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.