Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Find a turkey, track down that yam: Thanksgiving in Prague

Turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and American football. Thanksgiving staples in the U.S., exotic imports in Prague.

Celebrating Thanksgiving abroad, you don't just hop in the car and make a grocery run round about Wednesday night. My friends who spend the holiday in France every year import their own sweet potatoes and hope they don’t go bad in transit. They’ve developed a relationship with a butcher in Versailles who helps them to a turkey, only grumbling a bit about the odd pagan American holiday that requires the roasting of a sacrificial bird, complete. Here in Prague I draw up my list and start to track down the sturdier goods in late October.

For pumpkin this year, we drove out to the countryside and picked our own at the Czech Camphill; you can find pumpkin at Makro too (a European Sam’s Club) and at certain health food stores and green grocers around town. Turkey I ordered from our favorite British butcher, but friends of ours swear by a poultry factory out in the countryside that raises turkeys to sell by the part. They’re happy to sell a whole one too, maybe even prefer it because it saves them time.

After years of having to resort to overpriced jellied cranberry sauce from Tesco, available only in the winter and tasting of aluminum can, you can now walk into almost any Czech hypermart or local grocery store and find dried cranberries - brusinky in Czech - to use to make your own sauce. And for ready-made sauce, the selection is even better. For fun this year, our friend Marjorie, the star cook and host of this Thursday’s Thanksgiving, is setting out a sampler buffet of cranberry sauces, from Ocean Spray to Marks and Spencer’s best.

Sweet potatoes (pataty) are hardest to find. On our first reconnoiter, we checked out one of the giant Vietnamese markets on the border of town. I bought spring rolls, lemon grass, Vietnamese mint, rice and a very pungent fish sauce for almost nothing; unfortunately the Vietnamese yams we found were purple on the inside and more starch than sugar, no good for Thanksgiving sweet potatoes. Next we hiked to Fruit de France, a luxury vegetable and foreign food importer. The prices were so high we decided to save their stock as a last resort, and were rescued from having to spend five euros a kilo by Marjorie who called every Makro in town, tracked sweet potatoes down to one store in Pruhonice, and then bought five kilos for the same five euro we would have spent on one, because bulk is how Makro sells pataty, and Prague cellars (previously used for coal) make the perfect cold storage space.

You might justly remark that all this effort seems hardly worth it for groceries that are comfort food basics in the U.S. Red currents taste great with the local duck, make some apple strudel instead! But celebrating a national holiday abroad is different from living it in its native space. You don't want to rebel against your holiday's traditions because it doesn't exist here. There are no specials of the same old stuff in the grocery store, no time off and long weekend, no thousands of travelers disembarking all at once to reassemble their family circles. Thanksgiving is something we create from scratch, digging into our memories for the most basic elements we can find to build a day and a celebration around - turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce.

And I’ll bring a football for afterwards, to toss back and forth down the hall with its high ceiling standing in for sky.

If anybody wants more specific directions on where to pick up stuff, just email me at juliaprague at yahoo dot com.

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