The International Police Effort to Rescue a Young Girl Named “Demetria”

By Erik Barnett

The sexually abusive images produced horror among even veteran law enforcement officers. A girl, about age 3, stood on a bed wearing only red, fairy-like wings on her shoulders, as if participating in a dress-up game with a very sick twist. These images, discovered during the search of a pedophile’s computer by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (ICE HSI) after an arrest in Boston, set off an international effort to save a little girl whose whereabouts were completely unknown.

Finding victims such as these is a tremendous challenge. Photo: Interpol

Finding victims such as these is a tremendous challenge. Photo: Interpol

Finding victims such as these is a tremendous challenge. Child sexual abuse images are transmitted thousands of miles instantly across national borders, while police often remain isolated within legal jurisdictions, unable to make arrests or easily further investigations outside of their own geographic boundaries. But not this time.

The illegal images themselves provided clues the ICE HSI agents could follow: common every-day items such as furniture, clothing, food, and even children’s toys. To make sense of them, however, an international team of criminal investigators would be required, with a sophisticated networking tool to quickly share information.

This tool was the Interpol Child Sexual Enforcement (ICSE) database – funded in part by the EU – which allows dedicated police officers from over 40 countries to pool their collective judgment, experience, and cultural backgrounds to identify, locate, and rescue online child sexual abuse victims. As the first step in the international effort to rescue her, the girl was referenced as “Demetria.”

An investigator from Eastern Europe determined that one image of Demetria standing on a bed, revealed a mattress label, possibly from a Russian furniture company. Also visible was an electrical outlet consistent with wiring in former Eastern Bloc countries. Perhaps Demetria lived in Russia or Eastern Europe, at least when the photos were taken.

Police investigators found other images of Demetria on various pedophile websites, including one in a car posed only in a t-shirt, with a crucifix and medallion around her neck. Here she appeared older, indicating that she had likely been sexually exploited for several years. Around this time, investigators from Denmark learned Demetria was possibly from Romania or Moldova. But a Moldovan investigator on ICSE swiftly reported that the way she wore her crucifix and medallion was not typical in Moldova, saving potentially hundreds of police hours wasted searching there.

These images, discovered during the search of a pedophile’s computer, set off an international effort to save a little girl whose whereabouts were completely unknown. Photo: Interpol

These images, discovered during the search of a pedophile’s computer, set off an international effort to save a little girl whose whereabouts were completely unknown. Photo: Interpol

Meanwhile, French investigators determined the car had been exclusively manufactured for sale on the Russian market. But a Canadian investigator thought a plastic drink bottle in the car might be Spanish. Law enforcement officers in Spain immediately contacted the parent company of the brand in the photo. A long shot, clearly, but investigators hoped that this multinational corporation, which sold over $66 billion worth of food and beverage products in 2013, could help them find a young victim through a mere photo of one bottle.

It paid off.  Within 24 hours, the company provided significant and detailed information that the bottle in the photo was produced in Hungary, but also sold in Romania. With the incredible help of this multinational corporation, the focus returned to Eastern Europe.

As investigators continued their collaborative efforts, Demetria’s abuser uploaded new images on pedophile “chat rooms.”  Among law enforcement, newly discovered images of child sexual abuse lead to two very different conclusions.  One is the dismal truth that the sexual abuse may be ongoing.  But, it also means there is a genuine opportunity for police to locate and rescue the victim from further abuse.  Such knowledge caused the investigators to work even more intensely.

In one photo, Russian women’s magazines are on a bookshelf and other background items are definitively Russian. But where, in a country with 6.5 million square miles, should the investigators look?

Fortunately, in one image, there was a shop window with a sign. A store in a suburb outside Moscow.  To narrow the search, Russian investigators pored over photos of the car.  Find the car owner, find Demetria.

And they did.  Russian investigators arrested the abuser – the little girl’s uncle – within eight months of the photos being found on a computer in the United States.

