Today is Thanksgiving. But of course it’s not a holiday in Spain. The usual busy day with classes, a meeting, getting up early and coming home late. But friends have sent text messages throughout the day wishing me a happy holiday. In the reading group that I hold every week here at home, I made a coffee cake and put out my little figures of pilgrims and Indians, to everyone’s delight. In class, I tell students about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the story of the first feast, how the Indians helped the pilgrims learn about the crops that could flourish in the New World, and how the pilgrims invited the Indians for a huge meal after the first successful harvest.
And anyway, who could feel sad today? Our festivities are just about to get started. For years, we’ve been celebrating this holiday on Saturday. We drive up to spend the weekend in a small village 158 kms northwest of Madrid, in a huge old house. This is the town where my father-in-law was born, and the house has so far stayed in the family. It’s undergone plenty of changes in the past 30 years since I first went there! Instead of bouquets of hot water bottles hanging from hooks on the kitchen ceiling, we now have central heating. There’s a pool table in the cavernous living room, the delight of our grown-up sons and their friends. Everyone can take showers without fear of running out of hot water. There’s plenty of pinewood for the tiled fireplace in the kitchen/dining room, the same fireplace where my husband’s great-grandmother used to cook. This is everyone’s favorite spot to sit and talk for hours, waxing philosophical – even the quietest people seem to open up around a fire – , roasting chestnuts in the evening when everyone is still full of turkey. The boys’ first task is to go down the chilly hall to the old stables and bring in firewood and pine cones, which make great kindling. A fire always keeps you busy: adding a log, shifting half-burned ones, using the bellows if you’re feeling energetic. The house can sleep 17 people comfortably although, because the house has been renovated throughout its long life, it’s a bit labyrinthine, and newcomers often get lost going down one long hall or another to their bedrooms.
The village itself is small and far from picturesque but it too has improved greatly. Long ago, when we’d leave on a Sunday to go back to Madrid, we used to take our trash out to the permanently-steaming dump by the cemetery wall. Now there are recycling bins in most of the plazas. In the summer, there are fiestas and concerts held in the remains of the 13th century church across the street which, roofless, has been turned into a mini cultural center by the town hall . Against one outside wall of the tower is the fountain, built in the times of Carlos III, that supplied the village’s water, the spigots still visible and in working order. Apart from the village shop that we’ve been going to for years, there’s now a small supermarket. But we still buy almost everything from Carlos and his wife. Their hours are very convenient, as they live in the back of the store, and we enjoy saying hello and asking about our respective families. Our sons used to go there by themselves when they were small to buy the bread and the best magdalenas in Spain; they always came home with a lollipop or a piece of gum. Now they go there to buy beer for the weekend and don’t get any candy.
What hasn’t changed is the church tower, visible from the house and loaded down with storks’ nests. These, by the way, can weigh up to 100 kilos. It’s true that, with global warming, the winters aren’t as cold and the storks don’t migrate south anymore, so the clicking sound of their long beaks accompanies us all year now. An oddity in this town is an ugly monolith commemorating 6 locals who perished in the Spanish-American war in 1898. The monument gives only the names of the six fallen, with no further information. Six sons of that tiny village. One can’t help wondering how they got from the middle of Castille to Cuba. Perhaps they left seeking their fortunes, as so many others did. We pass this on our walks into the surrounding pine forests where we go Sunday mornings to stretch our legs before returning to the city.
The high brick and stucco walled garden offers us total privacy from the outside world. The two fig trees my brother-in-law planted many years ago are now full-grown, providing shade and fruit. The ivy and the grapevine now almost manage to make a canopy over the iron beams that someone put up to create a sort of gazebo effect. The well, covered with a heavy piece of granite, remains, as does the stone basin at its foot that served as a pirate boat for many years.
And that’s where we celebrate our semi-traditional Thanksgiving dinner every year, escaping our tiny apartment where our dining room table squishily seats six.
The guest list has varied over these past thirty (!) years. When we were younger, people came and went in our lives more fluidly. But now we have our core group that has remained fairly stable over the past few years, and everyone contributes to the feast. There’s my American friend from Ohio, my Irish friend and his Spanish wife, my Spanish husband and star chef, and myself. My sister has joined us several times, flying in from London for the weekend, thanks to low-cost flights. And our sons have their own group of steadfast friends who claim that Thanksgiving is one of the high points of their year now too.
