Remembering: The First Time I Cooked Thanksgiving
I only missed Thanksgiving once, my first year in China. It was terrible. A Chinese employee surprised me one afternoon by running up to me and saying "Happy Thanksgiving!" with the typical giggles and excitement that usually came with these cross cultural exchanges. I stopped dead in my tracks, realizing that I had been working so hard on a huge project to build a representative office in Beijing for my company that I had completely forgotten. That evening after work I simply fell with abandon into a heap and spent the whole night feeling blue.
The next year in Beijing, I was determined not to let it happen again. I was with some friends at our favorite bar in Fang Zhuang, and recalled that tragic first Thanksgiving. We were all crying into our drinks at that point since we were all pretty much orphans and none of us knew how to cook. I had never done Thanksgiving dinner before, but was willing to try, I said. Why not do it together? In the course of about 5 minutes, we all went from glum to all pumped up about expat Thanksgiving. We were going to have it at my place!
Over the next week, I started getting calls from people I didn't know, asking if they might be able to join the Thanksgiving dinner at my house. How could I say no? The party started as dinner for 4, then turned to 10, 12, then 15. This was fine, but the only problem was that my apartment wasn't big enough to accommodate the group. I decided to consult with the bar downstairs that had a big sunken dining room that was almost completely empty in the evenings, to see if they might mind if I used their kitchen and to reserve a big table for my dinner. I would supply the food, and we'd buy wine from the restaurant. They were quite enthusiastic about the idea. In fact so enthusiastic about it I was slightly taken aback.
Things fell into place, and I spent my lunch hour and evenings shopping around the city of Beijing for all the exotic ingredients required to do the stuffing, dressing and very simple side dishes. The restaurant was ordering the turkey. The meal was turning into a pot luck of sorts, and had grown now to 30 lonely expats who would congregate and celebrate Thanksgiving together.
The day before Thanksgiving, they left me a message that the turkey had arrived. I went down after work to inspect that everything was in order. That was when I realized, to my horror, that this enormous turkey was frozen solid. I was in a panic and called my mother. She had some tips but the situation still looked a bit grim.
The owner of the restaurant, who had become quite involved and curious about my comings and goings with dropping off all these strange ingredients in the kitchen, came to me with his head down. He was sorry. Of course he could not be blamed. How could anyone be blamed for ordering a frozen turkey? I said it was alright, we'd figure out a solution. In my heart I knew it was my fault for not preparing to defrost a frozen turkey, certainly I could not expect a fresh one to materialize in the city of Beijing? A very simple mistake. "No miss Lucy, you don't understand" he said. There was something weighing heavy on his heart. Our relationship was quite informal. My Chinese friends never called me "miss Lucy", so I knew something was awry. In my young first time cooking Thanksgiving mind, I could not conceive of anything worse happening, and I was taking it in stride. "You see," he began, swallowing, eyes going cold then lowering his head again as if this was a true disaster... "We put an ad in the paper... Miss Lucy..." I wished he would stop calling me Miss Lucy. What? What had he done?
The restaurant owner had put an ad in the Chinese paper for an event where people could come and view a real American Thanksgiving. He was going to charge an admission fee to those who wanted to come and watch. They would come and socialize in the bar above and view the dinner from the balconies surrounding the dining room. It was actually quite a Chinese idea and very enterprising of him. I have to admit that I appreciated his money making scheme in a convoluted kind of way, through the haze of the pressure that had suddenly hit me.
I made him feel a little guilty for just a moment by bursting into tears. I can't say that they were tears of despair, just tears that come when a 24 year old is cooking her first Thanksgiving dinner, is confronted with a frozen 20 pound turkey the day before the meal, and is told that not only will it be her first Thanksgiving, but a cross between a piece of performance art and a zoo exhibit. Once that was through, we sat down and figured out what we were going to do. First, he would order lots of chickens. The fattest, plumpest most gorgeous chickens he could find. FRESH. He was happy to do this. My mother soothed my nerves over the phone again as she talked me through some last minute details. I was going to need a little kitchen help. Thus began the odyssey of preparing my first Thanksgiving. The restaurant had begun to get calls asking for seats at the meal, from American students, calling because they had heard something on the radio about the event. I said as long as we have enough chickens, that was fine. Remind them to bring something.