“Demetria” may never realize how efforts of law enforcement from at least eight countries rescued her from sexual abuse or that a multinational soft drink company helped find her. And she need not know that an international law enforcement information-sharing database broke down borders, allowing investigators to transfer intelligence and evidence in real time so she could be found. She need only know that she is safe.

Erik Barnett is Attaché to the European Union for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations, the largest investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Fulbright-Schuman Grantee Looks Back on Experience Studying Data Flows, Privacy

Ambassador Gardner with the 2014-15 Fulbright-Schuman grantees. Photo: USEU

Ambassador Gardner with the 2014-15 Fulbright-Schuman grantees. Photo: USEU

Earlier this week, USEU welcomed 40 American Fulbright-Schuman and Fulbright scholars spending this academic year in EU Member States for the annual Fulbright EU Seminar. USEU representatives introduced the group to U.S.-EU policy priorities, and current Fulbright-Schuman scholars Scott Titshaw and Melissa Powers presented their research on areas of environmental and migration law. At a reception for current and former Fulbrighters, Ambassador Gardner noted how the Fulbright program has strengthened transatlantic relations for nearly 70 years. “The special nature of the Fulbright-Schuman program is a testament to the importance the United States places on our relationship with the European Union,” he said.

In this blog, Dr. Michelle Frasher writes about her experience as a former Fulbright-Schuman grantee:

USEU Public Affairs Officer Fitzgerald speaks to Fulbrighters. Photo: USEU

USEU Public Affairs Officer Fitzgerald speaks to Fulbrighters. Photo: USEU

In 2014, I received a Fulbright-Schuman award to examine cross-border financial data sharing for U.S.-EU counter-terrorism operations. With the support of the Belgian Fulbright office and my hosts at the University of Gent, Belgium, and the University of Malta, I met with EU and U.S. officials regarding the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP), the EU’s proposed data protection Regulation, Safe Harbor, and other initiatives. I attended conferences and seminars with policy wonks, practitioners, and academics. I spoke with financial institutions about governmental demands on their data and how they balance compliance with profit. I heard from technology experts and nonprofits working to reconcile the strains among privacy, civil and human rights, information flows, and national security in the digital age.

Ambassador Gardner speaks at reception for Fulbrighters. Photo: USEU

Ambassador Gardner speaks at reception for Fulbrighters. Photo: USEU

I’ve been examining financial data flows since 2008, but the Fulbright-Schuman grant gave me unparalleled access to views from across the data privacy spectrum. I learned that the divide between U.S.-EU privacy and data protection views is not limited to interstate relations; these differences extend to all data stakeholders. Presently, there are informational and educational silos among financial institutions, technologists, and politicians, and few fully comprehend the interests and operations of these groups or understand how they fit together. In a world where data flows are the lifeblood of security and commerce, this is problematic.

Fortunately, the Fulbright-Schuman experience gave me the opportunity to help address these issues. In September, I was awarded a SWIFT Institute grant to identify how multinational banks cope with conflicts between anti-money laundering (AML) compliance and privacy laws and suggest opportunities for industry cooperation. Now I liaise with corporate privacy, technology, and legal professionals in the hope that the results will overcome some of those operational barriers.

The timing of my award revealed the foresight of the Fulbright-Schuman grant’s mandate to proactively sponsor emerging and salient research that investigates “a common concern from a comparative perspective.” Shortly after I received my acceptance letter, the headlines erupted with scandal about government surveillance. My interests had taken center-stage. Long before the controversy, the Fulbright-Schuman process endorsed this research, and I am grateful for it.

The international community needs individuals and views that stimulate cooperation and innovation across sectors and sovereignties. Regional awards like the Fulbright-Schuman play a valuable role in this effort by recognizing that contemporary issues are not confined within boundaries.

Dr. Michelle Frasher, Ph.D. is a non-resident visiting scholar at the European Union Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She is the author of Transatlantic Politics and the Transformation of the International Monetary System.  You can read more about her research at www.frasher.cc and follow her on twitter @michellefrasher. She resides in New York City.

