The holiday season hath descended upon us. It’s time for my favorite Christmas decoration of all time – the hanging Santas. Everywhere we turn effigies of Santa have been hung from balconies by the neck, hands tied behind backs, in one great national holiday lynching. It warms my heart no end.
We recently spent our first Thanksgiving in Portugal. OK, so technically that’s a fib; we were in Portugal last Thanksgiving. But that one doesn’t really count because back then we were still trying to figure out where we were. Last Thanksgiving, we still considered ourselves as on a little holiday vacation trip. Now, we live here and it’s already time for nostalgia.
Actually, according to the North American tradition (including Canada which also has a T-day though not on the same day) the first colonists and explorers had harvest festivals to celebrate surviving the year in what was to them a foreign country, so it seems appropriate to have celebrations on foreign shores. Maybe the tradition should be for Americans to fan out across the world and cook dinner for the residents of other countries. We’d have to bring frozen Butterballs and cans of Ocean Spray gelatinized cranberry, Del Monte green beans and French’s fried onions, but we can get beer over there. We’d also need to explain it to them in advance so they didn’t think they were being invaded.
We told our Portuguese teacher Hellena about Thanksgiving, referring to it with the Google translation, Dia de Ação do Graças Americana, but she didn’t understand what we were talking about. We assumed Portugal has a Thanksgiving Day of its own, but maybe not. She wasn’t clear whether they have one and she misunderstood or maybe she just hadn’t heard of one. There seems to be a possible candidate in May but it might be confused with May Day or Mother’s Day, hard to tell.
Her confusion is certainly understandable. Portugal has more holidays than non-holidays, so even the Portuguese get confused about which one is which. In America, Thanksgiving Day was established by Abe Lincoln to celebrate victory in the Civil War; that and the 4th of July are pretty much it for us.
By contrast, the Portuguese celebrate victory over the Spanish in the 700’s, the Moors in the 12th century, a couple of disputes down the centuries about who was going to be king, victory over Napolean in the 1800’s, establishment of a republic in 1908, overthrow of the fascist dictatorship in 1974-76, and a few other things I probably left out. They even have something called Restoration of Independence Day, which means they celebrate an independence day they already celebrated that year.
In addition, there are the Roman Catholic holidays, feast days and saints’ days. Every day of the year is the birthday of some saint. Then there’s the fact that the month of August is the official summer vacation. Everybody takes off and everything shuts down. Overall, you wonder how they get anything done; a lot of the time, they don’t.
I’ve asked Portuguese friends about a couple holidays that have come up, and even they aren’t sure what they are. I don’t know who’s in charge of remembering them; I’d be surprised to find anyone who can keep track of them all.
Ironically, even though Portugal doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, they do celebrate Black Friday as the beginning of Christmas season. They put up billboards and turn on the garish lighting just like us. Americans can be proud that our devotion to retail shopping has spread around the world
So anyway, our friend Rita decided to host a Thanksgiving dinner at her place in Cascais. Cascais is the beach resort town a little bit West of Lisbon that’s virtually an English speaking enclave. It was taken over a couple dozen years ago by British tourists and more recently invaded by Americans, who didn’t let the language barrier between the US and UK get in the way. Cascais probably ought to be administered by the EU as a joint international tourist trap.
Barbara and I were the only foreigners, AKA non-Cascais residents, among those invited. Rita ordered a freshly killed turkey from the local butcher and assigned dishes to the rest of us. Various people got dibs on potatoes, liquor and desserts. Since we were last in line, we got stuck with preparing a green vegetable dish.
I tried to get out of that one. I couldn’t figure out how we were going to carry a dozen servings worth of fresh vegetables on the bus to Lisbon then changing to the Cascais train. I suggested I make a batch of seviche, the classic South American seafood dish. I figured a sealed container of marinated fish and shrimp could be more easily corralled and wouldn’t go bad since it was already pickled.
Rita wouldn’t have it. She insisted specifically that we had to have something green. I suggested making the seviche out of older fish, but she didn’t think that was funny.
