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Cranberries in the Amazon, Pie in Almaty, Turkey in Chengdu
Friends of FP share their tales of Thanksgivings spent far from home.
There’s always something odd for Americans about celebrating Thanksgiving abroad. The holiday, in theory, should be location-agnostic: A celebration of family, and friends, gratitude, and plenty. But the DNA of Thanksgiving is, of course, inescapably American (and Canadian, too), from candied yams to football — and spending the holiday overseas is never quite the same. Not to mention the logistical challenges: Where can one procure a turkey for eight in China, or cranberry sauce in the Amazon?
Americans around the world have a long history of going far out of their way and lavishing considerable resources on the holiday. In Paris, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, unable to settle on a suitable stuffing, cooked one with chestnuts, mushrooms, and oysters. In a tradition that began during the Civil War, U.S. soldiers have celebrated from the far corners of the world. The U.S. army supplanted canned turkey with fresh-killed birds for the troops in 1944, at the height of the Second World War. “They are carrying cooked dinners very close to the fighting line,” an Army spokesman told the Associated Press at the time. Meanwhile, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where American Thanksgiving mythmaking began, turkeys were scarce, with many households turning to chicken or duck.
As Americans around the world prepare to celebrate, we asked Foreign Policy staffers, contributors, and friends to reflect on memorable Thanksgivings spent far afield.
Thomas E. Ricks
When I was a teenager, my father taught at Kabul University for two years on an exchange program with Columbia University. We lived Karteh Seh, in a nice neighborhood in the southwestern part of the city with a good view of the Koh-i-Baba (mountains of the grandfathers) to the west, not unlike the Front Range near Denver.
Our neighbor to our right was a Russian. There were rumors that he was with the KGB, but who knows? Our other neighbor was Kazi Wali (which means Governor Kazi). He had been educated in the United States and at the time was the governor of the province of Maidan, in the mountains just west of Kabul. During the summer he had invited my family up there for a lovely picnic next to a mountain stream.
Now, with Thanksgiving of 1970 coming soon, my parents wanted to reciprocate by giving his family a traditional American feast, fixings and all. A feel murgh (literally translated “elephant chicken”) was purchased and slaughtered. Dinner was served with squash, peas, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
The mayor’s family — wife, two teenage daughters, and a younger son, if I recall correctly — kind of pushed the food around on their plates. They left relatively early.
The next morning a servant of Kazi’s appeared at the front gate in the wall around our house, bearing some bags of spices. My mother’s horrified interpretation, probably correct, was that they had found the food so bland as to be inedible.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He runs FP’s Best Defense blog.
In 1990, my family was living in Vienna, Austria, in a six-floor apartment building affiliated with European Christian College, a small private institution. Most of the students in the building were Eastern European: Polish, Yugoslavian, Hungarian, and a few Austrians. When Thanksgiving rolled around that year, the three American families decided to invite everyone for a potluck-style Thanksgiving. My mother was able to find a turkey, but nothing remotely cranberry-related. And she couldn’t locate, and didn’t speak enough German to know how to ask for cornmeal to make our traditional Southern-style cornbread dressing.
But the biggest problem was the electrical wiring. We had an oven and a cooktop, but if we used all four burners and the oven at the same time, the electricity would go out. We could either use two burners, or one burner and the oven. And with everyone in the building cooking dishes from their own country to bring to the meal, the circuits kept tripping all over the building.
In the end though, we all crammed into the community room downstairs, and ate borscht, turnips, cabbage, and a whole roast turkey, with what my mother recalls was the best turkey gravy she’s ever made.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. She spent four years in China before joining FP and holds a master’s degree in East Asian studies from Yale University.
Thanksgiving spent in Belém, a northern Brazilian city near the mouth of the Amazon, offered an opportunity for we celebrants to show off our cooking chops, such as we could fake them, to Brazilian friends. Procurement wasn’t too much of a challenge: Turkeys were available frozen, and northern Brazilian fare isn’t that far off from what people eat in the United States. The one exception was the cranberry sauce. We had to settle for a chunky, sludgy, cranberry chutney made without a recipe from a meager bag of wildly overpriced craisins rehydrated in cranberry juice. The low moment of the day: bending over the simmering pan of craisin stew, trying to coax life into the sad, wrinkled berries — particularly distressing in Belém, a city flowing over with luscious tropical fruits that arrive daily by boat from the far reaches of the Amazon. But Americans eat cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, not glorious fruit of the jungle.
