I have a lot of pent up feelings.
Americans have a broader culinary palette than we are given credit for, but I think we can all agree that generally, we are used to our food not having a face. The only thing that might make it to a standard grocery store with its head still on its shoulders is a fish (do fish have shoulders?) and even then, it's not 100% of the time. So when we decided with Dalia that Gina and I would cook Thanksgiving dinner here in Croatia, I didn't really think about where we would get the turkey. I knew it would be difficult to acquire many of the ingredients we needed for a standard American holiday meal, but as turkey is a common dish here in Croatia, I knew we could get one for our feast. I just didn't know that he was currently just a few houses down, running through the grass, eating bugs, and generally doing whatever it is turkeys do.
RIP, Tom Turkey, and RIP to your wife too (Thomasina?), whom the neighbor felt necessary to off as well, in case we decided one fit in the oven better than the other. She has since been interred in the freezer, since her husband fit in the oven just fine. But unlike Mr, Mrs still has her head attached and her feet have been encased in her butt. But let's move on.
After Klara drove Gina and me back with her to Križevci Saturday night, we baked the cornucopia we had (so cleverly) sculpted out of braided pizza dough, and I asked about the state of poor Tom. "Oh! He is here!" Exclaimed Dalia, pulling open the living room window and lifting up two plastic bags. "And his wife!" She plopped the bags on the counter, where I could see two wrinkly bird faces pressed graphically against the plastic. You've seen a turkey, right? Not attractive. Defeathering doesn't help. Their faces are pink tinged with blue, and creased with heavy wrinkles. And they stared at me from their plastic shrouds, judging me for their murders. Just a few hours ago they had been gallivanting freely in a neighbor's yard, and now here they were, naked, chilled, exposed on the counter as Dalia pulled Mr's feet out of his butt and stretched his neck over the cutting board....
I squeaked and ran down the short flight of steps to the big dining table, where our construction paper decorations suddenly needed my attention. I am not so skittish as to be a vegetarian but I also don't want our dinner to stare at me as his head is separated from his body, not if I don't have to. And I didn't have to because we have Dalia, and nothing in the kitchen scares her.
Instead I worked on our decor, which Gina and I had constructed off and on in the last week. We made paper pilgrim hats and Indian feathers (like when you're in first grade) and a turkey with the classic handprint feathers. We scattered gourds, fall leaves, stalks of wheat and pinecones over the table runner, and lit some candles, some of which we tied with cinnamon sticks. There was our edible cornucopia, spilling over with wheat and more tiny gourds, and (my favorite) little candy boxes at each plate we made out of construction paper, broken cinnamon sticks and cotton balls to look like pumpkin pie slices. We were quite thrilled with ourselves (eat dirt Pinterest). And, in case you are wondering, "pinecone" in Croatian is "šiška." Siniša so obligingly scavenged for them for us while he was hunting in the woods.
I knew I was forgetting something and Gina and I went to bed Saturday night, but we set an alarm for 7:30 the next morning, prepared for a day of chaotic cooking. The cornucopia was baked, Tom was back out on the windowsill (minus his head and feet) and his wife was already stashed in the freezer. We had a list of dishes in order of preparation, and bags of stuff bought in both Zagreb and Križevci. We tried Križevci first obviously, since Siniša's family business is supermarkets, and to their credit they had most of what we needed. But sweet potatoes are not common in Croatia, and when you can find them they are the white variety. Cranberries, either canned or frozen, were a lost cause, as was cornbread for corn casserole. No such horse. But pumpkin was absolutely essential. "Pumpkin," proclaimed Dalia to me with a giggle a few years ago, "is something we feed to pigs in Croatia." But it exists! I don't care if I have to pry it out of a pig's hooves, I will find a pumpkin. Their store had the green, squatty pumpkins that they eat in Australia, they look like some variety of squash but are not pumpkins as Americans think of them. Still, it was something, and we were prepared to purchase one as a backup. But when Gina and I stopped by one of Zagreb's large Konzum stores near Klara's apartment, I rushed for the small basket of small, round, orange pumpkins with a face usually displayed for small children in search of Easter eggs. These pumpkins were being sold as leftover carving pumpkins from the fall but I didn't care, I was going to figure out how to cook this damn thing and we were going to eat it.
Joy of joys, they also had small packages of orange sweet potatoes and panko bread crumbs, which we would need to make our own French fried onions (there is no such thing as packaged fried onions in Croatia, and after much debate Gina and I decided to fry our own. The other options included cornflakes or the closest thing we could find to Funyuns, but both of these were shot down). Gina's favorite dish is the green bean casserole, so the onions were high on the priority list. Also high on the list were marshmallows, which are also quite foreign here. I needed them for sweet potato casserole, which I especially needed to make not just because I like it but because our family were very weirded out that we would put nuts and marshmallows in a baked dish with POTATOES. Naturally, I needed to win this argument. We had scored a small bag of pecans at a vitamin store (I think because nuts are healthy) but I still lacked marshmallows. Konzum was our last chance, and Gina and I dragged ourselves up and down each aisle repeatedly, refusing to give up. Finally, we found weird shaped marshmallows in crinkly bags on the bottom shelf of the candy aisle. Luckily they had plain ones, not just the pink and yellow twisted ones which are all that usually can be found in Croatia. VICTORY.
