So here's the thing. What we eat is almost always a function based on proximity and therefore convenience: we eat the things that are grown around us or that we manage to save for a while and an area's specialties will reflect this availability. Why we eat is elemental: in whatsoever form it takes, eating is our most fundamental tool of survival.
But how people eat, this is where it gets really interesting. And if one ever really wanted to know a culture one would do well not only to sit at a myriad tables but also to speak to a myriad people, to be invited into their traditions and to be made welcome therein.
Thanksgiving is likely the closest approximation to how Americans eat, and by this I mean not only in quantity and not only in quality. Thanksgiving is, regardless of the prevailing political tides of any given moment, an expression of grace. It is a celebration of that cockeyed optimism and naivete that is simultaneously infuriating and endearing about us Americans, on full gastronomic display.
For the anthropologist Clifford Geertz," understanding a people's culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity...it renders them accessible: setting them in the frame of their own banalities, it dissolves their opacity." He may well have been sitting at a dinner table when he said that, as it is rarely as true as in those occasions. Indeed our project here in Italy has been to know people through their food, so we thought it was only fair that we let them know us through ours. Granted that only half of us is actually American and even that half is at this point quite out of the patriotic loop, we still felt it right to get our roasting pans out and show people how American food is actually something great, and how it's not very far from anything people in Italy know and even love.
Thus the following photos have been collected from friends and guests who helped to create, and then sat at our table, for the first annual ViaMedina Thanksgiving. What started as a half joking suggestion from Marco that we take over the Terziere for a Thanksgiving meal turned into an event for 45 people that required a fair amount of research and poetic license. We wanted to keep the traditional items on the menu but we wanted to present them in a way that would feel familiar yet fresh to both Italians and our expatriated brethren. We very much didn't want to order lots of cans of stuff online just because it was "American", so we needed to do a fair bit of research and employ some signature 'aw shucks' charm along the way.
The first challenge was the turkey. Not the procuring of it, but the convincing people that turkey can be delicious: we do not know what kind of pestilence afflicted the Italian turkey but whatever it was rendered the poor flightless bird a subpar option on a dining table. Nevertheless we persevered.
Our second challenge was sweet potatoes. Because in fact, we were able to find and faithfully reproduce all of the staples on a Thanksgiving table with relative ease; as it turns out, the vegetables that form the basis of the holiday meal are proliferate in Italy as well at this time of year, and we had some great help from Nikki and Tiziano at their plant nursery to get a terrific haul of vegetables and nuts.
But alas, the sweet potato challenge remained. Nothing else really is sweet potatoes so finding the right ones is essential, and I was up against the wall. So I took to consulting a Facebook group of expats run by the intrepid Susie White of Insiders Abroad about how to solve the dilemma and hit paydirt, as they say. Through social channels that our pilgrims would have killed entire societies for (too soon?) I was connected with Ruth Loffa, who runs Sticky Farm in Panicale, about a two hour drive from Tuscania. So off we went with the original Sagra Sisters Marie Lise and Aurelia, and Ruth welcomed us with the best kind of warmth and happiness. And goats. Adorable goats.
With most everything in place, we set about to getting ready in the same way that many of you surely did in your respective homes. We played music in the kitchen while we cleaned innumerable sunchokes and peeled potatoes, and philosophical discussions about hypothetical Tom Hardy movie roles (and corresponding accents).
We were helped by our friends Nikki, Federico and of course Marco in setting up the restaurant for all of our guests and Fadiah and Gloria both made cakes and brought them, in what is the ultimate gesture of friendship and kindness. Janet and John came from Canino on Janet's first outing after foot surgery, Stephanie came with Anna and Bill's close friends Franco and Paola and it was almost (almost!) as if Bill and Anna were there.
Ann and Mario came just in time for the toast, and Anna Rita and Pino came and even though he said he ate too much we think he probably enjoyed himself. Francesco and Antionetta Marras came and we were able to cook for them, as they have cooked for us. Simone and Ippolita came over from the Abbey and brought Mike and his family from Brooklyn (Brooklyn!) and he reminded us enough of Jason to make me instantly like him tremendously and nearly tear up for the friend I dearly miss. Marie-Lise looked beautiful and Richard came from Manchester (via Paris, as we all do). Eleonora had her first Thanksgiving with friends and family and Eros, and Gino was a pro to the end. Aurelia and Marco held the table corner and both looked happy, like really happy. The Lorenzo di Medici contingent was in full force and they even helped us clean up afterwards.
We could not, and indeed would not, have done it without all of you.
Oh, and the turkey was a WINNER.
There were those who we missed, like Mary Jane and Fulvio who were so important to all of us there. We missed our own families, especially the ones who might have been celebrating the same way. I called my mom right after we finished cleaning up to let her know that we'd managed to pull it all off, and I called my brother and Aunt Chris to get their opinions about Tom Hardy's accents. And then we sat, Mark and Marco and Ginger together, and we were all a little more normal to each other.
(Also, Marco loved the turkey. So, win.)