As friends of friends gathered in the cramped apartment, the already untenable equatorial heat rose to near-lethal levels. The oven began to act as a space heater. But once our meal was ready, no one complained. Room-temperature cachaça restores one’s electrolytes, after all.
Benjamin Soloway is the editorial assistant at FP.
In November 2001, as a Peace Corps volunteer in southern China, I gathered with fellow volunteers in the megacity of Chengdu for a feast. We sat around one volunteer’s apartment to drink cheap Chinese beer and tuck into a roast turkey. It was a rare treat — our monthly salary was about 1,000 renminbi, not much more than $100 at the time, and I recall being told that the bird had cost several hundred of those renminbi, more than some Chengduers made in a month. In 2001, China was just on the cusp of what would be an unprecedented accumulation of wealth that would bring Western comforts like hamburgers, flip-top-toilets, and air conditioning firmly into the country’s middle-class lifestyle. But back then, Chengdu — now bursting with a Ritz-Carlton and a Shangri-La, not to mention the largest shopping and entertainment complex in the world — still had yet to shed its grit. And we were poorly compensated English teachers, hungry for home in a vast country we were just getting to know. A turkey from a Holiday Inn was almost unimaginably luxurious — but felt worth the Thanksgiving splurge.
David Wertime is a senior editor who manages Tea Leaf Nation, FP’s channel dedicated to Chinese citizen and social media.
More than a quarter-century after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, people in this part of the world are now fairly familiar with Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t always so. In the first years after the overthrow of communism, in the early 1990s, we expats felt an obligation to introduce this most American of holidays to our local hosts.
The year was 1993. We (four expat partners and I) had just opened the Globe Bookstore & Coffeehouse, a Seattle-style bookstore with espresso drinks and hard-to-find English-language books. On this particular Thanksgiving, we closed the kitchen and invited our staff and new friends to celebrate with turkey and all the trimmings. One of our kitchen workers was a Russian ex-sailor named Pavel, a shy, good-natured guy who from time to time would amaze us with survival skills honed in the Russian navy (including some convincing knife-sharpening abilities).
As we proceeded around the serving table and loaded our trays with turkey, I looked down at Pavel’s plate. In between potatoes and stuffing, he had placed a bowl of corn flakes covered with milk. “Huh,” I said, “what’s up with the cereal?” Suddenly looking a little sheepish, he answered: “Well, this is an American holiday right? I thought this is what you guys ate.” Clearly, we had our work cut out for us.
Mark Baker is an independent journalist and travel writer based in Prague.
In October of 1984, my unit, 2nd Battalion, 505 PIR was part of the invasion of Grenada. My unit was the last to leave the island and we were the only U.S. combat unit there over the holiday.
As Thanksgiving approached, soldiers began talking to the locals about the holiday and its meaning. The Grenadians, spread around six islands in a hundred different small population centers, began to take an interest in this thing called Thanksgiving. In the former British colony the concept of Thanksgiving and its traditional meal was virtually unknown. But unbeknownst to us soldiers, they talked about it among themselves and began making plans. Boats and light aircraft went to and from the island; phone calls were made.
Finally, on Thanksgiving Day, towns and villages around the country invited the U.S. soldiers stationed nearby to have a surprise Grenadian Thanksgiving. No one was more surprised than the soldiers and their leadership.
All across the country, the same scene repeated itself. The soldiers in full combat gear would assemble, at the villagers’ request, in a building or shady field. Food would be laid out and a Grenadian would make a small speech and invite the soldiers to eat. The meal would be some form of turkey — canned or roasted whole — accompanied by canned yams, cranberry, or potatoes. Nothing native, and all unfamiliar sights in island kitchens. The speech was invariably the same:
“We don’t know much about this thing you call Thanksgiving and we don’t understand the food. But we do know that it is important to you and want you to know that our Thanksgiving is the day you came. Thank you.”