Looking Back at the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

By James Wolfe, Deputy Public Affairs Officer at USEU

Today in Oświęcim, Brzezinka, and Kraków, Poland, world leaders have gathered to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps located in the former two towns, internationally known by the infamous name Auschwitz-Birkenau (the German versions of the villages’ names). Throughout the world, people are likewise commemorating the tenth International Holocaust Remembrance Day, remembering the six million victims of the Shoah – and celebrating the survivors.

Polish President Lech Walesa, Head of U.S. Delegation Elie Wiesel, and other dignitaries at the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau 27 January 1995. Photo courtesy of www.Auschwitz.org

Polish President Lech Walesa, Head of U.S. Delegation Elie Wiesel, and other dignitaries at the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau 27 January 1995. Photo courtesy of http://www.Auschwitz.org

Many great men and women will be making profound statements on the significance of this anniversary and the lessons to be drawn from it. For myself, I only wish to share some of my memories of a day twenty years ago when, as a young American diplomat working in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, it was my privilege to be the “control officer” for the official U.S. Delegation to the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Taking place less than five years after the first semi-free parliamentary elections in Poland that started the wave of freedom that peacefully swept Soviet-imposed Communism from Central and Eastern Europe, this was still a period of liberation from propaganda for Poland, where one of the official Party lines held that Poles, Jews, Roma and others suffered in roughly equal numbers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hosting the commemoration helped raise awareness of the fact that, of the 1.1 million (or more) people killed in the two camps, about 960,000 were Jews (from around Europe – fewer than one third resided in Poland), while the other 12.7 percent were non-Jewish Poles (up to 75,000), Roma and Sinti (21,000), Soviet POWs (15,000), and others.

Auschwitz concentration camp. AP Photo

Auschwitz concentration camp. AP Photo

The commemoration (seen here in an AP video report) in 1995 was eye-opening for others as well, including me. Like most Americans (and other Westerners) with a university education, and having spent years studying German history and language in particular, I was already familiar with the overall history of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Nazi death camps. I had even visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the original camp in Oświęcim before.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau with Holocaust survivors (particularly survivors of the camp itself) was both eye-opening and an incredibly moving experience, like truly seeing the place for the first time. When U.S. delegation member Christine Lerman pointed to the location of the barracks where she had lived with her two sisters (who also both survived the camp and the death march with those the Nazis took with them when they evacuated before the approaching Red Army), the horror of the camp crossed a line from theory to reality that no books or collections of victims’ personal effects had ever done. During the visit Christine reunited for the first time since the War with her Catholic Polish friend, who had lived through Auschwitz-Birkenau with her. Mrs. Lerman was on the delegation with her husband Miles Lerman (then president of the U.S. Holocaust Museum Foundation), who had fought with the anti-Nazi Polish partisans during the war and touted the heroism of many Poles in saving Jews from the Nazis.

Female survivors trudge through the snow immediately after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Mark Chrzanowski

Female survivors trudge through the snow immediately after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Mark Chrzanowski

Other members of the official delegation were U.S. Ambassador to Poland Nicholas Rey, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Richard Holbrooke, retired Ambassador John Kordek (then serving on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council), Hadassah Freilich Lieberman (wife of Senator Joseph Lieberman), and Jan Nowak-Jezioranski (then director of the Polish American Congress, but most famous as “the Courier from Warsaw” for his role in alerting the U.S. and UK governments to the existence of the Nazi death camps).

This was truly inspirational company to be in, but the most notable was the head of the official U.S. delegation: Nobel laureate, author, and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel. Being in close proximity to him showed me quickly why he has been so long revered for his wisdom and eloquence. His speech at the event is recorded for posterity, but my first opportunity to hear him speak was an impromptu toast at a lunch the delegation had with other American Jewish leaders at the café Ariel in Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. I was in awe of his ability spontaneously to be so profound and moving.

