Ziua Recunoștință aka Thanksgiving

So this was actually our second Thanksgiving in Moldova. Last year we arrived a week or less before Thanksgiving and ended up celebrating with some Americans here. It was a very nice time, but I must admit that it didn’t really feel like Thanksgiving.

For starters, we barely knew the Americans we celebrated with. Although we felt graciously welcomed, we didn’t have the same sense of comfort that we do in our families’ homes for Thanksgiving. The other big piece is that we weren’t yet missing American culture. We were prepped and excited for our big Moldovan adventure, and that had just barely begun.

Both those things have changed significantly over the past year. More and more we find ourselves craving certain American traditions: watching football games with friends on Sundays or cooking and baking certain seasonal dishes. This year, celebrating a traditional Thanksgiving felt like a “must” to me.

The other thing is that we have grown to love our community here in Moldova. It has not been without bumps, but we know and care for people here in a way that we obviously could not have at our arrival.

For all these reasons, I was determined to have a traditional Thanksgiving in Moldova. And although it wasn’t entirely straightforward, I think it was totally worth it.

What prep looks like in a foreign country

All major meals require preparation, right? I’m talking about shopping and timelines to ensure that every dish gets its time in the oven. All that is true in Moldova, too, but with a couple bonus “obstacles” tacked on.

For example, finding a turkey is not so easy. Just about every villager in this country owns chicken and geese, but turkeys are rare to find on farms or in stores. In fact, I think the turkey was the most exciting part of the meal for the Moldovans (more to come on that later).

So about two weeks before Thanksgiving, we started our hunt for a turkey. We had friends drive us to a newly opened, German-based store called Kaufland. It is one of just a handful of supermarkets here. And it is one of the most American shopping experiences I have had in Moldova. Thankfully they had a turkey – Literally ONE turkey – for sale. So we bought it along with a couple chickens to make sure we had enough meat.

The prep continues…

Although we found a turkey without much trouble, truly the most difficult aspect of this Thanksgiving dinner was the amount of time spent hunting for ingredients or figuring out alternatives. There are some ingredients you will never find in Moldova: canned pumpkin and brown sugar are two key examples.

And some of the other supporting characters for the Thanksgiving dinner are hit-or-miss when you try to find them. Occasionally I see sweet potatoes here, but then I may not see them again for weeks. Brussel sprouts are the same way. Even the spinach or arugula at this time of year might be available, but potentially in a really sad, wilted state. All this means that I made a Thanksgiving menu full of alternatives and ingredient-hacks.

But what if you don’t want to compromise? What if Thanksgiving simply must contain a certain dish in order for it to be Thanksgiving? Well that’s when you make a dish entirely from scratch. I myself made stuffing – which means buying freshly baked bread at the store, tearing it into hunks, drying it in the oven, and then reconstituting it into stuffing. More impressive is our American friend here who made green bean casserole from scratch. That meant a homemade bechamel sauce instead of a can of soup AND onions cut, breaded, and fried by hand to replace the French’s Crispy Fried Onions.

The Magic of the Turkey

Although everyone has their favorite dish for Thanksgiving, I think most of us can agree that the turkey is the star. The Moldovans felt exactly the same way. I enjoyed seeing them astonished by the size of the bird (ours was 12-13 pounds.)

Because I’ve never cooked a full turkey by myself, I enlisted the help of a Moldovan who loves to cook. (Funny enough, it turns out she has never cooked a turkey either.) It was a fun adventure to navigate our cultures colliding as we prepped the bird. For example, my Moldovan friend is no strange to killing, plucking, and cleaning birds. She went at the little bits of feathers stuck to our turkey with no problem.

My friend has cooking skills honed in a Moldovan village. She created a rub for the turkey off the top of her head and without measurements. She works intuitively in the kitchen. This is great, but it also means that she does some other things I find a little concerning. For example, she washed the turkey in our tiny sink and spilled raw turkey juice everywhere. I know that washing a bird you bought from the store is unnecessary; but she is used to washing the bird because at home she likely just killed it and needs to wash off the blood.

So she brought her Moldovan intuition to the equation, and I provided a little bit of American cooking tradition: the meat thermometer. Moldovans don’t use meat thermometers. But they also never cook birds so big that they might be cooked on the outside and dangerously raw on the inside. So although our process was a strange mix of intuition and concern and deliberation, ultimately we cooked the turkey.

And miraculously, it turned out delicious. Our cultures collided in just the right way to make a masterpiece. People enjoyed taking pictures of the turkey carving process. And we even had enough meat for leftovers. I would call that a turkey success!

“Massaging” the turkey for its trip to the “sauna”
Finally the turkey enters the “sauna”
All of us feeling proud of how the turkey turned out

My Moldovan Dream Team

The turkey is just one example, but truly I couldn’t have gotten the meal on the table without my Moldovan helpers. I didn’t specifically ask for help (other than from the Turkey Girl); I wanted the Thanksgiving dinner to be a special event for the Moldovans and not another thing on their busy to-do list.

But as Moldovans arrived early for the meal, they jumped into the kitchen eager to participate. And although I had expected some of the wrong kind of help (i.e. judgment on American food and flavors), pretty much everyone was willing to go with the tasks I assigned them. And honestly, I did really need them to help me keep track of various food restrictions [a separate batch of potatoes without any dairy products or a reminder to not use any rosemary on the turkey]. I haven’t met a lot of people with food allergies in this country, but I have met a decent amount of picky eaters.

The End Result

I must say that the end result was pretty delicious. Or at the very least, not a bad effort for Thanksgiving in Moldova. We had turkey, roasted chicken and veggies, mashed potatoes (both with sour cream and without), corn, arugula salad, green bean casserole, canned cranberry sauce, gravy, home-made rolls with garlic dipping sauce, stuffing, cheesecake, and pumpkin chiffon pie.

We attempted to share a little bit of American culture along with the meal in the form of the Macy’s Day parade. But I must say, the Moldovans weren’t as receptive to that as they were to the food. We received a lot of questions and blank stares. Ultimately they switched the television to the Russian equivalent of Tom and Jerry and that they LOVED. (For those of you interested, the Russian Tom and Jerry are actually a wolf and a rabbit.)

Still, I declared it an international Thanksgiving Day success!!