One of the first things you learn in a foreign country is that a picture really is worth a thousand words -- in anybody's language; a hand-drawn picture in the air or, just plain pointing, will almost always get you what you want. The longer you remain in a country the more you become absorbed in -- and by -- its culture and, if you stay long enough, the need for those peculiar pictures diminishes to zero. You are, you feel, assimilated.

By the end of my first week in Santa Pola, a rustic Spanish fishing village, I was known to all 800 villagers as "El Americano." Three delightful years later I'd finally come to grips with the toughest cultural lesson of them all: Regardless of how well one learns a culture, the natives will always consider him a stranger.

I came to be acutely aware of my status on holidays, both Spanish and American. Although I often dined with Spanish families in their homes I never did so on a holiday; those were exclusively family affairs. My Scottish roommate and I celebrated universal holidays as best we could and tried -- in vain -- to help each other with those holidays particular to our individual cultures.

The holiday I missed most, naturally, was my favorite: Thanksgiving. As a child I used the fingers of both hands to count my aunts and uncles and it took all the hands and feet of several cousins to enumerate that population. In the simple terms of numbers Thanksgiving was a big deal and in the more complicated terms of family, friendship, and food -- it was unbeatable.

Each family prepared several dishes and then, around noon on the day, we'd all converge on the home of whomever had prepared the turkey that year. Just before the meal was served the entire family -- from the octogenarian grandparents down to the newest baby -- gathered together and joined hands in an unbroken chain as one of the adults offered thanks for the food we had to share and for the family we were.

The following recipe -- Mother Rankin's Oyster Casserole -- was created and perfected in the mountains of North Carolina. I never knew Mother Rankin so I don't know if she intended the dish to be a special issue main course or an unusual and interesting addendum to the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. I've had it both ways and recommend it highly.

MOTHER RANKIN'S OYSTER CASSEROLE

I'm told that after Mother Rankin perfected her recipe she never wavered an iota; that was how she made her oyster casserole. I don't believe the casserole can be made any better but I've always believed in thoughtful variations if quality is maintained. For example I have, on occasion, added a few minced scallions, a little chopped parsley, and a sprinkling of thyme to the recipe with very pleasing results. The assertiveness of the Ritz crackers can be toned down by substituting 1-cup of bread crumbs for 1-cup of crackers. 1 quart of oysters 1/2 cup of oyster liquor 1/2 cup of milk 3 cups Ritz cracker crumbs 1 1/2 sticks of butter, melted Salt and pepper Drain the oysters, reserving 1/2 cup of liquor. Mix the liquor with 1/2 cup of milk. Melt the butter and mix with the Ritz cracker crumbs. Spread a layer of the buttered crumbs in a casserole. Add 1/4 of the oysters. Salt and pepper to taste. Pour a little of the liquor/milk mixture over the oyster and sprinkle on more crumbs. Repeat until out of oysters. Top with buttered crumbs and pour on the remaining liquor. (Do not feel obligated to use all the buttered crumbs -- some palates might find it too bready.)

Bake in a 350-degree-oven for 45 minutes.