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Having an American Thanksgiving in Greece takes some planning.
My American colleagues and I had been working with our Greek and British partners for seven months and many of them had invited us into their homes for dinner.
Having one huge Thanksgiving dinner for everyone seemed like a good way to celebrate the holiday away from our families and pay back all those invitations.
Since Thanksgiving Day is just another Greek work day, I thought sadly about my family at home, while I worked on a financial model and looked ahead to the following Sunday when we'd celebrate.
Three of us divided up the cooking assignments. We were cooking for 30 — we'd invited everyone from the managing director to the company driver. Finding one turkey big enough for that group was impossible, so we bought the two largest turkeys we could find. Greek grocery clerks are usually pretty uncommunicative, but this one wondered aloud why we needed two huge birds? Jerry's Greek landlady didn't approve of our American dressing — I think it was the soggy bread cubes. She insisted that we stuff one turkey "Greek-style" using rice. I'd brought cans of pumpkin from Seattle for the pies. (I could easily have found fresh pumpkins, but had no idea how to cook them down to make the pie filling.)
I did have to shop for a few things that I assumed would be international staples — apples, spices, sweet potatoes, canned crushed pineapple and miniature marshmallows. Some of these were easy to find. Others more problematic, like the crushed pineapple. If I'd needed squid, it would have been easy, since there was a 10-foot-long section with different varieties of canned kalamari. Unfortunately there was only one type of canned pineapple — not crushed.
Sweet potatoes were even a bigger challenge. I finally found some odd-shaped white potatoes, labeled with the Greek word for "sweet." They didn't look like the orange-colored ones I was used to, but I bought them anyway. Sunday, our Thanksgiving Day, I got up and checked the Jell-O ... which hadn't jelled. Panic ... I threw it in the freezer. The sweet potatoes were an unappetizing-looking mess. They tasted good if you closed your eyes, but the white-colored potatoes mashed with brown sugar made them into a pile of gray mush. The more brown sugar I used, the better they tasted and the worse they looked. On the top, instead of a nice layer of toasted miniature marshmallows, I had a goopy-looking layer of cut-up large marshmallows.
Bravely I gathered my gray potatoes and frozen Jell-O and headed to Jerry's flat for our event.
Our guests arrived, bringing Greek wine and (from Murray's 5-year-old daughter) hand-shaped turkey drawings for decorations. We didn't have enough table space for a sit-down dinner, so we served buffet style, although our Greek and British guests didn't seem very comfortable with balancing plates on their laps. It must have seemed terribly casual and American to them.
The turkey and dressing (both American and Greek versions), vegetables, and even the gray sweet potatoes were big hits. No one knew what to do with the Jell-O — and not just because it was sno-cone crunchy. "Sweets" are never mixed with the main meal, so everyone assumed it was some sort of "pre-dessert" course.
As I served dessert, I explained to one of my Greek friends that pumpkin pie is a very traditional part of Thanksgiving. He looked repulsed and told me that in Greece, pumpkins were a vegetable. I suppose I would be equally repulsed if someone told me they'd baked up a nice concoction of broccoli, spices, and sugar for dessert.
None of the Greeks tried the pumpkin pie.
As everyone settled back, talking over glasses of wine and content from eating too much, the children running around the room, it felt like a typical American Thanksgiving. Of course, at home the entertainment would be football on TV, rather than playing Greek music and watching Kostas and Nikos waving forks over their heads as they did a Greek dance. But having family and friends gather together to share a meal and give thanks crosses cultural boundaries.
(Carolyn Schott lives in Seattle.)
The Travel Essay runs each Sunday in The Seattle Times and also online at seattletimes.com.