I originally wrote the following article in 2007 after a disastrous first Thanksgiving spent living abroad. It was later published in an anthology titled Thanksgiving Tales: True Stories of the Holiday in America.Three years into our expat assignment, I finally realized Thanksgiving is not about the food being served, it's about the people you spend the day with.
Today we are back on U.S. soil, but still far from home. I feel particularly grateful for the community we've cultivated over the past couple of years. In Sanskrit, the word Kula has several meanings: herd, flock, clan, tribe, family, habitat, gang, which when pared down all mean "community". Tomorrow, we will celebrate Thanksgiving with our Kula. Fortunately for all involved, I am not responsible for cooking the turkey this year!
It had been just three months since we boarded a plane bound for China, and transitioning to life in Shanghai was going much smoother than anticipated. It wasn't until confronted with the impending arrival of Thanksgiving, a truly traditional American holiday, I realized just how far from home we were.
For me, Thanksgiving meant spending the day with family, eating and eating and eating until it became imperative to change into pants with an elastic waistband. I was determined to re-create that tradition with my own children, but in order to accomplish this, I first needed to find a turkey. Without a turkey, Thanksgiving might as well be on a Tuesday in July. It cannot be celebrated without a turkey. Period.
In addition to the requisite turkey, the menu also included mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls, corn, fresh vegetables with dip, and Jell-O. Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, finding them required scouring five different stores over three days and cost a small fortune. But I did it! I found everything I needed, including the myriad of spices to make brine, which was sure to be the one thing that brought the simple bill of fare to five-star restaurant status.
Thanksgiving Day, after consulting with both Betty Crocker and Butterball.com, I determined the bird would take approximately four hours to cook at a temperature of about 350 degrees. I carefully converted Fahrenheit to Centrigrade and decided to set the oven at 170 degrees.
While the oven was warming, my husband pulled the bird from the brine, which had been soaking up the lovely, savory flavors overnight, only to discover the pan I'd purchased was too small. It was like trying to squeeze a size ten foot into a strappy, little size seven shoe. It just wasn't going to work.
In my shopping excursions that week, I noticed some of the stores stocked with disposable pans. I crossed my fingers as I ran on foot to the closest little market. I was in luck. Covered in dust and tucked away on a back shelf, they had just one. I snatched it up and ran home.
We were now ready to throw the main course into the gas chamber, but the new pan was too big for the tiny oven. After performing a little origami fused with some karate chops on the cheap aluminum, the pan fit.
With the turkey safely roasting, I took the kids to the park for the afternoon. When I returned, I started peeling the potatoes. By my estimation, the bird would be done in 30 minutes. I opened the oven door to check its progress. NO FLAME. At some point during the day, the gas had blown out and while the temperature in the oven dropped, the tension in the kitchen soared.
We had no idea how long the turkey had not been roasting, and this particular bird had no plastic indicator to let us know when it was time to carve, so we did the next best thing and stuck a thermometer in it. My husband punctured the breast and watched while the temperature gauge rose.
"According to Betty, the thermometer is supposed to go in the thigh," I informed him after consulting the red and white checkered cookbook.
"Where's the thigh?" he replied.
"I'm not exactly sure," I said, "but I know that's not it."
He left the thermometer in the breast and we watched as it climbed to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The kids were starting to moan and groan. They were "staaaarving." So I presented them with veggies and dip and we started to snack while we waited another estimated hour for the bird to reach a safe temperature to eat.
When the thermometer started to beep, indicating the turkey had reached temperature, I began to set the table. While my husband whipped the mashed potatoes into creamy goodness and heated the corn, he snuck a bite of a dinner roll...and then promptly spit it out. The rolls were filled with sweet cream and raisins. We'd spent several hours the day before going from one bakery to the next in search of anything that resembled a dinner roll. The little surprise inside of these was unexpected and unappreciated.
I remembered seeing a French baguette at the store earlier, so I put on my running shoes and sprinted there a second time. Again, I felt very lucky. No one else had purchased the single loaf of bread on the shelf. I paid for it and raced back home.
Finally we were ready to eat. The table was set, the candles were lit, and we said our prayers of thanksgiving. Just as we were about to carve the turkey, in the the flicker of the candlelight, I noticed a lot of juice on the platter. I jumped out of my seat and threw on the lights...BLOOD! The entire ambiance was ruined as the bird was not even close to being edible. Frustrated, my husband cut the gobbler wide open and put it back in the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. He sliced off a large piece of breast meat, nuked it, and sat down to eat. I fed the kids Jell-O while I waited for the turkey to finish roasting. At 8 p.m., I opened the oven door to check on the bird. NO FLAME!
After eight hours of failed attempts to roast the perfect turkey, I surrendered. I put everything away, did the dishes, and bathed the kids. Once they were safely tucked into bed, I broke out the Pop Tarts.
Happy Thanksgiving to me!
Our third Thanksgiving in China, there was not a turkey in sight, just great friends and lots of laughs. I was wrong. While eating turkey is a nice addition to the holiday, it is ultimately who you spend the day with that matters most---not what's on the menu.