You couldn't buy a turkey, plucked or in any condition, really, other than roaming around a barnyard, in Waterford, Ireland, when we moved there years ago. Nor could you find cranberry sauce or pumpkin filling for making a pie in any supermarket.
In the more than 16 years since we left the States, we've spent some Thanksgivings back in Baltimore, with my family, but most of them in the places where we've been living along the way. For me, Thanksgiving abroad has been more difficult to come to terms with than Christmas overseas. While everyone everywhere we've been has joined us in celebrating Christmas, we've had to work, as we've roamed, to preserve our own Thanksgiving traditions, which have become more important to me with each passing year overseas.
We've striven each year to have the complete meal -- roast turkey, homemade stuffing using my grandmother's recipe, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, corn, and biscuits from scratch, plus pumpkin pie for dessert -- and to share it with as many local friends as possible, everywhere we've happened to find ourselves come Thanksgiving Day.
In Panama City, this hasn't been hard. Panama City has been making an effort for decades to import the American way of life, and this is nowhere more evident than in the city's big supermarkets. At Riba-Smith, for example, starting late October, you see aisle displays offering Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, Libby's pumpkin pie filling, ready-made pie crust, Stove Top stuffing, and oversized roasting pans. One area of the freezer section is given over to turkeys, available in any size you might want, up to 30 pounds.
Panama City is where we'll be this Thanksgiving Day, and, to help us mark the day, we've invited a dozen local friends. Around our table Thanksgiving evening will be other Americans, but also Panamanians, Germans, a Dutchman, an Irishman, and a couple of Brits. For them, the meal is mysterious and exotic, and we count ourselves very fortunate that they make the time to share it with us.
In Paris, where we lived before Panama City, preparing an authentic Thanksgiving dinner was easy enough, thanks to a store on rue Saint Paul in the fourth arrondissement that shares the holiday's name. Each year we were living in Paris and planning to spend Thanksgiving Day there, my two children and I would set out early the Saturday before to walk along the river from our apartment in the seventh to "Thanksgiving" in the fourth.
It was an hour-long hike that we enjoyed much more going than returning, as, for the walk back home, we'd be loaded down with sacks of American specialty items we indulged in at this time of year only. In addition to cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling, the tastes of American life we splurged on included Kool-Aid and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for Jackson and Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup for the bunch of us. Jackson had never heard of Kool-Aid or Aunt Jemima before our visits to Thanksgiving, so, for him, these indulgences became as associated with the annual American feast day as turkey and mashed potatoes.
The turkey, though, you couldn't get from Thanksgiving or from any supermarket in Paris, at least not a turkey of the size we wanted for Turkey Day. This we had to special-order, weeks in advance, from a boucherie, or butcher. Fortunately, for us, there was a great one on our block. One year, though, we waited too long to place our order, and our neighborhood butcher wasn't able to oblige our turkey request. We found another boucherie, in the 1st, who was. Thanksgiving Day, around noon, Lief set out, on foot (we didn't own a car while in Paris), to retrieve our roasted bird from the mile-away butcher shop. Lief returned, a couple of hours later, winded and weary. It's no easy thing, he had learned, to carry a 25-pound turkey, still hot and steaming and wrapped in aluminum foil on a board, a mile through the center of Paris. Six-year-old Jackson, who'd accompanied his dad for the turkey hunt, had carried back the sack containing the roasting juices.
"I knew I'd better not show up without the juices for the gravy," Lief explained as he dropped the board with the turkey on the dining room table and then collapsed on the sofa. "Good thing I had Jack to help."
We'd ordered the turkey roasted, as we'd learned, the year before, that our Paris apartment-sized oven wasn't Thanksgiving turkey compatible. We could squeeze a 10- or 12-pound bird into our little oven, but nothing bigger.
Likewise, our Paris apartment-sized kitchen wasn't built for preparing Thanksgiving feasts, but we managed. Lief, Kaitlin, Jackson, and, often, friends of Kaitlin and Jackson, would pitch in. Sometimes, when we ran out of counter space entirely, this meant, for them, standing in the corner of the kitchen, in the hallway off the kitchen, or out in the dining room holding a tray of biscuits awaiting its turn for the oven or a bowl of bread crumbs that would become the stuffing as soon as I found room somewhere to sit a bowl big enough for combining the ingredients.
One year, the second of two trays of biscuits was put in the closet off the kitchen for safe-keeping while the first tray was in the oven. Only, in the rush of things, it was forgotten. I guess no one wanted to mention the shortage of biscuits at dinner, and I didn't discover the tray of uncooked dough until the next day when I opened the closet door to put away the table linens from the night before.
In Waterford, though, years ago, the struggle was greater. As I said, back then, you couldn't buy a plucked and oven-ready turkey in the supermarket. Our first Thanksgiving in Waterford, I found this out the hard way, by asking at every market in town. In Waterford, unlike in Paris, I wasn't even offered the option of special-ordering a turkey, roasted or not. Instead, my inquiries met with blank stares.
Finally, I asked a friend, Gerri.
"I understand that you don't have Thanksgiving here in Ireland," I said, "but you do eat turkey, don't you? Where do you get it?"
"You raise it. Or you buy it from a farmer," Gerri explained.
By the time we left Ireland, seven years later, it was possible to buy a frozen turkey in any of the big supermarkets that opened while we were Waterford residents. However, those first few years, a turkey for roasting was a home-grown specialty. Our first Thanksgiving in Waterford, therefore, Gerri introduced me to a farmer friend of hers able to oblige my turkey agenda. We could have paid him to pluck the bird for us, but Gerri thought it'd be fun for me to pluck it myself. She and I, therefore, one cold, misty November Saturday, found ourselves in the drafty unheated barn of her farmer friend, recently dead turkey on the plank table before us.
Here's what I can tell you from that experience: Turkey skin does not part readily with its plumage.