The first year I came to New York from my native England, I had Thanksgiving dinner with an Italian-American family in Queens. I was used to frugal Britain, where my mother would wash out plastic bags and pin them up to dry, and a leg of lamb was eked out for three consecutive meals, ending up as shepherd’s pie. We ate turkey only at Christmas, a week-long marathon that lasted until the bird made its final appearance diced in a thick white sauce with carrots and onions. So the amount of food that was consumed in just one afternoon in Queens came as a shock.
We began with hot antipasti (baked clams, scampi and stuffed mushrooms) and cold antipasti (prosciutto, several kinds of salami, sardines and salads). Then, a pasta course: tortellini with cream sauce. I was full by the time the turkey arrived, along with dishes that were new to me at the time: sweet potatoes (topped, to my horror, with marshmallows), cornbread and cranberry sauce. Unfortunately, I was sitting next to the patriarch of the family. He kept heaping my plate with more and more food. Since I had been brought up with the notion that leaving food on your plate was a crime, I made quite an impression as the young English woman with a buona forchetta.
After the turkey, there was cheese, because why not? Then pumpkin pies, pecan tarts and chocolate cake, followed by slabs of hot cheesecake. By this point, I was close to tears. No sooner had we started on the cheesecake, however, than the patriarch, who was in his 80s, turned to his wife with a stricken cry.
“Maria! You forgot the stuffed artichokes!” The diners put down their forks and pushed their half-eaten plates aside. They fell upon the artichokes, which were the biggest I’d ever seen, their jumbo-size leaves overflowing with bread crumbs, chopped anchovies and a great deal of garlic. Then we went back to our dessert.
SINCE THAT DAY I’ve eaten many a Thanksgiving feast, but never one of quite such excess. I also learned that Americans find it not only acceptable but in some circles even good manners to leave some food on their dinner plates.
There was food left on the dinner plates, alas, the year I cooked a wild turkey at my house in Connecticut. A flock of wild turkeys used to parade across the garden into the woods, but one afternoon a dog ran out of the bushes and attacked one of the birds, ripping out its throat. Minutes later the owner arrived, full of apologies. Since the turkey was dead, he said, we might as well eat it.
“Think of the money you’ll save!”
He insisted on plucking the bird for me and spent the afternoon singeing turkey feathers in the backyard. It was all for naught. The bird emerged from the oven with a beautiful burnished skin, but when we tried to carve the meat, it was as tough as a rancher’s saddle.