Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cherishing Traditions: American Thanksgiving in Germany

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.

Unlike Christmas, which is mired in commercialism and bears the "burden" of thoughtful gift giving, lavish decorating, and endless obligatory festivities (kids' school parties, your office party, your spouse's office party, the neighborhood cookie exchange, plus the parties with friends that you actually want to attend...), Thanksgiving is so SIMPLE.
Yet so special.

Thanksgiving is our closest loved ones gathering around a delicious meal to give thanks for abundant blessings. It is a time when we relish good food and celebrate life, family, and friendship.  That's it.  No gifts.  Not too much decorating. Not much to stress over. Just a time to reflect and be thankful.

There are many who criticize Thanksgiving. Some say the whole "Thanksgiving story" of a feast celebrated by European settlers together with the Native Americans they nearly obliterated is a myth; a fantasy to appease our guilty WASP conscience. The nay-sayers dismiss it as an outdated custom from a time that should not be celebrated for the brutality that came with colonization. Others bemoan the gluttony; too much food prepared and served to an overweight society. There are those who fret over the hormone-injected, caged turkeys raised on industrial farms and cruelly slaughtered. OK, I get it, there is always something to find fault with. To each his own.

For me, Thanksgiving is a beloved tradition of humble gratitude and grateful celebration. It's heartfelt and more true than anything else I celebrate all year long.  It's a time to say "thank you" even when life sucks; a time to put my pain and struggle in perspective, and acknowledge that whatever else we may suffer, my family is not hungry or homeless (anymore). We are are not living in a war zone. No matter how much we may have sacrificed since moving abroad, we are not impoverished or even terribly deprived. We have a beautiful home, have made wonderful friends, and we have our health and each other. That's quite a bit to be thankful for!

So once again this year, I made every effort to recreate the family traditions that have marked all the Thanksgivings of my life. The actual Thursday holiday was a normal school/work day here in Germany, so we postponed the feast until the following Saturday. But at the beginning of the week I set the dining table with my antique Gurley candle figures of Pilgrims and Native Americans that were part of a tradition passed on from my Mom who also had a collection of these candles for her holiday table. And I began to test out recipes and plan the menu for the celebration we would share with some of our exchange daughters and close friends.

It was our second holiday in Germany, and I'd learned a few lessons since hosting the feast last year. So this year's "adventures of American cooking in Germany" went off much easier and more relaxed. I knew what ingredients I could easily find, which ones I would need to hunt for, and which I would have to simply do without and substitute. I was able to order a fresh turkey from a wonderful local farm - thank you Buchholz!

I found fresh cranberries in a couple local markets, as well as sweet potatoes and sugar pumpkins. I discovered that the ground pork known locally as "Mett nach Thüringer art" made a fantastic substitute for the spicy sausage I used in my grandmother's stuffing recipe.

To my delight, I even found an adequate replacement for Pillsbury Ready-made pie crusts (Süßer Mürbteig)! Typically I bake at least 4-5 pies with fillings made from scratch, but I despise the tedious process of homemade pastry that never tastes as good as I'd like. So I was very happy to find that the Süßer Mürbteig worked well for the apple pies.

For the pumpkin pies, I got creative and made the "crust" from toasted walnuts, Leibniz cracker crumbs, butter, and brown sugar. The nutty crust, quickly concocted in my food processor and baked for about 15 minutes prior to filling, was a beautiful complement to the earthy flavors of a spiced pumpkin pie!

The food all came together very nicely, with much of it prepared ahead of time, so that on Saturday I had time to relax before our friends arrived for dinner. In my quiet time, I reflected, again, on how far we've come in the last year and how blessed we are.

This is the spirit of Thanksgiving, so unique from other holidays, which I dearly cherish.

                                                 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Spiced Cranberry Sauce

The homemade cranberry sauce was a first for me and I was very pleased with the flavors and textures. The recipe was simple and I'll share it here for you (measures are estimates)....

500g. fresh cranberries (about 3 cups?)
1 cup of light brown/raw sugar 
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup gelatin sugar (optional)
1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1 cup water
fresh orange zest
a cinnamon stick
2 anise stars
about 6 cloves
1/2 tsp vanilla or a package of vanilla sugar

Put all ingredients in a pot and cook over medium-low heat for about an hour. Berries will soften and "pop." Stir regularly. Strain the mixture through a sieve to remove the whole spices and berry skins. Store the sauce in the fridge until ready to serve. The anise adds a mysterious and exotic hint to the flavor! If you want a whole berry sauce with more fruit pulp, you just need to be able to fish out the cloves, anise and cinnamon before chilling it, or spoon some of the fresh pulp back in after straining and ensuring that there are no spices.


  1. Sounds as though you made Mulheim American for 1 day at least!

  2. I wholeheartedly agree, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite American holidays, and one that I love to share with my non-American friends and family. While I certainly understand the ideas behind those who protest the holiday, Thanksgiving doesn't represent those things to me. I find it to be a wonderful time to come together, to celebrate, and to be grateful without excluding anyone based on religion. I love celebrating it here in Germany because it means that most of the traditional foods have to be made from scratch -- I also gave my first shot at homemade crandberry sauce this year and it was delicious!! Looks like you also had a wonderful feast -- thanks for sharing!

  3. Looks yummy. Thanks for the cranberry sauce recipe -- I think I'll try that one this year, since we're celebrating about two weeks late. I guess that's something else to be thankful about: if you're living in Germany (as opposed to the States) you can push Thanksgiving out into Weihnachtsmarkt territory!