I Think Turkeys Are Supposed to Look Like That

My very first Thanksgiving in Italy was turned into a challenge when everyone got so excited they invited half of Tuscany to join us. There I was, the new Americana on the block, and not used to having familiar cooking utensils (Italian mamas use a fork for everything), few familiar ingredients, and ovens calibrated in centigrade; or just not calibrated at all what with the fire blazing over in the corner (near the fire, very hot oven; farther away from the fire, less hot oven).

Searching hither and yon I managed to find sweet potatoes and brown sugar. My Mom sent measuring cups, baking powder and pecans. My one friend, who by the luck of the stars was coming to Italy, hand-carried a few bags of cranberries. She also warned me about the turkey. She’d tried this once before but her turkey was all floppy. Turns out her Florentine butcher de-boned the thing and it’s awfully hard to stuff a de-boned turkey, or so she warned.

The turkey I left up to chubby and angelic looking Valerio the Butcher, who happened to also be one of the guests. He had a chat with his poultry guy and ordered up 2 turkeys for Wednesday delivery, not a second to spare. When I went back to clarify (no heads, no feet, bones in), he told me they were going to come in small as there were no big ones available that time of year. Not to worry he said, if we ran out of food we can all eat pane e olio – bread and oil. Seems Valerio wasn’t too sure about this big ole American feast, and he wasn’t alone.

Brunero, Valerio’s brother and owner of the restaurant where this whole shebang was going to take place, told me we’d be cooking the birds in his wood-burning pizza oven since that’s the only oven they use. And he followed up that bit of news with his big idea that we could make one American version and one Italian version, the only problem being trying to sell the American one. Ha ha.

The turkeys arrived on schedule, beautiful and hormone free. What, no artificially inflated breast? No surgically inserted pop-up temperature guide? What I thought at the time was, they are just beautiful. Mostly legs, small breasts. I think turkeys are supposed to look like that.

The final menu, dictated by what ingredients I could get my hands on and somewhat by what I thought the Italians might actually eat, was:

  • Pumpkin Risotto, with some spicy mostarda stirred in at the last minute
  • Wood-Fired Oven Roast Turkey, al’Italiana and al’Americana
  • Cornbread and Sausage Stuffing – polenta and yogurt went into the cornbread
  • Cranberry Sauce – o no! agrodolce, sweet with savory, will they even touch it?
  • Brussels Sprouts – crispy and tasting of fall
  • White and Sweet Potatoes – roasted with sage and guanciale, flavorful cured pig’s cheek
  • Tarts Tatin and Olive Oil Pecan Pies

On the day of, when I headed into the restaurant’s kitchen and got a look at Brunero’s turkey, I got nervous, more nervous I should say. It was gorgeous, covered with sage and rosemary, garlic and oil. Inside there was more garlic and loads of the fresh herbs he’d plucked himself from the bountiful Tuscan earth.  It looked so savory good, I couldn’t wait to have a bite. Mine, I had soaked overnight in brine, stuffed with cornbread/sausage dressing, and covered with oil, sage, lemon, and orange juices and zests.

So there they were, ready be slid into the pizza oven on the back of a peel. The Italian turkey was plopped down in a pan, legs splayed wide open looking all relaxed. It was clear which was the uptight, prudish American turkey: the one with its wings carefully tucked under and its legs and cavity neatly trussed up just so. Brunero’s gave off heavenly aromas every time he pulled it toward the front of the oven to baste with wine. My entry was already less pretty to look at, and then it didn’t cook through because the oven with the open fire was so hot and fast. I had to un-stuff it and actually split it open and slide it back into the oven.

In the end though, his was dry as a bone and mine was juicy good. No trouble at all selling the American turkey. USA No. 1.

We sat around tables decorated with trace-your-hand-turkeys and had a little history lesson on the Pilgrims before dinner. The 20 guests loved everything. The five Americans thought it was very authentic; the 15 Italians found it all very exotic. I even spied Angiola, whose judgment for me is always the final word, using a bit of bread to sop up the last drops of cranberry sauce.