How to celebrate Thanksgiving in Slovakia
FIRST, come to terms with the fact that there are places in the world that don’t know anything about Thanksgiving or why it is celebrated. Don’t be offended when people stare at you after mentioning the phrase “Turkey Day” — they just don’t get it, kind of like how you don’t get their Easter tradition of dousing girls with water and whipping them with willow branches through the streets of Bratislava. Consider the regional specificity of the Thanksgiving holiday as a proud example of your own heritage.
Figure out a menu that will show your new Slovak friends how Thanksgiving is your most favorite holiday in the world. Feel slightly intimidated that many Slovaks make their meals from scratch, so obviously instant mashed potatoes will not do (not that they really exist in Slovakia…). The trepidation wears off as you recall that part of Thanksgiving’s charm is having an excuse to eat everything in sight.
Purchase the following: a sack of potatoes, a pound of Gouda cheese, some dried pasta, a bunch of string beans, dinner rolls, red current jam (substitute for cranberry sauce), and what is hopefully a can of mushroom soup. Lug it all back to your flat from the Tesco two miles away. Question the omáčka, a plastic quart of congealed brown goo, handed to you by the butcher. Hopefully, it will pass as gravy.
Forget the turkey entirely, because turkeys are hard to find in Slovakia. Explain to your friends that the sides are the best part of any Thanksgiving dinner anyway and that no one admits it, but the turkey really is irrelevant. Also tell them that, despite turkey being more of an ‘ensemble member’ than the ‘star of the show,’ substituting a roast chicken is not acceptable. Either serve turkey, or don’t serve turkey, but definitely do NOT serve chicken.
Set aside about two hours to cook everything. Of course that’s a realistic timeframe! Back in the US, you show up at your aunt’s house and eat dinner two hours later — why wouldn’t it be the same abroad? Go through your pots and pans and realize that, due to the solitary lifestyle you’ve led thus far in Slovakia, you have exactly one of everything — one fork, one knife, one spoon, one plate, one pot, one cup, etc. Panic as the potatoes boil and figure out how you can create green bean casserole without using a casserole dish.
Frantically text your Slovak friends to bring a set of flatware with them to tonight’s feast. They’ll reply “to nic” (no problem) and offer to bring extra wine. Accept this offer, and unwind with some shots of hruška spiš (pear brandy). Thanksgiving is supposed to be glorious, not stressful.
Your guests arrive two hours later. Luckily, your best friend from college has also decided to visit you for the holiday. She’s a tiny girl from South Carolina with very little travel experience who somehow managed to find her way to the doorstep of your rural flat despite her lack of Slovak language skills. Figure that using her to entertain your guests while you continue to cook can be her way of saying “thanks for letting me sleep on your couch during my first time ever in a foreign country!” Sigh, relieved as you listen to cheerful banter drifting in from the living room. She’s doing just fine.
Set the table with mismatched cutlery, pour everyone a drink. Strategically place the mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, and the rest of the dishes in a way that would make the Slovak version of Martha Stewart proud. Taste the omáčka — yes, it’s gravy, although the origin of animal drippings is uncertain.
Enjoy the meal you worked so hard to create, and relish in the cross-cultural conversation that ensues. Explain how after dinner, everyone sits in front of the television to watch American football, and then takes a nap. It’s just how things are done. Yes, this is definitely part of the tradition. No, it’s not considered rude to fall asleep in front of your 90-year-old grandmother.
At the end of the night, sit on your couch with a belly full of Slovak-infused Thanksgiving dishes. High-five your American friend — she did a great job making the Slovaks laugh by pantomiming Sponge Bob Square Pants all night. Feel lucky that you have such a diverse group of people to entertain, and be thankful for the opportunity to live in a country where, despite your terrible hostess skills, dinner always begins with the same toast:
This post was originally published on Nov 22, 2012.