So Sunday morning, as I was alone and bleary-eyed in the kitchen, making myself coffee and working out where to start, at least I had most of what we needed, or a reasonable assimilation therein. Gina joined me and Dalia fluttered around for a while, unused to being kicked out of her control room. We insisted though that today she was supposed to rest and have fun, so after she squeezed a few apples she finally gave up and joined Siniša. Gina and I started in on the pies, and I realized with a sinking heart that I had meant to make the pastry dough the night before, as it should chill in the fridge for several hours before use. No matter! Moving on. Gina peeled and cored apples for the apple pie as I baked our precious pumpkin, who basically gave me the finger as best he was able by taking almost two hours to bake all the way, despite much coaxing and increase in temperature. No matter! Moving on! I made the pie pastry and let it sit in the fridge for as long as I was able before rolling it out for the apple pie. Dalia only had heart shaped silicone pans or a 9" springform pan, so I opted for the latter and made a very sad looking apple pie in the springform. No matter! Beauty is nothing in cooking! Moving on!
We had ripped up a loaf of bread and spread out the prices to get stale on a pan, so I now fetched this from the pantry as Gina slid Tom into the sink. She bathed him oh so tenderly before chopping up and browning a heap of sausage. Now the sausage was also an adjustment, as our grandmother's recipe calls for bits of breakfast sausage in the stuffing. There is no such horse here. Dalia had purchased a variety of pork sausages earlier in the week and we tried them for lunch one day, settling on a red one that is nothing like breakfast sausage but we thought might work in stuffing. The language barrier was an issue during this whole, sausage filled process. How do you explain the difference between breakfast sausage and other sausages of the world? NO MATTER. MOVING ON.
We were already two hours in and we only had one dish finished, my huge, homely apple pie was cooling on the stove as Gina browned sausage and I cursed at the pumpkin still in the oven , calling him an "orange bastard" and trying to refrain from slamming the oven door. Google translate came into play again as I asked Dalia for different herbs for the stuffing, some of which they don't have here (no. such. horse.) but most of which she picked for us fresh from her garden. our grandmother's stuffing recipe, a picture of which was forwarded to us by our mother, called for "poultry seasoning," so we were already guessing which herbs me up that mystery mix. No matter! The measuring spoons were MIA anyways, so I was measuring everything in my hand as needed. Dalia and Siniša were out and Klara was studying for exams, but Marta wandered unsuspectingly into our path and we convinced her to run to the store for us to buy butter. We paid her in marshmallows.
Two hours later we were doing okay: Tom, thoroughly stuffed, was in the oven upstairs (there is a small kitchenette off the guest room), Gina peeled the rest of the cider apples, and I was finally pulling the orange bastard out of the downstairs oven. I still needed to scoop out his flesh, purée it, and mix the pie filling. Irritatingly, I only needed two cups of pumpkin purée for the pie, so I had around four cups of this "pig food", which already soaked up hours of precious time, leftover. NO MATTER! MOVING ON! So as a last minute decision, as Gina moved on to making the mushroom soup for the green bean casserole and I decided to wedge one more dish into our frantic schedule and started in on some pumpkin cheesecake bars (we needed to make sure the family's pumpkin education was thorough). This required another trip to the store by Marta, as we already needed MORE BUTTER and cream cheese, a reasonable facsimile of which is available here. Bruno also stepped into our web and haplessly asked if we needed help, so I set him to work squashing the apple purée from Gina's cider apples. I love apple cider in the fall but unfortunately, there was no such horse at the supermarket and Dalia was convinced it would be simple to make our own. In the end it was indeed simple in principle but very time consuming in practice. No matter! We had a strapping young cousin who wanted to get out of studying and seemed happy enough to squeeze apple mash through a tea towel until it begged for mercy. Moving on!
We were sweating by this point and I hadn't so much as sat down since we began this infernal process (I love cooking but sometimes you are up to your ears in pumpkin rind and apple mash and you realize you may have overshot a bit). The sweet potatoes were successful boiled and mashed and combined with the precious pecans and other casserole deliciousness, and topped with the (overly sweet) Croatian marshmallows. We were winging it on every recipe by this point, not only because of missing measuring spoons and such but also because many of the ingredients were replacement guesses, and with so many dishes going in and out of the oven, we were winging it as far as baking times and temperatures. I went upstairs to check the turkey only to find that after two and a half hours the vengeful asshole was STILL RAW and seemed in no mood to ever be otherwise. The downstairs oven is newer so we cleared it out and installed Mr Tom where we could keep a closer eye on his still-pink butt. Gina had finished slicing her onions by this point and coated them in egg, flour and panko crumbs. We put these in the upstairs oven and MOVED ON.
