Talking Turkey in Holland

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This column appeared in yesterday’s travel section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“What kind of turkey?” the butcher at the pouliere, the Dutch version of a poultry shop, inquired.

“Uh, there are different kinds? Just a regular ol’ turkey,” I said, miffed that there existed an entire avian world of which I clearly knew nothing.

“What size?” he fired back.

“Size? I don’t know—5 pounds? I mean, 2 kilos? Four? Just give me what you got.”

I realized I’d always relied on my mom to pick out the Thanksgiving bird, and I didn’t have a clue what to buy for a party of 10. I also deduced this was no normal turkey-purchasing mission.

The whole scenario played out in my head: My butcher friend would go out into his yard, find a turkey that met my specs, chop off the head and pluck him—all so my American friends and I could celebrate Thanksgiving away from home. And all for the bargain price of 40 euros.

It was 2005, and my best friend, Megan, and I were living in the Netherlands, in the mid-size town of Utrecht, just outside Amsterdam. While living abroad, I found there are some things Americans tend to take for granted, patriotic holidays like Thanksgiving being one of them – and there was no way I was going to sacrifice my favorite indulgences simply because I opted to move to Europe. Instead, we chose to cook up our own little Turkey Day right there in Holland—which we’d soon realize was no easy feat.

We began a month in advance, a smart move seeing as the preparations took that long. We had planned a two-hour trip north to the closest military base to stock up on American products, until we met a Canadian who informed us that his nation’s Thanksgiving is similar to ours and that he found much of his meal at the expat goods store in town.

Sure enough, after visiting every local Dutch supermarket to no avail, we located our canned pumpkin, lining the shelves at the expatriate store in mass quantity. Piecrust and pie tins, however, turned out to be deemed non-essentials. “Improvise” was the theme of this particular Thanksgiving, so we settled for no-bake pumpkin cheesecake instead. Gradually, we found everything else we needed: ingredients for green bean casserole; sweet potatoes; and even Jell-O salad (which in Holland they call “jelly pudding”).

The day before our fete, we retrieved the hard-earned poultry, only to learn that a turkey—even a puny 10-pounder—was not going to fit in the available mini-fridge. Improvise. Our classmate (now my husband, Scott) said he had a full-sized kitchen. We loaded the turkey into Megan’s backpack and biked the burdensome bird some 8 kilometers (about 5 miles) to Scott’s flat. All the while, we received odd looks from our European classmates, who didn’t exactly “get” Thanksgiving (even after my dramatic reading of the Pilgrims-and-Indians story).

Megan and I only had two hot plates in our poorly stocked attic apartment, so preparing dishes in advance was unfeasible. So, the next task was transporting our half-baked feast to Khari’s house—by 30-minute bus ride with two connections to make. Arms full of uncooked casseroles and jelly pudding platters, we boarded the bus and ran into Scott, a baked turkey in his lap.

Khari’s kitchen lived up to expectations—the only notable exception being that it had, well, no oven. Improvise. We prepared the remaining dishes on stovetop, aside from the stuffing, which we shoved into the mini-toaster oven. The bread and apple pie were impossible enterprises, so we dispatched dinner in search of the freshest baked goods in Utrecht.

When the time came, we had a Thanksgiving spread that would make Tyler Florence proud, given the limitations of our resources – and the things we take for granted at home.

There were 10 of us: Four Americans, one Norwegian, two Swedes, one Brit and one Finn, and the remaining seat was filled by a quirky Mexican man who made “art” from wine bottles and pictures of scantily clad women – and who somehow found his way onto our guest list.

Keeping with tradition, we went around the table revealing what we were thankful for. Earlier that week, I had received an e-mail from a friend back home saying she felt sorry I wouldn’t be spending Thanksgiving with family and friends. My family was a metaphorical million miles away, but I looked around the table at all my new acquaintances from different parts of the globe and wondered how she figured I’d be without friends.

