If It’s Thursday, It Must Be Thanksgiving (in Belgium)

Thanksgiving in Belgium

When I moved to Belgium with my husband and young daughter nearly a decade ago, I was relieved to escape the torture of Thanksgiving dinner. Had the holiday stopped at sitting with my family around the table, the event would have been perfect. But since it’s called “Thanksgiving dinner,” there was inevitably and unfortunately a meal that followed.

I come from a family of non-foodies. Meals weren’t so much cooked as they were assembled, and Thanksgiving was no exception. Turkey was roasted until it was so dried out the meat resembled stringy vermicelli—then it was doused in canned gravy. Stuffing came from a box and was microwaved. A lovely pas de deux of iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing passed as a green vegetable. Freeze-dried beige flakes met milk to create “mashed” potatoes. (During one Thanksgiving I joked that my mother should call them “stirred” potatoes because that’s really what she did.  She sulked the rest of the evening.) Pumpkin pie was pulled from the freezer, thawed, and slid onto a festive platter, and cranberry sauce constituted a garnet-colored replica of the can from which it was birthed, ridges and all.

In Belgium I found my respite. There the fourth Thursday of November was like any other day, filled with work, school, swim practice, and other banalities of life. Each year my family would call to singsong a “Happy Thanksgiving” into the phone. And that was that. For a while, I’d halfheartedly tried to honor the day. I’d even looked up the French word for pilgrim—pèlerin—so I could explain the entire Plymouth Rock story to inquisitive Belgian friends. Unfortunately, there was some confusion as to whether the term referred to those who take a religious journey to a sacred place or those who fled religious persecution on the Mayflower. After a few confused recounts, I gave up telling the story.

I also succumbed to daily life, which tended to get in the way of an unrecognized midweek American holiday. My husband, a Canadian-Italian born into a family where even the wine is made from scratch, had also been relieved to skip my family’s holiday meal. Consequently we dropped the tradition all together. No football. No leftover turkey sandwiches. No rolling onto the couch swearing off food for the rest of the year.

As the years went by, my memories of Thanksgivings past became less unsavory. Maybe the turkey hadn’t been that dry. Perhaps it had been kind of fun to watch the cranberry sculpture jiggle when it was sliced. And what about my daughter? I’d begun to feel guilty about depriving her of a gluttonous American rite of passage. So after years of avoidance, I decided the great tradition of Thanksgiving Dinner was to be resurrected 5,000 miles away from home. My way.

When I told my husband of my plan, he raised a dubious eyebrow. Italians always have something to say about their food.

“How are you going to cook the turkey?” he asked.

“I’ll roast it until it’s perfectly cooked.” I countered. Did he think just because it was Thanksgiving, my normally adequate cooking skills would fall by the wayside?

“And what about the cranberry sauce?”

“Real sauce from real cranberries,” I assured him. “And homemade gravy.”

Finding the fresh ingredients wasn’t difficult. Green beans and salad from the farmer’s market would be my vegetables. There would be stuffing. And Belgium being the home of the misnamed French fry, mashed potatoes—real ones—would be on the menu, too. Whole turkeys, however, were not so common. With no overflowing bins of frozen Butterballs at the grocery store, I settled for a large roasting hen. Close enough.

Despite the staggering array of bakeries in Belgium, pumpkin pie remained elusive. Even though I’m not much of a baker, I embarked on a crusade to make the pie from scratch. How hard could it be? (Insert my mother’s knowing laugh here.)

But I couldn’t find a pie pumpkin. Neither could I find allspice or graham crackers. So I bought a small jack o’lantern and substituted Dutch spice cookies called speculoos. I crumbled the cookies by hand, drizzled melted butter into the crumbs and patted the mixture into the pie dish.

“It’s not sticking,” I said to my daughter. We scrutinized the crust. “I think we need more butter,” I concluded.

She melted some more and poured it into the pie dish. I patted out the crust again.

“Do we need more?” she asked.

“I think so.”

So went this melting and patting until the slippery crust stuck beautifully.

After I’d baked the jack-o’-lantern, I pureed the familiar-looking orange flesh and confidently mixed it with the usual condensed milk, eggs, sugar, and a pinch each of whatever spices I had on hand. I plopped the filling into the crust and popped it in the oven. It was close to a three-hour effort, not including the shopping, but I didn’t mind. I was feeling very Martha-ish.