Their cousin Ivana stopped by to chat and helped peel potatoes, and everyone was eyeing the bright-orange sweet potato casserole (complete with puffed and perfectly toasted marshmallows) with a mix of hunger and fear. I was trying to cook down the mushroom soup, which was an instant dry mix and far too thin for the green bean casserole. (No Campbell's here) It had been simmering away on a back burner for quite a while now, and was finally starting to cook down. Bruno had finished pummeling the apples and the resultant cider was just starting to warm in a pot on the stove. I elbowed Gina in the ribs and motioned her towards the pots. "Do you think the mushroom soup still looks too thin?" She picked up the ladle and prodded the apple cider. "Yeah, it needs more time," she said before turned back to the mashed potatoes. Mmkay that's cider but good chat...
Moving on! Every burner on the stove was taken, the long kitchen counter was filled with finished dishes and the makings of the last few, Tom was finally starting to think about cooking in the downstairs oven and upstairs.....
I didn't even need to look at the clock. I leaned around Bruno (faithfully cleaning up his mess) and caught Gina's attention from her potatoes. "Your onions."
She dashed upstairs and Marta looked at me with wide eyes. "Follow her," I said, handing her a spatula and two towels. "She'll need these."
Another minute or two and the smoke alarms would have sounded. As it was, several days passed before the burned onion smell left our room. Gina and Marta came back downstairs with the pace and solemnity of pallbearers, gently lowering the large sheet pan onto a trivet. What were once crescent onion slices coated in crunchy, golden crumbs were now black, shriveled tentacles of death. "It's okay," Marta said encouragingly, breaking off a piece and placing it in her mouth like a champ. "They're......they're still good...." She managed to stretch her mouth into a smile.
"They're not okay but bless your heart for lying," I said. Gina just stared down at the pan with a mix of of sadness and resignation. "Moving on!" I said, and dug for the bag of cornflakes. Thin or not, we dumped the mushroom soup into the baking dish with some carmelized onions and blanched green beans and doused the mix with the cereal, slinging into the oven with more than a little hostility. Tom, according to the glass thermometer I inserted into his posterior (and which the kids had fetched for me from a neighbor), had finally given in to his fight and cooked all the way through. So he was on the counter settling his juices while everything else was getting tragically cold. And, as one last kick in the pants, he had forfeited almost no juices, so I was left to invent a gravy out of thin air. No. Fucking. Matter.
After a quick dig through the spice drawer I procured some bouillon and some flour and managed to whip up a rather tasty gravy, if I do say so myself. CHLOE ONE TURKEY ZERO.
Finally, finally, finally, we decided the green bean casserole was good enough and we popped everything else in the oven for a bit to warm. I had graphically carved Tom, who did not resemble the standard Butterball. As a male and completely organic turkey, his breast was smaller and his meat gave way only reluctantly. I've carved a turkey before but he put up quite a fight, the crusty old duffer. But at last he was on a platter in the center of the table, surrounded by the sweet potato and green bean casseroles, mashed potatoes (done the Herakovic way), corn, gravy, cherry jam (homemade by Dalia and not too far of a jump from cranberry sauce), stuffing, pumpkin cheesecake bars, and apple and pumpkin pies. I was wearing at least part of each dish on my shirt, but no matter. I really didn't care by that point.
We adjusted our fancy paper hats and all said what we were thankful for, then Marta and Siniša (as the oldest and youngest people at the table) broke the wishbone. They had to struggle with his tough bones though, and I saw this as one last middle finger from his turkey grave.
But they loved it! All of it. In the end, the green beans were our weakest dish, but something was bound to be, and it was still edible. The stuffing was excellent, considering there wasn't a single thing in it that matched our grandmother's recipe (cooking skills, level up!) and Dalia fawned over the sweet potatoes. These were rather piercingly sweet because of the strange marshmallows but still good.
We added Jack Daniels to our Bruno cider and toasted family, travel, and a year of unique opportunities. They assured us that everything, while as strange to them as many of their foods are to us, was excellent. I was pretty proud of my pumpkin pie, which in essentials is not a difficult thing to make but between acquiring the pumpkin and baking it into submission, had been quite the labor of love (And nobody even knew my pastry wasn't properly chilled). By the end of the night we were all close to dead, Gina and I from the mental and physical exhaustion of cooking from scratch the largest American meal of the year in a strange kitchen in a foreign country, and everyone else from the new sensation that is the Thanksgiving coma.