As California enters the more challenging stages of seasonal cuisine when we keep up our spirits by assuring each other that broccoli and kale are as much fun as tomatoes and peaches – more entertaining versions of seasonality come to mind.
That is: when food isn’t limited by the season but instead celebrates it, so the smell of spices or stuffing summons waves of nostalgia and, depending on where one finds oneself, the lack of it brings on homesickness.
Autumnal food in Switzerland means new wine and, where there are orchards, fresh pressed cider and Metzgete – the celebration (really just a big meal) of butchering and then eating a pig made into sausage and divided onto plates full of boiled potatoes, sauerkraut and little simmered apples in the village restaurant, where everyone knows everyone.
Turkey isn’t nearly as much fun as a squealing pig being butchered on the village square, the butcher drinking the blood, and the entire village chowing down the spoils, but years ago when I lived in Switzerland I got the notion that I absolutely had to have a Normal Rockwell Thanksgiving complete with Turkey served to the entire bi-continental family plus as many friends as we could fit around our new, massively over-sized table. I pictured women all sharing the basting, laughing men in the living room, then everyone sitting around the table, their faces bathed in Rockwellian golden light, awed by every culinary cliché in the Family Circle cookbook and an epic spread with the Swiss Jura mountains as a backdrop.
I decided to make it happen.
It was going to be a piece of cake. I could get the Kraft baby marshmallows and Ocean Spray jelly from Globus’s overpriced basement delicatessen, get a big, ugly pumpkin from a farmer and cook it down, make clover leaf rolls and the rest, but the only turkey I knew of was the one Mrs Schoeneberger used to look after orphaned chicks. Turkey hens make great chicken nurse maids , but Mrs Schoenberger’s turkey was old and sinuous, and Mrs Schoeneberger would never have given her up far any amount of money.
Without the turkey the chicks would all run out on the road and get run over just as their mothers had. I had got good at hitting their mothers with my tree frog green Citroen 2CV(or very bad at avoiding them). “They don’t call them dumb clucks for nothing,” said Dorli Schoeneberger the first time I carried one of their limp bodies up her stairs. She sold eggs to pay for the education that would take her away from hardscrabble small farming. , “Do you want her plucked?” I bought several hens from Dorli this way, and while Dorlis’ eggs were magnificent, the old laying hens were good for not much more than soup and stock.
When I asked around the farmers about a turkey the general response was, “You want to eat what??” As if I had suggested I wanted cat or one of Farmer Nebel’s pet pixie goats for dinner, but I learned from an expat friend that Migros, the first real supermarket in Switzerland, was taking orders for frozen turkeys. I put one in for biggest bird that could fit in my industrial sized oven and invited everyone we knew and my parents from San Francisco for Thanksgiving dinner.
When I went to collect it, the butcher said, “Es tut mir leid. Wir haben ihr Truthahn verkauft.” (Sorry. We sold your turkey).
“Then please get me another one,” I said. “a BIG one.” “Sorry, said the butcher. They are all reserved.” “MINE was reserved,” I snapped.. “You sold it. Now it’s first come, first served. I need a turkey.” “This is Switzerland.” he said – people tended to say this to me a lot, as if I were too dumb to notice and expected the Swiss to be as unprincipled and corrupt as we Americans obviously were – “We don’t do things like that. We are an orderly people.” The store manager couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything.
No matter where you are, if you want to get something done, you need to know the right people or people who know the right people. In Switzerland all of the right people were a) men and b) officers in the Swiss Army. They took good care of their own.
My husband, Marcel, was an officer, so I ended up blubbering about the tiny marshmallows, my parents coming from San Francisco, Ocean Spray and tradition to the President of Migros, somebody’s cavalry buddy, who promised a turkey in “plenty of time for the dinner”,
By the day we had chosen for our Thanksgiving dinner I hadn’t heard from him, so I didn’t think there was much hope, even though Swiss officers always keep their promises. It was Sunday, and no stores were open. I was about to send Marcel to Dorli to see if we could cajole her into doing in the entire scrawny, molting flock at any price she wanted to charge, when the doorbell rang.There stood the Vice President of Migros beaming with pride, as he handed over a bag containing an icy 20 pound turkey. Frozen solid. After he turned down my invitation to join us later for dinner, I closed the door and despaired. Then came Mother.