I had also set the stage for a memorable meal. I draped one of my mother-in-law’s linens over the table; I set out our fine china; I ironed the cloth napkins; and I lit several candles before calling my family to the table.  The hen was perfectly cooked, and the moist stuffing, if I say so myself, an inspired companion. The gravy added just the right tang to the real potatoes, which garnered accolades from my daughter, a self-proclaimed spud expert. After a second and even a third helping of just about everything, we were sufficiently stuffed, ruing our voracious attack of the meal as we rubbed our bellies. It was a true American Thanksgiving, indeed.

Emboldened, I left a note with our new neighbors, an American-German couple, and suggested they drop by for traditional Thanksgiving dessert. Yet what I served was not nearly so neighborly. Everyone sat around the dining table and smiled as I set my pie de resistence down in front of them. I pierced the soft center with a knife, which glided easily toward the dish’s edge and then came to an abrupt stop. The excess butter had burnt. Badly. Each time I tried to saw through the hardened crust, scorched speculoos shards ricocheted off the knife. I persisted, feigning a brave smile. My daughter found it entertaining to try and catch them midair, until she bit into a piece that nearly broke a tooth. One hunk of speculoos flew high over my husband’s head. He laughed and raised his arms in the air to signal my successful field goal. Our cat scurried to where the prized projectile had landed, sniffed it, and skulked away.

The taste? Not exactly what I’d expected. How was I to know jack-o’-lanterns aren’t as sweet as pie pumpkins? Or that allspice is a crucial ingredient? Our neighbors were gracious and even laughed with us—or, more likely, at us—as they picked their way around the blackened crust and muddy orange glop. But they haven’t spoken to us since.

That disaster was two Thanksgivings ago. Last fall I started my preparations early. Determined not to repeat the pumpkin pie disaster of the prior year, I asked a friend back in the states to mail me Libby’s canned pumpkin, two pre-formed graham cracker crusts, and allspice. Just to play it safe, I didn’t invite any neighbors.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the start of our Thanksgiving dinner custom—so far from home. My daughter replicated the dining table from the year before, insisting she be the one to light the candles. The meal was also the same, fresh and savory and eaten with gusto. And the assembled, crust-meets-can approach to pumpkin pie and the warm faces around the table were perfectly reminiscent of the Thanksgiving dinners I had begun to yearn for while living abroad.

Some traditions, I’ve learned, are best left untouched.  My mother would be proud.

Hungry for more? Chow down on these:
Kimberley Lovato

About Kimberley Lovato

Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Afar, National Geographic Traveler, Delta Sky Magazine, Easy Jet Traveller, Executive Travel, and in other print and online media, including Leite’s Culinaria. Her culinary travel book about the Dordogne region of France, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, has won two awards, and her essay, "Lost and Liberated," received a Solas Award from Travelers’ Tales and will appear in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2012. You can read more of her work at kimberleylovato.com.

Comments
Comments
  1. Marcy Gordon says:

    Great story. I’m always in favor of non-traditional traditions. I’m thinking of making duck for Thanksgiving as inspired by Ms. Lovato’s Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves cookbook.

  2. chef gui says:

    Nice article, Ms. Lovato. I’m surprised your culinary skills didn’t revolutionize “le plat pays” any more than that.

    • kimberley says:

      Chef Gui, “Le plat pays” doesn’t need revolutionizing—the food is already fabulous. But I’m certain my pie would have done more harm than good. Thanks for reading.

  3. Lora says:

    I think it’s great you picked up the tradition again. As an expat (I live in Germany) my American girlfriends and I were always doing a mad race around Munich to collect the ingredients to make a traditional Thanksgiving meal. After almost 10 years, and some really funny mishaps, we now have it down to a science.

    • kimberley says:

      Lora, how wonderful to have such a great community around you to celebrate the season. I’d love to hear what was on the menu this year!

  4. Susana Chicano says:

    Ja ja! Pretty funny. I actually had the same experience, trying to assemble a Thanksgiving dinner abroad, and yes, I also made the pumkim pie from scratch: very time consuming as you said. This year, we are making a turkeyless dinner. Autum pear turnip soup, roastbeef with horseradish sauce, spinach gratin, orange ginger caramelized carrots, sweetpotato soufle and chocolate-meringe tart. All Martha Stewar recipies. We will see..wish me luck.