To this day, I count myself lucky to have been present at this historic commemoration in the presence of such people, not to mention the countless world leaders there. I also consider myself fortunate to have had as my political counselor someone who trusted me as a young officer to take responsibility for such a delegation at such an event. He was in attendance as well, and is part of the leadership of our delegation to the seventieth anniversary today along with Secretary of the Treasury Jacob “Jack” Lew. My old boss is the current U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Stephen Mull.

More:
-Photos of the 50th Anniversary Event
-Holocaust Memorial Museum Online Exhibit on the 70th Anniversary 

 

 

Strengthening Global Rule of Law, Together

By John Sammis, USEU Deputy Chief of Mission

U.S. Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Dr. Sarah Sewall visited Brussels on January 20 to meet with EU officials on questions of security and development. She also gave a speech on corruption’s cost to our shared human development, economies, and security, and how it can fuel conditions that give rise to violent extremism. Under Secretary Sewall told the audience that the key to ensuring U.S. and European citizen security lies in applying a “preventive lens” to both anti-corruption efforts and to more effectively address the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed violent extremism.

Under Secretary Sewall Speaks on Partners in Prevention: Addressing Threats to Civilian Security at the EPC in Brussels on January 20, 2015. Photo: USEU

Under Secretary Sewall Speaks on Partners in Prevention: Addressing Threats to Civilian Security at the EPC in Brussels on January 20, 2015. Photo: USEU

We’ve seen in the United States and around the world that corruption furthers economic inequality and organized crime. The EU Commission, through its first Anti-Corruption Report published in 2014, found that corruption costs the European economy around €120 billion each year.

Last fall, President Obama spoke in New York about how fighting global corruption saves billions of dollars that can instead be used to build infrastructure and promote development. He highlighted how corruption weakens official budgets, alienates citizens, who can lose faith in the state, and can even fuel insurgencies. He made his remarks at a meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a successful initiative to spur government transparency that now has 65 participating countries, 20 of which are EU memGraphic: U.S. Anti-Corruption Agenda Fact Sheet (White House)bers.  Inside of government and out, transparency unmasks potential corrupt actors, building trust along the way. And we believe that governments should earn the trust of their people.

Through the U.S. Global Anti-Corruption agenda, we’re making changes to increase government transparency. The U.S. government is working to share more data with entrepreneurs so they can pursue the new innovations and businesses that create jobs. We’re also working through more traditional law enforcement approaches, tracking down the proceeds of corruption to prevent our legal and financial systems from becoming safe havens for money gained through fraud.

Under Secretary Sewall: Focusing on corruption once it has occurred is only half the battle. The new frontier is about trying to prevent corruption. Photo: USEU

Under Secretary Sewall: Focusing on corruption once it has occurred is only half the battle. The new frontier is about trying to prevent corruption. Photo: USEU

We want to partner with private sector and civil society on this issue.  In November, I spoke to U.S. and EU industry representatives, EU officials, and NGOs at the International Forum on Business Ethical Conduct (IFBEC) about U.S. efforts to combat corruption and the strength of the U.S.-EU transatlantic relationship. IFBEC’s voluntary industry standards to fight corruption are an example of the kind of cooperation it will take for all of us to meet the long-term challenge of strengthening our democracies to ensure civilian security.

Here at the U.S. Mission to the EU, we’re directly engaging EU partners to promote global rule of law. As we expand our joint efforts, Under Secretary Sewall’s remarks are particularly timely.

