Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving in Madrid

Wendy likes to host parties. Luckily, after decades of not even going to parties, I find that I also like to have people over and play host. So, this year we hosted Thanksgiving in Madrid. We can have it whenever the hell we want, because (you may not know this) but they don’t actually celebrate Thanksgiving here! They’ll take two weeks off to celebrate a Saint’s birthday and a weeklong festival to revel in the glory that is the first onion harvest of the season but can’t be bothered to kill a bird in honor of being shown how to grow corn by the… This is going nowhere. I’m trying to pretend to be ignorant of the fact that it’s solely an American holiday and I clearly haven’t had enough caffeine to make that amusing. Fail! Let’s move along shall we?

Turkey is quite popular in Spain but if you want to roast a whole turkey you need to special order it. We check a few butchers and they all assure us it is no problem. We settle on the nearest butcher that just happens to have the nicest people as well and order a seven kilo bird. When we go to pick it up on Thursday of the next week, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore. And by Kansas I mean anywhere in the United States. It is unfrozen, unwrapped and still has a good number of feathers in the cracks of its body. I am surprised it doesn’t still have feet and head attached which is how whole birds are usually sold in Spain.

The butcher presents it to us, we tell him it’s fine and he wraps it three times in clear plastic and puts it in a bag. On Saturday morning I unwrap it, clean out some remaining guts on the inside and wash it thoroughly. It looks like a field dressed deer on the inside, not the clean sterile inside of the Butterball we used last year. I’m feeling pretty good about this. Just looking at this complete thing you know this bird really came from a farm and was killed a few days ago. It has never been frozen and hopefully lived an almost free range life instead of being jammed into a tiny space in a factory and fed antibiotics all its life.

Now it’s time to start plucking feathers. It is ten in the morning and the bird needs to go into the oven in an hour. At the ten-fifteen mark I ask Wendy to give me a hand because at this rate, I’m not going to make it. Fifteen minutes later and we are still plucking feathers and our fingers are sore. I pull out a pair of needle-nose pliers and Wendy heads to the bathroom for her tweezers. It’s not like the bird is covered. It’s clearly been stuck in some machine that has removed ninety percent of the feathers, but it has left many of the quills in the skin. And, in the nooks and crannies (think armpit) and at the base of the legs of the bird are whole feathers that avoided the machine.

We finish plucking right at eleven and I rub it down with salt, pepper and butter and take a good look at it. Okay, according to my brother-in- law “Chef Todd” the bird is supposed to be roasted until the last half an hour – breast down. (We did that last year and it turned out juicy and delicious.) But this isn’t an American bird with enormous genetically engineered breasts. This thing is flatter than a ten year old boy. I turn it different ways and finally decide I’ve got it right and plop it into the oven (it just barely fits) at eleven-oh-five.

Three and a half hours later I pull it out and with Wendy holding the pan, I use a wad of paper towels in each hand to absorb heat and flip the bird over. (I use special heat-resistant rubber gloves in the states. They’re great for pulling lobster out of boiling water and then dismembering them, still steaming, too.)



“That doesn’t look right. I think I’ve cooked it breast side up.”

“Will that matter?”

“Not really, that’s the way most people do it anyway.”

I flip it back over, add two cups of water and half a pound of butter to the bottom of the pan and stick it back in the oven. Then I start basting what could be its breast or could be its buttocks, I don’t know. Guests arrive on perfect Spanish time; a half an hour late, which is exactly what we planned. I pull the bird out after a half an hour of basting, cover it and let it rest. Wine for everyone!

We have a great time chatting and make what we call “group gravy” with Wendy and I not entirely sure how to do it so Alana and Candy jump in with help and advice. A half an hour after that, I carve the turkey and it is still damn hot on my fingers. My kingdom for some padded rubber gloves! As I slice into it, I actually cannot find the breast at first. I have cooked the damn thing upside down the entire time!

Luckily it had no negative side effects and the bird is delicious, perfectly cooked and most of all, juicy.

Since it didn’t look like an American bird we were actually concerned we might not have enough meat. I can assure you, after five turkey sandwiches the last three days and still a couple more pounds in the fridge, we needn’t have worried.

Today we are packing for the trip home where we will be having Thanksgiving with Wendy’s brother Jimmy, their kids and his wife’s family.

Once again I will strive to keep up with the updates while we are home.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


  1. Did you miss that hormoney goodness of an American bird?

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  3. interesting story, great writing-style...

    this happens to be my first november and thus my first tgiving in madrid, and i'm left with no clue what to do to celebrate...

    do you happen to know if there are any kind of american tgiving celebrations going on that you could give me a heads up about? in addition i have a friend visiting from the states and we're both looking for something to do...

    (i was born the day after tgiving)

  4. Happy "Real Turkey" day to you both, James! Maybe you can write a food memoir as well about all the dining/visiting/cooking experiences you've had that are food-related. Throw in recipes and jammin' photos and you've got a winning combination, methinks.

  5. Alejandro,

    Sadly friend, I do not know of anything going on in Madrid for American Thanksgiving today. Wendy and I are in the states right now. I would go to the multi-madrid board run by our friend Jer. It's where all the ex-pats go to chat and set up parties.

    Good luck and Happy Birthday!

  6. I don't know if someone has already told you, but I realized moments ago that I think you would love the current standard eviroment in Magic: blue sucks, green is the most popular color, and most games are about who can cast the biggest fatties or spells. Check it out!

  7. Congrats on the Madrid celebration; it sounds great! Regarding the "It's an exclusively American holiday issue," my son heard the following conversation on the bus in Madison last week: "No, I actually don't celebrate Thanksgiving." "Oh, are you Jewish?" He successfully resisted the urge to turn around and slap the second speaker...

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