I took the day off from work. When I arrived to the kitchen, they were examining the ovens, two enormous pizza ovens, with four chambers each. They had never been used before. I was attracted to the dials, which had a different number configuration that I expected. CELCIUS. I ran back to my apartment and tore the last page right out from my Websters English Dictionary and stuffed it into my back pocket. (this was before we had internet). It had the method for converting Fahrenheit into Celsius. That would be for the pizza ovens. I will never forget it. Subtract 32, multiply by 5, divide by 9.
A crew of smiling curious happy workers who wanted nothing more than to please were provided by the owner to help me in preparing the vittles. We whipped up two vast sheet pans of cornbread laced with sauteed peppers, onions, and poultry seasonings, then made various kinds of stuffing out of it with loaf after loaf of sandwich bread, eggs, spices, and butter, doing platters of dressing to cut and serve on the side, stuffed 20 chickens, making pies, boiling and mashing potatoes, and various other glorious Thanksgivingy tasks. They were flabbergasted at the amount of butter I used. I was flabbergasted at the amount of butter I used.
Friends began to arrive early, and they were popping open bottles of beer and wine. Someone had brought music, another had spent time on the table decorations, we lit candles, and platters of wonderful good old fashioned Thanksgiving food began to come back into the kitchen, provided for the pot luck buffet by the guests. The party grew outside, but I stayed in the kitchen for the most part, sliding casserole dishes and pie tins into the pizza ovens and surveying the birds. Since all my friends came and hung out in the kitchen, it felt like I was surrounded by family. Lots of hugs going around. Every once in a while I went out and plucked a friend from the crowd to join us back in the kitchen, ooh and ahh over the chickens and the turkey which had been cooking all afternoon. I had forgotten to find out how to make gravy, and said UH OH. But someone came along and did it. The chickens were on their platters, and she poured the drippings from all the roasting pans into one, poured off some fat, worked some flour into it, and whisked the lot over the flame until it turned into gravy. Voila, gravy. MMMM gravy. Faith impressed us all with an amazingly beautiful apple pie.
There were lots of gushing American students who had found out about the dinner on the radio, who had a great time. For each table of 6, we placed a golden roasted chicken with stuffing cascading out as if it were a cornucopia. The entire restaurant floor was crammed with reveling diners who lined up at the buffet for sides of all kinds, Southern mingling with New England, Mid-West, California, just a big American love fest. The bar above was also full of Chinese people sipping fancy cocktails and viewing the party. I cried again when they said the toast.
At the end of the evening, around 2 in the morning, the place had already cleared out. I was sipping wine at the bar, meditating on everything that had just occurred. That was when 3 large Indian guys came in, guys who worked in the restaurant next to Ri Tan Park. "Have you anything to eat" they asked, in their polite sing song accents. At first the bartender said no. But then I remembered, the turkey! It had been resting in the kitchen for the last 1/2 hour, ready to carve, ready too late to serve at the party.
We hauled this enormous bird to the table to their sheer delight. I was all too happy to sit with them. Imagine walking into a bar and asking for some bar food and getting a Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings. They were in love. I sat with them while they ceremoniously carved it, at the lone table near the bar. They just adored it, asking questions about the herbs and seasonings, making me feel quite virtuous. I had never seen anyone pack away so much turkey and stuffing in my life. They were just finishing up their meal when the one man, who was the chef at the only Indian restaurant in Beijing at the time told me that he was planning a Christmas dinner that year at his restaurant, and asked if I would be willing to cook the meal. I didn't have to think very long about that one. The answer was: "THANKS BUT NO THANKS!"
This Thanksgiving I am feeling slightly melancholy, since no family is around, even Loic is off at a conference. Fran and Lucas are coming down from the hill to eat with me. Fran is bursting at the seams with a baby inside, so this morning while at the market, I was thinking about choices for her. What would she like? What can she eat? I considered getting a whole turkey, my volailler proposed one, then thought of stuffing just a breast, then a leg, then finally decided after all that a Pintade, a guinea fowl, would do. A nice little muscade squash soup with mixed poultry stock from the necks of duck, guinea fowl, and chicken, and the deboned guinea fowl, a wild mushroom and Armagnac filling rolled inside, served with a sage seasoned cornbread dressing. I am staying very very simple with my choices. But we will do Thanksgiving this year. And every year, if I can help it.