More information from the U.S. Mission to the OECD on Combatting Corruption

Inside the U.S.-EU Cyber Dialogue

By Brian Hardesty
(French version below)

As a Political Officer at USEU, I participated in the inaugural U.S.-EU Cyber Dialogue, which was held here in Brussels on December 5. The discussions’ candor and collegiality made clear just how much our values and interests converge across a range of important cyber issues, even if some of the specifics sound rather technical! The many areas we are in agreement may not make for the most scintillating headlines, but they will go a long ways toward ensuring the Internet remains open, interoperable, secure, and reliable. To put that in more human terms, as we approach the holidays that means making sure the Internet is there when we need it—now and in the future—to help us purchase tickets home, video chat with far flung family members, and find just the right gifts. More broadly, it’s helping to ensure people around the world can learn, express themselves, and grow small businesses.

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EEAS and State Department officials at the first U.S. – EU Cyber Dialogue in Brussels on 5 December. Photo: USEU.

So where all do the United States and EU agree? We share a common understanding that norms of responsible behavior are needed to guide states’ actions in cyberspace. For example, we welcomed the 2012-2013 UN Group of Governmental Experts landmark consensus—including the affirmation of the applicability of existing international law to cyberspace—and confidence-building measures agreed to in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and their implementation to reduce the prospects for conflict in cyberspace. Both the United States and EU want to help countries boost their levels of cybersecurity, and we are determined to seek future synergies in our efforts to do so around the globe.

We emphasized the importance of bridging the digital divide to foster open, dynamic societies and economies. At a time when some countries are walking back their citizens’ Internet freedom, we emphasized our shared conviction that all human beings have the same human rights online and offline, which must be protected. We expressed our full support for all relevant stakeholders—including business, civil society, technical experts, and governments—continuing to work together to operate the Internet in a bottom-up, consensus-driven way.  As such, we both support the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance, promoting structures that are inclusive of stakeholders, transparent, accountable, and technically sound.

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“The United States and EU are key leaders on cyber issues”. Photo: Flickr.

For me, the term dialogue implies a continuing conversation meant to question assumptions, draw participants closer together, and build toward shared goals.  This was only the first edition of the Dialogue, so expect more in the future.  Moreover, the United States and EU are key leaders on cyber issues, so I hope our deepening cooperation inspires others to engage in these important issues as well.

Brian Hardesty is a Political Officer at the United States Mission to the European Union. 

Un regard en coulisses:  Le « Cyber Dialogue » entre les Etats-Unis et l’UE
J’ai participé, en tant que « Political Officer »  attaché à la Mission des Etats-Unis auprès de l’Union Européenne, à notre premier « Cyber Dialogue, » organisé à Bruxelles le 5 décembre dernier. La  sincérité et l’atmosphère collégiale des discussions ont montré clairement à quel point nos valeurs et nos intérêts convergent sur le cyberespace, même si nos discussions se sont avérées assez techniques sur certains aspects! Nos nombreux points de convergence ne font sans doute pas les gros titres de la presse mais ils contribueront grandement à faire en sorte qu’internet reste ouvert, qu’il repose sur l‘interopérabilité des communications, et qu’il soit sécurisé et fiable.  Pour le dire de façon plus directe, au moment où nous entrons dans une période de vacances, cela signifie pouvoir utiliser Internet à notre convenance – maintenant et dans le futur, pour acheter des billets depuis notre ordinateur, « chatter » par lien vidéo avec les membres de notre famille dont nous sommes éloignés, et trouver le cadeau idéal.  Plus généralement encore, il s’agit de permettre aux gens partout dans le monde d’étudier, de s’exprimer, ou de faire croître leurs petites entreprises.

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Le premier « Cyber Dialogue » entre les Etats-Unis et l’UE a eu lieu à Bruxelles le 5 décembre dernier. Photo: USEU.

Quels sont tous ces points de convergence entre Etats-Unis et Union Européenne ? Nous partageons l’idée que des normes de comportement responsable sont indispensables pour servir de lignes directrices aux états en matière de cyberespace. Nous nous sommes félicités, par exemple, du consensus très important réalisé au sein du groupe d’experts gouvernementaux de l’ONU en 2012-2013 — y compris de l’affirmation que le droit international existant s’applique au cyberespace — et des mesures de confiance approuvées dans le cadre de l’Organisation pour la Sécurité et la Coopération en Europe et de leur application pour réduire les risques de conflit dans le cyberespace.  Les Etats-Unis et l’UE veulent tous deux aider d’autres pays à augmenter leurs niveaux de cybersécurité et nous sommes déterminés à rechercher des synergies dans l’avenir en poursuivant nos efforts dans le monde entier.