Looking at the menu, it struck me that what we were lacking was the classic Thanksgiving green bean casserole. Being pretty much flat vegetables, green beans wouldn’t take up much room. Furthermore, I didn’t have to care if it tasted awful, since the traditional version was supposed to be that way. Since I always hated it, I wouldn’t be emotionally invested in it.
This isn’t a cooking blog so I’ll just give an overview without too much detail. I didn’t have access to the traditional canned ingredients, so I improvised using a recipe from Alton Brown. My version used the large flat, thick, tough Portuguese beans. They actually look more like a small reptile than a vegetable, which made me think again of the seviche idea, but they actually taste good once they’re captured and beaten into submission. Instead of the canned onions, Alton roasts fresh onions in a bread crumb coating; and instead of the condensed mushroom soup, he makes a cream and chicken gravy with fresh mushrooms. Consulting another recipe I added shredded Spanish ham and pecan pieces.
Preparing the dish took the better part of a day; but at the end, we had only a plastic container of bean mixture, a separate bag of crisped onions and two jars of gravy mix. We bought an insulated picnic bag to carry the stuff; I mixed it all in one of Rita’s baking dishes when we got there.
The trip to Cascais was mostly uneventful, except for one problem. The bus to Lisbon dropped us off in an industrial suburb near a small old railway substation – with no bathroom. At our advanced age, restroom facilities are a must. (I could say that necessaries are a necessity. Try saying it five times real fast). We found ourselves wandering around the neighborhood becoming increasingly desperate, and finally opted for going into the district police station. The uniformed duty officer took pity on us; instead of putting us in a cell, he let us use the staff bathroom. I guess he figured it was better to help us out than to have to arrest us for public urination. Barbara has never felt safer being privy to the privy.
We managed to get to Cascais without any leakage, either personally or from the food; and made our way to Rita’s and the company of seven other Americans and a Portuguese couple who had lived in the US for several years. It was a delightful gathering of lovely people bound together by a shared sensibility, and frankly a lot more fun than the traditional family feasts where everybody ends up arguing all day.
There were several variations on the expat theme among the group. Up until then, Barbara and I had prided ourselves on how adventurous we were coming to live for a year in a foreign country; but we were quickly disabused of that notion. Compared to these people, we were dull homebodies.
The most extreme example was the couple who had been traveling the world for several years living out of the proverbial two suitcases. They would go somewhere new to live for awhile, then think of somewhere else and go there. I asked the husband of the two how long they usually stayed. His answer was, “Depends on how well we like it where we are.” Fair enough.
Another couple had lived in Ireland for five years until the climate began to interfere with the woman’s asthma. They met someone who suggested they try Portugal, so they did.
The husband of another couple had worked for General Motors, first in the aerospace division, then transferred to automobiles because the new job would move them to Germany. About that time, the recession hit, GM ran into trouble and cancelled the position. At that point they decided he would take early retirement and came to Europe on their own. They backpacked around the world for a couple years, including Nepal and the Himalayas, before settling in Portugal.
They were one of two couples who had spent time living in Asia. There were also the Portuguese couple who had spent forty years in the US, and a very charming single lady who, like our hostess Rita, had come to live here on her own.
The dinner was wonderfully traditional. Rita’s turkey was perfectly roasted and free range so it tasted like meat instead of baked fat as do many birds in the US. She also found whole cranberries somewhere. There were delicious roast sweet potatoes, mango mousse, pecan and apple pies – and of course the green beans.
We had a bottomless pitcher of red wine, several bottles of white and a superior white port, the classic aperitif that requires a visit to Portugal to experience at its best.
The group were uniformly delightful. We shared a common bond, the desire to view life and the world from a different perspective than that with which we were familiar, and the act of doing that had given us new insights. We were absent the divisiveness that’s causing such enmity back home. Nobody got into tirades about whichever faction they were for or against. We all just want a gentle, sane world in which to live out this phase of our lives. For now, Portugal seems to serve the purpose.