The menu is traditional, fairly straightforward. One of the rules we established a long time ago was that everyone could bring whatever they loved and remembered from their own family childhood celebrations. No complaints allowed. If you don’t like it, you simply don’t eat it. There’s always plenty of other things. My friend Diana brings the pies. She takes the day off work to get up early and cook up chunks of fresh pumpkin and make those lard crusts. She also brings along sweet potatoes, again, following a family recipe with brown sugar. My husband is in charge of the kitchen. He plans at least three types of vegetables to go with the two small (by American standards) turkeys. I make a signature dip with cream cheese and cockles and lemon, and my stuffing is bread crumbs, celery, loads of butter and herbs. And Don, the Irishman, brings a cake of his own invention. He usually has picked and frozen blackberries so lately the cake is a hard crust, the berries, and cream that is supposed to be whipped. But since Don and his wife are always the last to arrive, just a couple of hours before we sit down to eat, the cream seems to rebel against the drive and despite his best intentions, he can never ever get it to whip. This has been going on for 14 years. The same problem, the same explanation, and puzzlement, and the same solution which is to simply pour the cream over the tart and get it in the fridge in hopes that it will solidify.
As for the youngsters, most of them still aren’t working or, if they are, they certainly don’t make much money. So their material contribution is a bottle or two of wine or a trip to the store to get things we have forgotten, extra napkins, paper towels. Their main contribution, however, is essential: labor/manpower.
How else would we manage to get the old oven out from the stables and into a corner of the kitchen so that Carlos can cook up two turkeys at the same time? Who else could manage to shift the massive table in front of the fireplace so that we have room for the little wooden kitchen table? They’re the ones in charge of keeping the fire high and eventually adding charcoal so that there will be plenty of embers to keep the food warm as it comes out of kitchen. The best part of all, though, is the congenial and willing group that gathers around the table, close to the fire, a bag of sprouts or potatoes or French onions on hand, to peel all these vegetables while sharing conversation.
Lunch is always very late, around 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. But who cares? No one is in any hurry, and there’s always plenty of wonderful chorizo, salchichón and Serrano ham and Manchego cheese to tide everyone over. A new speciality, introduced a couple of years ago, are the mollejas, giblets. Preparation is a lengthy process, as they must be cleaned first, then boiled and stir-fried in oil and garlic, with a dash of parsley. The entire kilo disappears in short order, juices dipped up with chunks of fresh bread. Eventually platters of thinly sliced turkey, earthenware dishes filled with stuffing, pots with onions and sprouts or ratatouille are brought out from the kitchen and set down over the coals supposedly to keep warm. A huge rectangular dish, so large that it has to be washed out in the shower down the hall, is filled with potatoes. The table is set. Someone has been assigned to pick some ivy from the yard outside and set it artistically in the center, along with little figures of a Pilgrim and an Indian couple and a few pine cones. The wine is uncorked, and everyone politely stands behind a chair, waiting for the go ahead. Then everyone picks up a plate and goes to the fireplace to stack their plates. Eventually, we toast the good cheer and pleasant company and dig in.
Everyone sleeps late on Sunday, then it’s off for a walk to stretch our legs and pretend that we can work off all the food ingested the previous day. It’s lovely walking through the cold empty village to the surrounding fields, heading down dirt beaten paths towards pine copses and low hills, past fallow fields. The scenery is gray, brown, ice blue and pine green, low-key.
We’re not out long. We have to get back for an early lunch. The crowd makes short work of leftovers, once again piling plates high. Then it’s time to close up. Small packages of extras – a piece of pie, a tangerine or two, a few madalenas, a loaf of good pueblo bread – are made up. The dishwasher is on one more time. Beds are stripped and damp towels gathered up for washing. People go through the house checking for their cellphones, books, reading glasses, notebooks and pens, keys. Overnight bags are piled up in the downstairs hall, the bathrooms are again bare of myriad toilet kits. The pool table and futbolín are covered over with their dustsheets.
A final check, shutters closed, lights turned off. The rooms are empty; no one seems to have forgotten anything. We exchange hugs and kisses and thanks for yet another wonderful Thanksgiving celebration, pile into our respective cars, and start the ride back to the city.
In forty minutes, the snow-capped mountains of Guadarrama come into view. In one hour, we’re through the tunnel, the distant lights of the city sparkling ahead of us.
Post by Clea.