The Jell-O might have been a bit soupy and the apple pie store-bought, but minor details aside, Thanksgiving was a success—and a little more international than when we started—and it came together in a foreign land.

That’s something to be thankful for in itself.

  • November 22, 2010

    What a fun story! I love hearing about others doing Thanksgiving abroad cuz I’m on my 5th now! I did one in Slovenia (that ingredient hunt was intense!) and now I’m on my 4th in Berlin. It’s even become tradition among my German friends and they get so excited to try out making their own Thanksgiving dishes now for our potluck. Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s a wonderful slice of home when far away…

  • November 22, 2010

    Ha! I love the determination and improvisation!

  • November 22, 2010

    What kind of turkey? Even as someone who considers themselves a ‘foodie’ I would have been stumped with that question.

    Happy American Thanksgiving!

  • November 22, 2010

    Great story and nice to share Thanksgiving with foreign friends. However, even in the states a holiday meal can go astray. When the power went off at a friends we were thankful for a propane oven that not only cooked our bird but kept us warm. So warm in fact, we ate our Thanksgiving dinner in our underware.

  • November 22, 2010

    How hilarious. Our Thanksgivings and Christmases are always strange. My husband wants roasted parsnips like he used to get in his British upbringing, my mother wants sweet potato casserole. No one likes turkey so it’s a debate between ham and chicken. The hubster also thinks clam chowder is the only appropriate Christmas Eve meal, a random tradition passed on from nowhere.

    You never know!

  • November 22, 2010

    Sounds like a lovely T-day. Love that it was so international. 🙂

  • November 22, 2010

    Definitely a Thanksgiving adventure! I went through a similar situation in Holland trying to make a Passover dinner for my boyfriend. I used the expat store in Amsterdam frequently, and know too well about living in Holland with a mini-fridge and no oven! By the end of my time there, we were pros at cooking just about anything on the stove top!

    Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

  • November 22, 2010

    So cute!! I once celebrated the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had at a friend’s house in New Zealand. We all got together, a bunch of expats and I, and some Kiwis too, and had a potluck style feast that ended in all of us laughing, drinking and dancing around my friend’s flat until 4 a.m.

    I will never forget it. Thanksgiving is all about the people you’re with, after all, and I felt so blessed to be surrounded by a group of new friends that I now call family.

    Your tale is beautiful! Happy Thanksgiving!

  • November 22, 2010

    What a beautifully heartwarming Thanksgiving memory!

  • November 22, 2010

    I celebrated the last two Thanksgivings in Madrid. At first I was really sad to be missing out on my family’s traditions but those two Spanish Thanksgivings turned out to be some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m actually a little sad to be missing out on the expat celebration this year.

  • November 22, 2010

    My grandmother always comments on how she worries about me, being away from the family on Thanksgiving. But what she doesn’t get is that it means less obligations and more dinner hopping. This year I will have 2 Thanksgivings, the first in the afternoon with one group of friends, and the second in the evening with another. Pretty awesome if you ask me!?!

  • November 22, 2010

    Love the story! I would never imagine that cooking a Thanksgiving meal would be such a challenge. But then again, we’ll be cooking our entire meal in a kitchen with only two working burners and an oven that barely fits our bird. So I guess I can understand the desire to try even if it seems kind-of futile.

  • November 22, 2010

    Nice story! Ummm what kind of turkey? I’m not too sure there are that many types
    maybe “Christmas” and “thanksgiving” types??

  • November 23, 2010

    My friend and I made Thanksgiving dinner for our host families in Germany when we were high school exchange students. Despite both being vegetarians at the time we managed to locate and successfully cook a turkey (neither was easy!), along with mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce etc… I think we even pulled of a pie! Not bad for a couple of 16 year olds back in the 90s 🙂
    Now my Thanksgivings are a lot more local, but no less of an adventure as you’ll see if you visit our Thanksgiving’s website:

    Happy Thanksgiving Kristin!

  • June 2, 2013

    What a wonderful story! Sounds like a very happy Thanksgiving!

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