Nous avons souligné l’importance de réduire la fracture numérique pour promouvoir des sociétés et des économies ouvertes et dynamiques.  Au moment où certains pays réduisent la liberté de leurs citoyens sur internet, nous avons mis en avant notre conviction partagée selon laquelle tous les êtres humains doivent avoir les mêmes droits, en ligne ou hors ligne, et que ces droits doivent être protégés.  Nous avons exprimé notre soutien total pour que tous les parties intéressées — dans le monde des affaires, de la société civile, des experts techniciens et des gouvernements — continuent à travailler ensemble pour faire fonctionner Internet selon un modèle partant de la base et fondé sur le consensus.  C’est pourquoi nous soutenons tous deux une approche pour la gouvernance d’Internet reposant sur toutes les parties intéressés, en promouvant des structures incluant ces parties, et qui soient transparentes, responsables et techniquement viables.

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“Les Etats-Unis et l’UE sont des acteurs de pointe en ce qui concerne le cyberespace”. Photo: Flickr.

Le mot dialogue, tel que je le conçois, suppose un échange permanent pour mettre en question des hypothèses, rapprocher les participants et réaliser des objectifs communs.  Ce n’était que la première édition de ce Dialogue et nous pouvons donc espérer d’autres progrès à l’avenir.  En outre, les Etats-Unis et l’UE sont des acteurs de pointe en ce qui concerne le cyberespace; j’espère donc que l’approfondissement de notre coopération incitera d’autres pays à s’engager sur ces questions fondamentales.

* With special thanks to Roland Deglain for his assistance with the translation into French.

Holiday Cyber-Shopping & Deals That Are Too Good To Be True

By Erik Barnett

Throughout the holiday shopping season, consumers hunt for good bargains. Unfortunately, transnational criminal organizations are happy to offer opportunities through the sale of counterfeit goods, often sold through genuine-looking websites.

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U.S. law enforcement teamed up with Europol and 18 countries to target the sale of counterfeit goods over the internet. Photo: Europol

Organized crime groups have long been involved in the sale of counterfeit goods, which is very often tied to other criminal activity such as human trafficking, health and safety violations, and tax evasion. Over the last several years, counterfeit luxury goods, apparel, DVDs, and other fake items are increasingly sold through websites that mimic the sites of the manufacturers.

But law enforcement is fighting back to protect consumers while combatting transnational organized crime. Timed with recognition of “Cyber Monday,” U.S. law enforcement teamed up with Europol and 18 countries to target the sale of counterfeit goods through internet sites as part of Operation In Our Sites – Transatlantic V. Over the past three months, 28 law enforcement and customs agencies worked together to seize domain names of almost 300 websites selling counterfeit goods.

Led by U.S. ICE Homeland Security Investigations and Europol, the countries of Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Colombia, Croatia, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain and the United Kingdom joined in this year’s effort. The 292 domain names seized under Operation In Our Sites V brings the total number of domain names seized to 1829 since the project began with only five countries in November 2012.

In addition to the efforts of law enforcement, consumers can protect themselves by exercising their common sense. Shop, when possible, on authorized retail internet sites. Look for spelling errors in the text on the site itself or other signs the site may not be authentic. Some domain names may contain the name of the actual brand, followed by words such as “bargain,” “outlet,” or “cheap.” A good rule to remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, American companies lose billions of dollars each year because of the illegal sale of counterfeit products that are trademarked and pirated goods that are copyrighted. The impact is often most felt by American workers, whose salaries, pensions and health insurance premiums are funded by the legitimate sale of genuine, trademarked and copyrighted articles.

