The changing of seasons also brings the anticipation of the holidays. However, there is a much different vibe regarding the holiday season, especially Thanksgiving.
In America, Thanksgiving and Christmas are regarded as the two major holidays where people get time off of school or work and families come together to celebrate. Thanksgiving, however, is celebrated much differently here, mainly because it isn’t separated at all. Thus, I had a very different Thanksgiving experience than I normally have; the differences were both positive and negative. Regardless of the less than ideal changes, celebrating this traditional American holiday in a foreign country was a very enlightening experience.
The most difficult part about celebrating Thanksgiving in Prague was finding the right foods in the grocery store. For the dinner, I planned to make turkey, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, corn bread, and pumpkin cheesecake for dessert. I knew beforehand that finding a whole turkey would be really difficult. You can order them ahead of time, but stores don’t have them readily available. This wasn’t much of a concern though because I didn’t need to make an entire turkey anyway (I was only cooking for my host family). Instead I found 2 turkey legs and 2 turkey breasts – this way it would not take as long to cook but would be just enough for 5 people.
Finding the ingredients for the green bean casserole was much more difficult. I couldn’t find cream of mushroom soup (no Campbell’s over here) or fried crispy onions – two of the essentials for green bean casserole. However, cooking American dishes abroad involves a lot of adaptation. So instead of cream of mushroom soup that was already canned, I just had to make it from a mushroom soup powder. And instead of crispy onions, I just used regular onions with crushed up Cornflakes on top. Thus, even though the ingredients weren’t available, I could still make this traditional dish by just using alternatives.
The same went for the stuffing. At home, we always make Stovetop Stuffing, so I basically just applied the same principle of Stovetop: I bought croutons and added boiled milk, water, and butter. Yes, it was a little different from stuffing, but it still worked out okay and tasted fine. I also had a hard time finding cornmeal. At first I bought corn flour (and didn’t know it was corn flour), but luckily my host mom had some tadpole. If you are trying to make any type of corn bread, look for polenta instead of cornmeal. I successfully found all of the ingredients for the sweet potato casserole.
The most difficult part of finding all of these ingredients was figuring out what they were called in Czech. I have quite a good handle on the Czech language, but have never had to buy things in the grocery store – especially specialized foods like the ones I needed for Thanksgiving. We tried to ask other people in the store, but they usually didn’t know what we were talking about or said that it didn’t exist. Unfortunately, I learned the names of the Thanksgiving essentials the NEXT DAY in my Czech class.
All in all, finding all of the ingredients and/or substitute ingredients took about two hours. I would highly recommend planning ahead and getting all of your ingredients the day before you plan on cooking everything.
Now I am not a cook or baker at all – I enjoy it, but I’m not good at it – so I was a little anxious about making all of these dishes by myself. I have also never made these dishes before (at least not without my mom), so I was hoping that everything worked out. Luckily my host mom, Lenka, was more than willing to help. She really likes baking and could help me with the adjustments of baking in a Czech oven and using Czech measurements.
The ovens here use Celsius, so there was a lot of guesswork involved. Lenka and I had a sort of system: I would do most of the mixing of ingredients and baking, and she would clean while we were in the cooking process. (This worked out for me because I hate cleaning dishes!) She also was great company, and made sure I did everything right. I was planning on the baking to take hours, but it actually took less time for me to make all of the food than it did for me to find it all in the grocery store.
I basically spent an entire day making and preparing a meal of several dishes that my host family had never heard of – thus I was really nervous about whether or not they would like any of it. Luckily, they seemed to enjoy everything. And given my lack of cooking skills, this really surprised me. During the meal, I explained to them the story of Thanksgiving – you know, the whole Pilgrims and Indians ordeal and being thankful for family, friends, and other blessings. Then I explained the “real” reason behind Thanksgiving – eating as much as you want because you can and watching football all day long.
It was interesting to describe Thanksgiving because it is such an American tradition – I feel like they didn’t quite understand the holiday or why we ate so much food. Regardless, there was definitely a culture difference that was noticeable. For example, one of the dishes I made was sweet potato casserole, which is very typical for Thanksgiving. When I told them my plans for what I was going to make for the meal, I was surprised to hear that my host family had never heard of sweet potatoes. They kept asking me questions about what they’re like and where they come from. And then when I brought sweet potatoes home they asked me where I found them, to which I replied “at the grocery store” with a smile. When my host brothers ate the casserole, they thought that it was pumpkin because of the color, and then asked me questions all over again when they found out that it was actually sweet potato. Even later that evening when the grandparents came over, the conversation about sweet potatoes continued. They even passed one of the extra sweet potatoes around the table, each person looking at it and examining it in awe. I’m not sure if they will ever have sweet potatoes again – probably too “exotic” for the Czech Republic – but at least they enjoyed them for Thanksgiving!
I didn’t know what to expect when I planned to celebrate Thanksgiving with my Czech family. It was different in many ways – especially not being with my own family (and not having a week off of school…). However, it was really awesome to see how my host family reacted. They loved the celebration and told me that they are now going to celebrate Thanksgiving every year from now on. It was great to see cultural exchange occurring in the opposite direction: Instead of Czech culture infiltrating my life and perspectives, I had the chance to share an important part of American culture with my Czech family.