One American’s attempt to cook a traditional Thanksgiving feast for a bunch of confused Catalans.
The United States never feels farther away than it does this week. As I write this, pie crusts are being kneaded, turkeys are being brined, and coils of traffic are piling up on highways across America as the country prepares to stuff itself silly.
It is, in my estimation, the most estimable of all holidays, one relatively untainted by the saccharine sentimentality of Valentine’s Day, or the corporate nefariousness that infects Christmas and Halloween. Even if the history behind that first meal at Plymouth Rock seems like a nightmarish ruse all these years later, the day itself still sparkles with a certain sense of purity: you, your family and friends, and a table full of food.
But recent years have been rough on my turkey-loving soul. Three years ago, I spent Thanksgiving on my own on a beach in southern Vietnam, nothing but a claypot of catfish and some island breakers to keep me company. Two years ago, I spent the day in a Barcelona hospital with an IV in my arm and a pair of nurses at my side. A year ago I was back on that beach in Vietnam, this time with my Spanish girlfriend to go along with the catfish, but not a sweet potato or a gravy boat in sight. During this Thanksgiving exile, a sizeable hole in my heart has opened up, a space once filled by tender dark meat and a soft stew of sweetened cranberries; this year, I was determined to fill it once again.
Two weeks ago we made a plan: A group of 10 of my closest friends in Barcelona would gather over the weekend to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving feast, right down to the chestnut stuffing and pumpkin pie. Everything—from the shopping to the mashing to the carving—would be done together, me and my soon-to-be wife and a motley crew of Catalans, Italians, Swiss and northern Europeans. Sunday was the chosen day, both because it is the day when Spaniards traditionally gather with family to eat the week’s most important meal, and because a trip to South Africa would keep me away from the kitchen on Thursday.
While you often hear horror stories from expatriates trying to forage for Thanksgiving feasts in the markets of the world—substituting lamb for turkey, yucca for potatoes—to put together a meal of this magnitude in the Boqueria, Barcelona’s central market and one of the great food havens of the world, feels like a holiday in and of itself. We divided and conquered, fetching tight coils of Brussels sprouts and bulging bags of chestnuts, pumpkins like auburn globes and giant fistsful of fresh sage.
The Boqueria bounty provides a cook with a confounding number of possibilities when it comes to goosing a turkey: Do you slather foie between the skin and the flesh of the bird and let it melt into a mahogany slicker of molten fat? Wrap it in a sheath of acorn-fed jamón that becomes a second, more delicious skin as it roasts? Brine it in cava and stuff it silly with white truffles? My wildest daydreams were met by a plea for authenticity from Alice, my Italian friend most intent on capturing the real spirit of Thanksgiving, so we left the tubers and the fattened livers for the 1 percenters and set about finding the perfect bird.
Despite having never once seen turkey on a Spanish menu or in a Spanish home, the Boqueria is home to all manners of winged beasts: partridge and pigeon, wild duck and blue-footed chicken. And a surprising number of turkeys. The only issue was size: Most Spanish turkeys are scrawny compared to American specimens.
“You sure? What would you possibly do with a larger turkey?” was the response I got when I asked the old woman behind the poultry counter if she had a bigger bird. Clearly she had never experienced the carnal comforts of a turkey, mashed potato and gravy sandwich in the fuzzy hours of the morning. A few stalls later, after the butcher descended down a hatch into a secret basement, we had our 16-pound beauty.
The only ingredients that could not be turned up in the Boqueria scavenger hunt turned out to be two industrial staples of the Thanksgiving canon: frozen cranberries and cans of pureed pumpkin. Immediate substitutions were: fresh pumpkin would stand in for Mrs. Libbys, and a green tomato marmalade would provide the sweet-and-sour punch of the missing cranberries.
The cooking began the night before, pumpkins roasted and pureed into pie filling, the turkey showered with salt for a 16-hour cure that would allow the seasoning to penetrate all the way down to the bone.
As the real cooking commenced Sunday afternoon, the scenes that unfolded around the kitchen were enough to give a turkey-hating curmudgeon goosebumps: a Swiss and a Spaniard roasting chestnuts for snacking and stuffing, a Sicilian spiking glasses of cava with ginger syrup and pomegranate kernels, an Italian tweezering out the last feathers from the pebbly-skinned turkey.
The energy of the gathering grew as the afternoon gave way to night, lubricated by a revolving cast of party beverages and a group that grew by a few faces with every passing hour. Hijinx ensued: Tabasco-spiked shots were taken by Europeans, no lovers of spicy food, looking to show their mettle. Potatoes were mashed to the full-throated crooning of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.
At 8pm, when the turkey announced its eagerness to emerge with an aggressive sizzle, the entire group stood around the oven, cameras ready for the bird’s cameo. A waft of smoke gave way to a bird burnished with a deep leather patina; it crackled like a potato chip when breached with a blade; the Europeans applauded.
We had come from all points on the map and manners of personal circumstance to sit together at this table, to pass bowls of mashed potatoes and wilted Brussels sprouts down the line, to talk about pilgrims and American football, to eat fresh-roasted pumpkin pie made by a Catalan that would rival my own mother’s, and to give thanks to the simple but irrefutable idea that no matter how far you wander from home, you will always find family.