, but cleverly informed by “our” Thanksgiving ingredients: a delicate pumpkin soufflé, topped with creamy pecorino cheese and fresh-grated truffle. And a dish of pillowy sweet potato gnocchi, gently nestled in a subtle citrus cream. I would not mind seeing either of these dishes on my Thanksgiving table for many years to come.
Then it was time for the main event. They loaded all of the turkey onto a tray and ceremonially paraded it through the restaurant. Then they took it back into the kitchen and re-emerged with beautiful — and very traditional — plates of turkey, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes (with, in a delicious Italian twist, a trickle of fresh-pressed olive oil).
They also brought out some fantastic gravy and surprisingly traditional cranberry sauce. Daria explained that she’d asked some American friends to ship her some cranberries, which are completely unknown in Italy.
Sitting around the dinner table, watching Isabella’s family, and my family, enjoying an American-Italian hybrid dinner, was poignant. But it made me sad to think that people might pass up an idyllic week in off-season Tuscany with their families, just because of a fear that they may not get their turkey fix.
This is particularly unfortunate because Thanksgiving food isn’t all that exciting to begin with. I sparked something of a riot at our Tuscan Thanksgiving dinner table when I half-jokingly told Isabella, “I’ll let you in on a secret: Nobody really likes Thanksgiving food.”
Yes, we love Thanksgiving dinner. But is it really because of the food? Or is it more about tradition, gauzy memories, and the fun of assembling a blowout meal once a year? Think about it: When’s the last time you got home from work on a Friday night, turned to your spouse, and said, “Hey, you know what I have a taste for? Let’s go out for Thanksgiving food!”
Don’t worry. Plenty of my friends and coworkers have already passionately informed me of my wrongheadedness. But I’ve decided to stick by my highly controversial theory. And, while this rant is partly tongue-in-cheek — and I love a good turkey-and-stuffing dinner as much as the next guy (read: once a year) — it hides a kernel of real travel wisdom.
Holiday traditions are powerful. But keep open the option of busting out of your rut every so often. Risk not having turkey at Thanksgiving. Spend Christmas at a radish festival in Oaxaca instead of singing carols around a fir tree. Skip trick-or-treating in order to be in Slovenia the day after Halloween, when everybody in the country goes to the cemetery to lovingly decorate their family graves. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience all of those things, and never regretted what I was missing out on. And if holidays are primarily about surrounding yourself with the people you care about, you can do that anywhere. Your traditions will always be there, back home, waiting for you…next year.