  5. Ling Teo says:

    I can almost relate to this – facing down Thanksgiving dinner in a strange kitchen this year in the Netherlands. Have mustered most of the key ingredients, except the cranberries for relish, come to think of it… ! Can’t say that I’ve seen any in the shops, actually!

    • Thomas says:

      Hi Ling!

      Cranberries are available from almost every supermarket. Albert Heijn will definitely sell them. Enjoy Sinterklaas! (Chocoladepepernoten are delicious btw!)

      • Ling Teo says:

        Hi Thomas! Yes, I did find them in AH today, thanks for the tip! And yes, the chocoladepepernoten are EVERYWHERE and I’m trying very hard not to grab handfuls of them!

  6. Nice story. I remember when I lived in Israel for a few years and Thanksgiving was always so important to me so I invited all of my American friends and I made a big Thanksgiving feast. Even though I was not living in America at the time, I brought my traditions and memories with me :-).

    • kimberley says:

      I think it’s so wonderful that Americans, no matter where they are, can celebrate their traditions and find fellow Americans to join in. I hope your holiday this year was equally memorable.

  7. Terry Taylor says:

    Reminded me of our 1980 Thanksgiving in Manila. Our first Thanksgiving away from our families as young newlywed expats. I roasted a chicken (the largest bird in Manila) and bought a $30 pumpkin “pie” from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel bake shop. We posed for a photo with the bird and pie – and had a few beers (there wasn’t a bottle of wine in the entire country, I am fairly sure). 30+ years later… still married… with a grown daughter, we now live in Oregon. Thank you for bringing back quite a few memories.

    • kimberley says:

      Terry, thanks again for sharing this story and sending me the photo via email. I hope your new memories are as fun as your former ones, and I certainly know the pies don’t cost $30!

  8. Lefty Chef says:

    Delightful story. I applaud your efforts to bring Thanksgiving to other parts of the world. I related to the “jack-o-lantern” pumpkin. I discovered the difference this year. Of the three pie pumpkins I bought, one wasn’t. Regular pumpkins won’t peel and you can’t cut into it. I finally cracked the thing with my meat mallet before giving up and returning it to the store!

  9. Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

    I, too, was an expat for 8 years. Our expat Thanksgiving was focused on the company of good friends and whatever traditional food we could scrounge up at the local stores. Some years, the food was great- others, not so much. But we were always thankful for our little community.

    Hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving.

  10. Thanks for a delightful article, K. Claire and I loved it.

    So with a non-festive/non-existing traditional meal this year due to my daughter’s surgically driven liquid diet, this recent Thanksgiving got me to reminiscing about past festivities that I enjoyed the most around the table.

    My memory seemed to go back to the Old World as well. Paris 1994 was a fun year with friends mostly ex-pats women with Frenchmen. Franglophone couples. That year we decided to celebrate Thanksgiving in the most traditional way possible with very limited American resources. A friend was housesitting in the suburbs a very large older villa with more than enough room to spare. We were seven American and English women with French partners and no kids as of then. We spent the night before together in the house after shopping in a rather Big Chill manner, sans running shoes for everyone, and began cooking around 11 the next morning. I do remember the meal turning out pretty half decent, but no more details than that, other than abandoning the turkey for a hen.

    As for pie–we opted for apple tart forgoing the pumpkin dilemma. The wine was flowing at each table’s end without pause and the company was great. Only the four American women had experienced Thanksgiving; everyone else at the table were Pilgrim virgins. That was the best part. Sharing a brand new holiday with adults is a rarity. As the years passed, every single Franglophone couple disbanded, including mine. But as I spent this Thanksgiving with my daughter’s father again, we reminisced about that Thanksgiving in Paris and both agreed it was a great memory at a special time far from home today. Which I guess is what was being celebrated the first time by the settlers. Making a new life somewhere else with new friends and traditions.

    So I guess the new tradition for next year is turkey broth at the table in gratitude that next Thanksgiving will not be a liquid diet!

    • kimberley says:

      Ah Michaela, I loved reading about this. And I love that, though the Franglophone couples all disbanded, you were able to look back on the time with such fondness and share the memory with someone obviously still very important. I hope our daughter enjoys seconds of everything next year. Happy holidays.

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