She arrived by taxi from Basel, where my parents preferred to stay when visiting, sweeping through the door ahead of my father, dressed in her designer winter white knit pants suit and knee length mink, bright and beautiful and elegant, radiating the scent of Femme ahead of her. Assessing the situation she announced: We can do this, slapped on an apron, kicked off her heels and turned the rock solid animal upside down under a stream of hot running water. Once we had douched the bird enough to pry out the frozen gizzards, she stuffed a wine bottle full of hot water up it’s rear and immersed it in hot water protected by a garbage bag.
The in-laws arrived sometime around 11:00. The wine bottle wasn’t working fast enough, so Mother got my hair dryer. My husband opened a bottle of Veltliner and cut off some speck from the slab we had hanging in the basement. That, along with a couple of boxes of crackers, was about all we had in the house except the dinner fixings filling our tiny refrigerator.
My father had brought his own vodka and dry vermouth – he never traveled without a couple of bottles after the bartender at Michelin starred Euler had served mother a sweet aperitif in response to her request for a martini, which she had spewed all over the bar in astonishment. He didn’t trust the extra bottle we kept for their visits. We had blood oranges for screwdrivers. Father poured one for my mother, Marcel gave me a glass of Veltliner. Mother and I alternated at shooting hot air up the turkey’s ass.
Sometime after noon Marrius, my father-in-law declared loudly that he had come for real Thanksgiving food, not smoked speck. Dismissing the possibility of baby food or cat food as a dip I spread some of the jealously hoarded peanut butter I had carried all the way from San Francisco crackers and told my in-laws it was an American Thanksgiving tradition from the South; Southerns give thanks for the peanuts on which they survived after Sherman’s March. I left my husband and his brothers fill in the gaps and pour.
We ran out of Veltliner and My husband stuck a few bottles of Twanner in the freezer.. Mother and I were hot-tubbing and blow-drying the turkey, chopping giblets and doing what little hadn’t been done the night before. We ran out of oranges, so my parents switched to martinis with the little cocktail onions we kept for fondue. So did I.
Whenever anyone asked about the hairdryer, Mother explained that it was the secret for a tender beast.
Mother sacrificed the oysters as for hors d’oeuvres. The guests, warned that dinner would be “a little later than planned”, arrived with food. Mother and I collapsed in front of a burning fire in the living room. Someone poured me a glass of Nuits St Georges, which did not go all that badly with the peanut butter. Mother had another martini.
Marcel brought up some of his prized reds from the cellar, but most of our Swiss guests were more interested in the vodka, which paradoxically in the middle of the Cold War they perceived to be quintessentially American. At some point we ran out of cocktail onions, so my father, substituted cornichons. Everyone found them dandy. One of our friends kept filling my glass. Mother had a cornichon martini. One of our guests had brought early chocolate-hazelnut and gingerbread Christmas cookies, which I found paired as well with the martinis as with the wine. Mother agreed.
Mother started telling filthy jokes, which Markus translated to my in-laws as harmless vignettes, so as not to get my father-in-law started.. He did that a lot.
Somehow everything got cooked at the right time. I think my neighbor stepped in, but it could have been me. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t mother. Somebody put the stuffing in the oven and the caramelized onions and sweet potatoes, which had been prepared the day before, glory be. I do know that once they got the concept of basting that everyone in the room wanted to try their hand. The bird must have turned out moist.
When we finally sat down, my father gave thanks and everyone around the table said what they were thankful for. “I am thankful that we finally got the fucking turkey thawed out,” said mother. “What did she say,” asked Marius. “She said,” translated Markus, “That she is thankful to have such a wonderful family assembled around the table to share this American feast.”
We had the whole nine yards from caramelized baby onions to pie at about eight thirty at night. When the pies came out my father-in-law and a couple of the guests opined that pumpkin was cattle fodder and how clever we were in America to make “permkin pees” of them. They finished off all three. There were no leftovers. I think it was a success. That’s what they told me later, anyway.
At some point toward the end of the evening the schnapps appeared, with it a bottle of the tax free Kirsch brewed by a local farmer. One guest drank half the bottle. He later recounted how the street lights had bowed to him as passed on his way home. We found the last bottle of Twanner still in the freezer, exploded in perfect extended bottle shape with shards of glass sticking to it.
We celebrated Thanksgiving every year after that, although that was the only time my parents joined us. Nobody sold my turkey again. The Swiss celebrate Thanksgiving today, or some of them do, and turkey is no longer exotic. I think frankly I started that, but we all like to feel as we’ve made our mark in history..
Nobody died or went to the hospital. I hear the meal is still legend.