Today, in Grenada, Thanksgiving is a designated national holiday, celebrated on October 25, marking the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Keith Nightingale is a guest memoirist for FP’s Best Defense column.
You can’t really get your hands on a proper Thanksgiving turkey living in Central Asia, but one thing that you can find is potatoes — lots and lots of potatoes. It wasn’t easy to scrounge up a feast that resembled something you would have back home, but we did our best, which, frankly, wasn’t very good. Our meal consisted mostly of potato dishes: mashed, scalloped, and boiled, along with some greasy chickens we bought from the bazaar.
As the lone Canuck in a group of expats living in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, I was consigned to celebrate with the Americans in November, as opposed to October. But as a joint American-Canadian force, we were still only three strong, so the meal had contributions from various nationalities: pies and cakes made by Belgians, Finns, and Germans, syrniki (pancakes with quark cheese) made by Russians, and plov (pilaf rice with meat and veggies) made by Kazakhs, all accompanied by Georgian wine and Russian beer.
Outside was covered in snow; the food didn’t taste or look like Thanksgiving. But gathered in that Almaty apartment, packed in with a bunch of friends who were all far from home, it still felt like it — only with more potatoes.
Reid Standish is the assistant digital producer at FP.
On my third and final deployment to Afghanistan we had a mission on Thanksgiving.
This was unfortunate because generally, in my experience, we never had missions on Thanksgiving. It was a day when there were few, if any, combat patrols. A day when the Army’s “food service specialists” were obligated to prepare a halfway-decent meal, or at the very least, heat up a frozen one.
The mission was to clear out an Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoint that had been overrun by the Taliban and later abandoned. We were to check for mines and other dangers. Why on Thanksgiving, we asked? The checkpoint would still be abandoned tomorrow; there was no urgency to do this particular mission on that particular day. But our grievances, as usual, fell on deaf ears.
“What about Thanksgiving chow?” bleated a soldier from Mississippi to no one in particular. The holiday meal of reheated turkey stuffing, cranberry sauce, and biscuits was all ready to be wrapped up and brought with us on our convoy; Mississippi wanted to know why it wasn’t coming with us.
“Shut up. They’re going to deliver chow by Blackhawk,” our platoon sergeant said.
“But … why don’t we just pick it up from here — we’re already here!”
It was all nonsensical — the mission, the food — until we learned the real reason behind these convoluted logistics: Our “mission” was a photo op. G4 TV, a now defunct digital cable and satellite television channel, was filming their Bomb Patrol Afghanistan series, which followed an ordnance disposal team throughout their tour in Afghanistan. Some officer must’ve reasoned that a shot of the Army delivering holiday meals to troops on the front would be too good to pass up.
The helicopter landed on a soccer pitch in the middle of a friendly village; the prop wash kicked up by the 21st-century rotorcraft flooded the entire 9th-century village with dust, much to the annoyance of the locals. There were no hearts and minds won that day. With our feast now on board, we headed out to the abandoned checkpoint where we arrived to find that is was, in fact, not abandoned at all but filled with Afghan police freely walking in and out.
We unloaded our cold chow and enjoyed a meal together for the cameras. I believe you can still catch Bomb Patrol on Netflix; look for the episode titled “Thanksgiving.” As for the checkpoint, it fell back into Taliban hands less than four years later.
Ryan Blum was a squad leader with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He is co-holder of the Army chair in Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted.
I was touring an organic chicken and hog farm outside of Beijing one October, when I saw them: four black, beautiful turkeys strutting among the flock of diminutive chickens. “An American gave me two as a gift last year,” the farmer told me. “They just keep reproducing, but they don’t produce many eggs. I don’t know what to do with them.”
But I knew what to do with them. In a town like Beijing, where turkeys have to be imported from the United States and can cost up to $100 even frozen, I knew exactly what to do. I asked the farmer if he’d be willing to part with one of the birds, and pointed to the one I wanted. Four weeks later it arrived at my door in a bag, dressed, feathered and very, very fresh. There may have only been eight pounds of it, but with a night’s brine, a borrowed oven, and friends from far and wide, it was the sweetest, most tender T-bird I ever had.
Michael Pareles is a former manager at the U.S. Meat Export Federation in Beijing.
Photo credit: U.S. National Archives