A Vargas Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, a heartfelt holiday…

As an American, I was raised to believe the fairytale about the pilgrims who were saved by the natives and who then celebrated with an enormous meal. I hope we are now teaching our children the truth in order to avoid repeating our past. Although we were lied to throughout history, Thanksgiving has evolved. It is the only holiday where no gifts are purchased. No decorations are forced upon you. One merely leaves out the Halloween pumpkins or turns the jack-o-lanterns around. It is not a religious holiday, therefore, all are truly welcome. It does not matter where you come from, what language you speak, who your sexual partner is nor anything else. One could land in America on a Wednesday and the next day be celebrating Thanksgiving with the rest of the country.

A holiday with such brutal beginnings has become the most sincere occasion of the year. People gather with their loved ones and give thanks. Thanksgiving has the feeling that Christmas would have if it were stripped of all its commercial elements. I urge each one of you to learn the truth about the origin of Thanksgiving and share it. On Thursday, when you are gathered around the table with your family and friends, think of those who were massacred and were refused the opportunity to live their lives in peace.

Sometimes I wonder why I am not a vegetarian!

As a child, my mother and I always went to her cousin’s house for the special occasion. My mother, however, not wanting me to miss out on the traditional week of left-over turkey meals, would lovingly roast  an entire turkey at lunch time. I was so grateful for this. I would reheat that deliciously juicy turkey everyday and be in complete bliss each time.

Going to the local supermarket and getting a gigantic Butterball frozen turkey is a more recent memory. I still remember my mother dragging me into the smelly store where live chickens, hens, rabbits and turkeys were caged awaiting their fate. The shop floor was covered in feathers and the stench would penetrate my nostrils no matter how hard I held my nose closed. I would stand on the cleanest spot I saw and  look those poor birds in the eye feeling a sadness envelope me for their cramped situation.

My mother would pick out the smallest turkey she could find and the clerk would then hang it by one leg to weigh it. I would watch it squirm and wiggle in its futile attempt to free itself. Sometimes she spotted an even smaller one and the first turkey was released in order to weigh the next one. Once she decided upon which would become our lunch, the turkey would disappear behind an opening in the wall and within moments it would reappear plucked, wrapped in paper and stuffed in a  plastic bag.

One year, I went to my cousin’s house and saw that they had taken their turkey  home alive. They were keeping it in their basement. “Don’t get too attached!”, my cousin advised when he saw me playing with it. “Why not?”, I asked. “That’s our Thanksgiving dinner you’re playing with.”, he said as I stared at him in horror. Somehow, seeing a roasted turkey with all the trimmings would always remove the visions of caged turkeys. The aroma of Thanksgiving was so sublime that it never failed to lull me into euphoria.

A special tradition I shared with my mom…

Thanksgiving dinner may have been the main event but for me, nothing topped Thanksgiving lunch. I did not really enjoy visiting my mother’s family, since I was the only child my age. Everyone else was either an adult or a senior citizen and so I was left to sit in front of the TV until dinnertime. If the men were watching a game, I would fall asleep in a corner until it was time to eat.

It was not until I was about fifteen that I began to spend Thanksgiving with my best friend’s family. That is when I noticed that they would each give thanks for something.  When my turn came to say what I was grateful for, I knew it would be the same each year. I was grateful to be invited into my friend’s home. Perhaps it was that I no longer felt ignored that made me feel so comfortable with them or how I always felt accepted. They soon became like a second family to me and have remained so ever since. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my own family and I knew they loved me to pieces, but I particularly remember the absolute boredom that accompanied that day and I was so elated to be with people whose company I completely enjoyed.

Both me and my best friend were first-generation Americans. Our families had landed in the land of the free and like most immigrants, immediately adopted the Thanksgiving tradition. Since I had been born in the US, it was all I had ever known. It did not matter that I spent Thanksgiving dinner away from my mother and her cousin’s family. Our Thanksgiving lunch became the tradition I treasured most. We always made my favorite side dishes: potato salad, yellow rice and ripe yellow plantains and there was always flan for dessert.

Thanksgiving follows you around the world.

I moved to Rome in September, several years ago and when November rolled around I began to organize a Thanksgiving of my own. There were two other Americans helping me and several excited Italians who could not wait to see the turkey. I realized that Thanksgiving is a holiday that you take with you wherever you go. When I had been on tour with Hair – the musical, in Germany, our company had organized a Thanksgiving feast for us. There were no whole turkeys to be found along the Rhine but they managed to order each of us an identical turkey piece.

Wherever I may find myself, I feel the need to celebrate Thanksgiving. Labor Day and Memorial Day come and go without me even noticing. July 4th is more of an excuse to have a picnic or a barbecue. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is an absolute must.

My second Thanksgiving in Rome was the largest I had ever thrown. I knew too many people and could not limit my invitations so I invited forty-two guests with a mere two-day notice. That way they could weed themselves out. Twenty-two confirmed and each brought a dish of something delicious to eat. Since then I have scaled it down considerably but each time I made sure to do what Thanksgiving is all about, give thanks.

Gratitude opens your heart.

I asked everyone to write down what they were grateful for on a piece of paper. Then I put them in a hat and each guest read a random selection. They could try to guess whom the author was but no one was obligated to reveal themselves. In the end, a newfound sense of gratitude arose within us all. Being able to share my tradition with my new friends made me feel more at home. In turn, those friends, many of which had been mere acquaintances at the time, became closer to me through that Thanksgiving feast.

