Turkeys, snow, and other frozen things: An American Thanksgiving in Iceland

or, How many grown-ass women does it take to extract giblets from a semi-frozen turkey?

I’ve only lived abroad for a year and a half, and only in one country, so I’m hardly an expert on expat matters. But I’ve been here long enough to form the opinion that it is important to find a balance between experiencing the culture in which you’re living and preserving that which is most important to you from your home culture. I love experiencing Icelandic holidays and traditions, but there are also some American traditions that are harder to miss than others. One such tradition is Thanksgiving, which I think might be my favorite American holiday (food-wise, anyway!). It just doesn’t feel like you can properly enter the Christmas season without first enjoying a Thanksgiving feast.

This year, Erin (fellow American, Snorri alum, and Icelandic as a Second Language student) and I hosted a semi-authentic American Thanksgiving at my place for an international bunch of friends.

Thanksgiving is not too difficult to pull off here, because Iceland is quite Americanized and Thanksgiving products roll into several stores here mid-November. It’s not too hard to get your hands on a turkey, or canned pumpkin, or evaporated milk, if you know where to look (but it is certainly more expensive than it would be in the US of A).

Thanksgiving preparations always take more time and effort than you expect, but that was especially true for us because 1) we’d never cooked Thanksgiving dinner before, 2) we have no access to a vehicle, and the grocery store that was selling whole turkeys is a half-hour walk away, over snow and death ice, and 3) we had to prepare this feast in a rather tiny kitchen.

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a blurry photo that shows the risk we took upon ourselves, trekking across death ice with a 10.5-pound turkey and a literal sack of potatoes

But with the help of Google and a couple Skype-calls to my mamma, it all worked out.

Did you know that you’re never supposed to thaw a turkey at room temperature? That there are two primary methods for thawing a turkey, one being in the fridge, which can take a few days, depending on the turkey’s girth, and the other being the “cold-water method”? Well, Erin and I know all these things now. Because we bought our turkey on Friday and had to serve him on Saturday, we had to thaw him quickly, which meant bath time for Kári (yes, we named him – Kári Kalkún).

So we traipsed down to the basement, found a cooler, brought it up to the bathroom, filled it with cold water, and slowly lowered Kári down. We baptized him repeatedly, and eventually made enough progress that I felt okay sticking him in the fridge for the night.

The next day came the súper fun part: removing the giblet bag. Remember that neither Erin nor I had ever done this before, but it seemed fairly common-sense: there’s a big hole in the turkey, and there’s some gooey stuff you have to remove from the hole. No big deal, right? Well, the only problem was that Kári was still a bit frozen on the inside. So our first attempt resulted in a torn giblet bag (the good people at the far-away turkey factory had already squished the giblets into a paper bag). But eventually we got it figured out, with the help of a flashlight and the “help” of Ásta taking mocking photos of us.

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disrobing Kári
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how many grown-ass women does it take to remove giblets from a turkey?

After Kári’s frosty beginning, we were worried he wouldn’t be done in time, but in fact he cooked so quickly that he was done early and actually got a bit (okay, a lot) dried out. Oops.

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Well, at least no one got food poisoning?

Also on the menu, in case you were wondering: garlic mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green salad, roasted peppers, bakery bread, two varieties of gravy, plenty of wine. It was truly a team effort, and as is fitting for a Thanksgiving feast, there was an overabundance of things tasty and good. We forgot to buy a stuffing mix at the store, but thankfully Ásta stepped in to save the day with her stuffing-making skills. It simply wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without stuffing!

And for dessert, two of the most quintessentially autumnal American desserts I could think of: apple crisp and sweet potato pie.

It was a bit chaotic, and I certainly developed a new appreciation for my mom and her ability to get everything on the table, hot, at the same time. But overall it was a lovely joyful evening, a small respite between the end of classes and the beginning of finals, tucking into a feast inside, the outside world covered with freshly fallen snow (we got our first big snowfall of the winter a couple days earlier).

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trying to look vaguely normal
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letting our true selves shine
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Kaetlyn, Erin, and Vita

After dinner, we were so stuffed that we could only muster the energy to remain seated and socialize. As is fitting for language students, we had international story time, in which Vita, Alwin and Katleen told stories in their native languages (Russian, Afrikaans, Flemish) and the rest of us tried to guess what the stories were about. Yes, we are dorks, and yes, I love that.

The next morning I ate leftover pie for breakfast. That’s when it truly felt like an authentic Thanksgiving.


Bónus Language Lesson!

The Actual Icelandic Word for “Thanksgiving” is Þakkargjörðarhátíð (“thanksgiving holiday” or something like that) but as is the case with many Actual Icelandic Words, no one ever says it. Which is good, because it’s a mouthful.

3 thoughts on “Turkeys, snow, and other frozen things: An American Thanksgiving in Iceland

  1. solveignanaimo

    What a refreshing take on Thanksgiving! You two were very brave to take this on, and you are right. Nobody got food poisoning… 😉

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