Commentary: In defense of Thanksgiving, here and abroad
Dixie Johnson Nov 1, 2022
Thanksgiving. Ah, Thanksgiving. That most American of holidays begun by the Puritans and their friends so many years ago and officially sanctioned by President Lincoln. It’s my favorite family holiday, so it was an especially hard time when I was living in a foreign country.
A friend who spent some years on a boat in Mexico ridiculed Americans who wanted to indulge in the traditional foods for the holiday when they could be eating wonderful Mexican food instead. Heck, they could have Mexican food every day so why was it so hard to understand why some of us wanted to enjoy the traditional menu on this special day?
The years I lived in Czech Republic and in Slovenia I had to try very, very hard to make the holiday live up to my fond expectation. Back in the mid-1990s, I taught in a Czech Gymnasia, a high school for bright students headed for universities, and I lived with a young Czech family. When the big day was approaching, I asked where I might buy a turkey. No luck, none were to be found; but I did learn that I could find frozen chickens in the small chest freezer at the nearby “potravinie” (grocery store). So off I went to choose a bird. I found one that looked fairly good-sized and set it out to thaw the night before our big dinner.
Horrors! After it thawed I could see that it was peppered everywhere with tiny pinfeathers.
“No problem,” said Ivan, the young husband, who was eagerly awaiting the fabulous feast I had promised. “I will pull them out with pliers.”
So he set to work and before long it looked more edible.
Then more horrors — the innards were not empty of innards. Martina, the young wife burst into raucous laughter.
“You bought a hen, not a chicken,” she, who was a medical student, said. “But no problem.”
She went to work removing with great curiosity and interest one egg after another after another after … well, you get the idea. Each succeeding egg was slightly smaller than the one before. That prolific hen contained a wealth of eggs.
At last, the oven was heated and the bird was ready. It roasted and roasted and roasted, yet it was tough as ever. Finally, Martina’s mother came up from her apartment downstairs and told us she knew what to do. She chopped bacon into slivers then cut small slits in the chicken and inserted the bacon bits. Back into the oven it went to roast some more. Before long it smelled delightful. It finally ended up slightly more tender, but nothing like what I expected. That was the day I learned the difference between a chicken and a hen.
Fortunately, the apple pie I made was delicious — the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves I had brought from America made it special. Everyone wanted the recipe and, because some spices weren’t readily available in Czech Republic, I left mine for the family when I returned to the U.S.
A couple of years later, when I was teaching in Slovenia, I decided to fix Thanksgiving dinner and invite three other Americans who lived in various parts of the tiny country.
A week before the celebration, I stopped at a small market that had a nice meat counter to order a turkey. With my limited Slovene, I managed to arrange with the butcher for a small turkey of about three or four kilos. I was to pick it up on Friday, the day before my friends were arriving. My husband had sent from Idaho two boxes of Stove Top stuffing mix as well as a couple of packages of Craisins. What could be better than turkey, stuffing and cranberries? Apple and cherry pies would have to substitute for the pumpkin and mincemeat varieties. On Monday, I stopped to confirm that all was well and my turkey would be there by Friday.
“No problem,” the butcher said with a big smile, proud of his English.
Friday arrived. I stopped at the market after school on my way home. It was closed! And the sign on the door said it would be closed for several days. What? Panic!
Time for Plan B, but what was Plan B? I knew I’d not be able to find a turkey but maybe a chicken? I stopped at another market a mile or so away where, thank goodness, they had a large chunk of turkey breast. And I bought the whole thing.
“Do you want it sliced?” asked the butcher.
“No thank you,” I replied.
This surprised him since Slovenes generally purchase turkey in thin slices and fry it up as schnitzels.
It all turned out fine. I braised extra onions and celery to add to the stuffing mix and of course potatoes and gravy work great in any culture.
For breakfast the next morning, I devised maple syrup for our French toast out of sugar and water cooked up with a spoonful of maple flavoring (again brought from Idaho). Ah, all’s well when the tummy is full of good old traditional fare.
By the way, why was that first market closed? I stopped the next time it was open and the butcher apologized profusely. The market had been sold to a new owner and was closed for inventory. I never knew if my original turkey was there or not, but my friends and I never missed it.
Dixie Johnson, 79, of Grangeville, worked in three different European countries — Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovenia — in the 1990s and early 2000s.