I have twice prepared a traditional Thanksgiving meal in Bulgaria, inviting our closest Bulgarian friends to our Денят на Благодарността celebration. It took not a little bit of planning. The difficult items were turkey, sweet potatoes, and cranberries—and what would Thanksgiving be without them?
Turkey was the first problem. If I couldn’t find turkey, I would have to give up the whole project. It’s not hard to find turkey in Bulgaria around Christmas, but virtually impossible one month prior. The first time, I found a tiny butcher on the corner of Graf Ignatiev and Malyovitza. This particular butcher shop had been closed much of the summer and I had never entered it before due to the smell emanating from it when it finally did open. The mother of one close friend avoided it and referred to the dour-faced middle-aged men inside as “the boys.” But the boys were able to supply me with enormous turkey legs imported from Italy (or so they said), frozen to an Artic degree. After considerable time defrosting them, they spent considerable time being brined. They were delicious with sage gravy and stuffing, but the following year Plamen of the tiny grocery next door to our building found fresh turkey legs from a more reputable and hygienic source.
Potatoes have been cultivated throughout Europe for over four centuries, but sweet potatoes have not despite originating in precisely the same place the Spanish conquistadores found the many varieties of regular potatoes. The U.S. is now exporting sweet potatoes to Europe, but they remain hard to find. I finally located a small supply in Picadilly, gritting my teeth against the frighteningly high cost of what I had always considered an inexpensive staple.
I roasted them with garlic and sage (what the Bulgarians refer to as градински чай). Bulgarians don’t cook with sage. Instead it is applied as a poultice, gargled, or drunk as an infusion to cure the usual confounding variety of ills assigned to every medicinal herb (e.g., festering wounds, rashes, angina, toothache, ulcers, diarrhea, and so on). The Bulgarians at the table dutifully tried the unusual potato and wondered at the resemblance to pumpkin. Perhaps the sweet potatoes weren’t worth the bother and expense in the end, but we enjoyed them all the same along with the more easily available green beans with lemon and pine nuts.
Cranberries were a real dilemma at first, but I realized that the easily available дренка (cornel cherry) would make a splendid substitute. And just across the street from “the boys” were village women who sat on empty crates and sold the cornel cherries they harvested on walks just outside their villages. With the market full of apples and pumpkins, the traditional pies were easy to make.
I was thankful then to have my family, to live in Bulgaria once again and this time with our children, to share the prototypical American holiday with our Bulgarian friends. I was even able to find in площад Славейков, the large outdoor book market in the heart of Sofia, a copy of the children’s book Франклин посреща гости, the Bulgarian version of Franklin’s Thanksgiving by Paulette Bourgeois. And I’m thankful now that Bulgaria, its people and culture, have become an inseparable part of my life. We celebrated a part of America there, we celebrate in the U.S. Bulgarian holidays like Baba Marta in March and Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature Day in May. Happy Thanksgiving. Честит Ден на Благодарността.