While some people might buy a counterfeit handbag or watch under the mistaken belief it really doesn’t “hurt” anyone, there is a tremendous loss to companies and their workers through the sale of counterfeit and pirated goods. When a pirated movie is watched as opposed to buying a genuine DVD, it isn’t whether Angelina Jolie earns another million dollars, but whether the worker on the movie set holding the mike boom has a fully-funded pension or his kids are covered by health insurance.

Erik Barnett is the Attaché for ICE Homeland Security Investigations at the U.S. Mission to the European Union

American Thanksgiving: Diversity Within Shared Traditions

Nile J. Johnson is Assistant Information Officer at the U.S. Mission to the European Union

Turkey

Thanksgiving is a time when family and friends gather to celebrate the wonderful things that have happened over the last year. Perhaps a new baby was born, or a parent earned a promotion. Maybe your sister overcame an illness or a homeless family now has shelter. Whatever the case, there’s always something for which to be grateful. Including a turkey.

But the turkey isn’t the only thing that makes the meal super special. My family has traditionally added many different sides to spice up our Thanksgiving meal experience. My absolute favorite is my mother’s stuffing, which includes clams and raisins. It’s the perfect mix of sweet and succulent, and it’s always a hit! Also, since my oldest sister started her own family, she has fallen in love with healthy cooking. Her black bean salad is fantastic, and is generally “taste-tested” into non-existence by mealtime.

Here is more on our culinary traditions from my colleague Karisha Kuypers from the Foreign Agriculture Service here at the U.S. Mission to the EU:

A Thanksgiving  celebration at Ambassador Gardner's.

A Thanksgiving celebration at Ambassador Gardner’s.

Thanksgiving is one of the United States’ most loved holidays.  The traditions associated with the holiday are some of the most typical American and the most universally observed across the country.  For a majority of Americans, the most important part of Thanksgiving is a large meal of traditional foods shared with friends and family.  No other American holiday is so closely associated with food, and in particular, by the specific types of food that are served.  The classic American Thanksgiving meal almost always includes a turkey, bread stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie for dessert.

Even though the dishes served in a traditional Thanksgiving meal are remarkably uniform across the United States, the recipes for those dishes can vary by region, by culture, or even by family.  These ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving dishes are interpreted in different ways by people from different regions of the United States, which often makes these recipes a fascinating insight into the diversity of cultures, regions, and history across the United States.  The types of produce and food native to each section of the United States also play a role in the way Americans interpret traditional dishes.  Foods that are native to particular regions in the United States, along with the cultures and cooking traditions from those regions, influence the ways in which Thanksgiving traditions have developed across the country.

Thanksgiving stuffing is a perfect example: this typically American dish is a mixture of bread, vegetables, and herbs that can either be cooked inside the turkey (hence the term ‘stuffing’) or on its own as a side dish.  From there, culture, region, and family traditions interpret the basic building blocks of the recipe to create variations of what it means to be traditional.  It is often possible to tell where in the United States a person comes from simply by the type of stuffing that he or she makes.  In the South, stuffing is made with cornbread in place of bread and often includes spicy pork sausage.  Instead of bread, stuffing in the upper Midwest often uses wild rice, a type of rice native to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  In both New England and Louisiana, with their abundance of seafood, stuffing may include oysters.  Chestnuts and hazelnuts are added in states like Washington and Oregon that have an abundance of chestnut and hazelnut groves, while pecans are used in pecan-producing states in the South like Georgia.  Peppers and even chilies might be added to stuffing recipes in the Southwest.

As in most countries, holiday traditions tend to center around food.  The typical Thanksgiving meal demonstrates both the importance of traditional dishes as well as how different cultures, ethnicities, and regions in the United States interpret these traditions and make them their own.  Thanksgiving offers an opportunity for Americans not only to demonstrate pride in their own cooking traditions and food culture, but also a chance to celebrate uniquely American foods.