Many were accustomed to attending superficial dinner parties where people merely chatter about the silliest things. However, when you are asked about gratitude, the truth is revealed. When you experience something real, it is more profound. The atmosphere was so relaxed and embracing that love was born each time. People were able to see each other for who they really were and their gratitude opened their hearts.

My boyfriend, who was a mere acquaintance at the time, had been so touched at having been invited that he returned the favor months later and included me when he invited friends to his beach house on the Amalfi coast for Easter. We fell in love that Easter weekend and now we plan Thanksgiving together.

Varying Thanksgiving Traditions

Photo Source: 3 Guys From Miami

One year, I was attending a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner and offered to make potato salad. I was told that potato salad is not really a Thanksgiving dish. I realized that everyone has their own take on the holiday and so I offered to make an alternative dish. I mentioned how some Italian-Americans I knew would make lasagna for Thanksgiving and how I had seen a recipe for Curry Turkey. A Cuban friend of mine makes a Mojo Turkey, named after the Cuban garlic sauce with which it is marinated in. I was so grateful for having been invited so I was willing to make anything acceptable but my friend quickly realized that every one of us has a variation on the holiday and in turn insisted I make my potato salad.

I suppose that being from New York City, where you are surrounded by people from all over the world with different tastes and varying traditions, I was accustomed to a variety of Thanksgiving dishes. I have come to learn that in some parts of the United States, Thanksgiving remains similar across vast areas. As I grew up, I began to add my own dishes to our tradition. There were many recipes that sounded too delicious to avoid. They have accompanied my turkey ever since.

No matter where you are from, there seems to be one constant, the turkey. Even vegetarians get a soy turkey. Throughout the years I have learned new tips to making a juicy turkey. My turkey comes out tender every time.

Tender Turkey Tips:

  • Wash the turkey with water and lemon.
  • Make a paste with the herbs and spices you choose to use. I usually use garlic, onions, fresh rosemary, oregano, salt, pepper, balsamic glaze, olive oil, cilantro, chilli pepper and butter.
  • Spread the paste underneath the skin. I push several spoonfuls over the breast meat. Be gentle or you will tear the skin.
  • Put it in a pan with the breast side down. Sprinkle red wine over the turkey and spread the remainder of the paste over the entire turkey, including the inside cavity.
  • Let marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
  • If you do not plan on stuffing the turkey, put an orange or an apple inside along with some chopped onions. This will make it juicier.
  • The wine makes the skin shrink and holds in the juices.
  • Before putting it in the oven, sprinkle some salt over the entire turkey and pour a little wine in the pan with some onions and orange slices.
  • By putting the turkey in with the breast side down, the breast meat absorbs the juices most.
  • Place a separate pan filled with water inside the oven. The water will evaporate as the turkey bakes making the air moist as well as the turkey.
  • Continue to baste the turkey throughout the cooking process with the juices and some additional red wine.
  • When the turkey is more than half-way done, flip it over in order to have the breast side up.
  • Make sure you begin roasting the turkey well in advance. You cannot rush it. A slow cooked turkey will be more tender with its meat dripping off the bone.
  • Let it cool a bit before slicing. If you begin to cut into a steaming hot turkey, all of the juices will pour out.
  • When you reheat left-over turkey, try pouring some wine or cooking sherry over it for extra flavor. This is especially tasty if reheating in a pan.

My Thanksgiving has evolved to include a variety of delicious dishes.

(Recipes are easily found online)

Orange-Candied Yams – yams cooked in orange juice, butter and spices. You can substitute yams for sweet potatoes, if you prefer.

Apple-Ginger Potato Salad – My boyfriend and I invented this one. It is tangy and delicious.
Sour Cream Orange Pumpkin Pie Carnation Evaporated Milk came with the recipe on the side of the can. This is the best pumpkin pie I have ever tasted. The orange gives it a refreshing zest of flavour.

Spanish Paella Rice – Basically it is paella without the seafood: yellow saffron rice, cilantro, corn and lemon juice.

Crab Cakes – This was introduced to our Thanksgiving by one of the husbands. It is not a typical autumnal dish but we can never resist them.
Roasted Rosemary and Red Pepper Potatoes – I added this once in Rome.
Creamy Carrot Soup – One of my German guests in Rome brought this and I loved it.
Sour Cream Apple Pie – I have never been able to master this but my friend has.

Sangria – This is the least expensive alcoholic beverage for numerous guests. Using one jug of wine and several bottles of lemon soda, fruit and sugar, you will satiate up to fifty people. This is based on a recipe given to me by my aunt who is from Valencia, Spain.

Pumpkin Risotto with Parmesan Cheese – I chose this for my third Thanksgiving in Rome. It was devine!

What about you? What are your Thanksgiving traditions?


Add yours →

  1. Loved the posting. Beautiful touching account of Thanksgiving spent with relatives and friends.


  2. Gleny,
    Great article about Thanksgiving. I had some same experiences with friends coming to us for Thanksgiving in the past. I have been in Italy for 36 years.
    I run the “Cooking School” and “Village Cooking School” both based in the Province of Rieti. For 2010 we are looking for chefs who will participate in our Saturday programs. Would you, or some one you know, be interested?

    PS I am a New Yorker too, from 20th and first Ave !


    • I’m glad you enjoyed my article. It has certainly been an interesting experience trying to locate Thanksgiving ingredients in Rome, but somehow we always manage. Your cooking school program sounds great. Please send me more information.
      It’s nice to find a fellow New Yorker here. Thanks for commenting.


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