It’s Turkey Week, and I refuse to be solemn about it. Because solemn leads to reflective and reflective leads to maudlin.
I’d rather laugh.
Laugh at the oddity of a Russian cooking a so completely non-Russian meal from a so completely non-Russian tradition. Not from my history, not from my culture, no referents in my family stories.
Until I came to America, I had never had a roast turkey. And ham was something you bought in slices and put on bread. Baked ham wasn’t a familiar dish, either. And stuffing? Mom stuffed roasting chickens with apples, and the French tradition was to stuff the Christmas goose (not turkey) with chestnuts. I never really inquired how it was done, or whether there was just chestnuts, or something more to it — we didn’t do the Christmas goose either.
I was a Russian growing up in France and Thanksgiving is such an utterly American tradition.
My first Thanksgiving came a few months after my arrival in Wisconsin, my very first November ever in the States. My English was still halting, I was far from grasping all the meanings of simple words, and the holiday foods on the table were sometimes more alien than the menu of a Chinese restaurant.
I imagined a casserole as a saucepan (that’s the French meaning). It took me a while to get past the “oh wait, here’s it’s a baked dish” moment.
And while I was more than familiar with large family reunions, suddenly I wasn’t sure of the proper order of passing the dishes, eating the food, or participating in the conversation.
And I say laugh at it? Yes, yes! Because all of this was trivial. I was so sure of my advanced knowledge of English, and yet again, after 7 years of school learning, one year of total-immersion study, and almost a whole semester of graduate study, I felt like a complete foreigner.
What does it take to learn a language? What does it take to become comfortable enough that you understand all the nuances, that you can express all your ideas and feelings, that you don’t know a word not like a foreigner, but like any other native speaker around you — because no one knows all the words of a language?
Fast-forward a couple of decades and more, and it’s my turn to prepare the Thanksgiving feast. We won’t have the huge family reunion because life has taken us too far to make the trip, but there’s a whole turkey in the fridge, and I’ll be making a stuffing I came up with, and a few recipes my mother-in-law taught me — a few must-haves of Thanksgiving.
It’s an odd holiday for someone raised in the Russian tradition. Back home, we would be in the middle of the Christmas fast. We wouldn’t be eating meat (no turkey!). There would be fish, but no meat, dairy, or poultry, or eggs. But in a blended family, you also blend traditions. There’s more than one way to feed the soul. Sometimes you gather around the table and eat like your parents, and grandparents, or your spouse’s parents and grandparents, and feel adopted into a whole new world, all over again.