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Thanksgiving: a tale of love, loss, and tradition

December 3, 2012

(Security status update: we spent just over a week evacuated to Bujumbura, Burundi.  Following with withdrawl of M23 troops from Goma last week, we finally got to go come back to Bukavu this morning!  We may post more on that later, but until then, here’s the story of our recent Thanksgiving festivities!)

This year, Jamie and I took it upon ourselves as a patriotic duty to realize one of our country’s most important culinary traditions: the Thanksgiving feast.

Because neither of us are in the habit of doing things half-assed, we wanted to make our Thanksgiving feast as authentic as possible.  We started planning back in September.

After careful assessment, we found that we would actually be able to find most of the ingredients we would need here in Bukavu, with a few notable exceptions…  Since most imported goods available here come from Europe or the Middle East, cranberries and marshmallows were definitely too exotic to populate the shelves of Bukavu’s supermarket, and we had some very serious doubts as well about the possibility of finding any turkeys hiding in the frozen section.

The cranberries and marshmallows we were able to special order from straight from the good old US of A.  Jamie’s parents were nice enough to bring them for us when we met them for vacation in October.   Check and check.  We felt, however, that it would be a bit too much to ask them to traffic poultry across international borders.

So, by early November, we had our date set, we had some recipes on hand, and the cranberries and marshmallows hidden in our closet.  All that was missing was the meat.

Conversations with friends on the subject had raised our hopes a bit.  We had been considering settling for a few Thanksgiving ducks or chickens instead, or even giant fish or a Thanksgiving rabbit (apparently rabbit is what’s often on the table for Congolese Christmas dinner), when a friend of ours mentioned that she had just recently seen a guy selling turkeys on the side of the road!  While this was no guarantee that we’d actually be able to find this guy and his turkeys when we needed them, it was at least an indication that they exist somewhere in Congo.

Now, as a sidenote, I definitely consider hosting your own Thanksgiving dinner to be a certain right of passage to adulthood in American culture, and personally, I had been quite excited to take on the challenge.  However, rumors of turkeys (as well as the seasonality of pumpkins) raised the stakes quite a bit in assuring the authenticity of our meal.  So, instead of handling this on our own, Jamie and I decided to delay fully crossing the threshold to adulthood.

We called for back up.

The week before the big meal, we brought our cook on board.  At our shared house, we are very lucky to have an awesome cook, Francois, who cooks for us during the week.  He agreed to a little overtime in order to help us out.  So, at the beginning of the week, we gave him his most important mission: find us some turkeys.

After the first day, he reported back that it was going to be a challenge acquire the birds.  Normally, folks in the villages might raise them every now and then, but there’s not much of a demand for them in the city, so he would have to find someone who could bring them in from the villages especially for us.  But not to worry, he assured us, he would do everything possible to find us some turkeys.

And sure enough, by Thursday morning, we had two live turkeys, Shelly and Hermione, waddling around the yard.  (Note: don’t read to deeply into the name choice, these were just the first names that popped into my head when I saw each bird).

Shelly arrived first, and she and I bonded very quickly.  I gave her some rice on her first night at our house, and she made very sweet noises that I translated as “thank you” and “I love you, you’re my best friend ever.”

I even had dreams about her that night.

Hermione arrived the next morning, and I started to get nervous about the fate of my new friends.  Francois told us that he planned to do the deed on Friday so that all would be ready to put in the oven first thing on Saturday morning (we had our feast planned for Saturday night since we didn’t have Thursday off work).

I left for work on Thursday feeling uneasy, and starting to plan which nice meal I could offer my turkeys on their last night.  But when I came back to my house for lunch that day, I did not see my friends in the yard.  I asked Francois where they were, and he replied causally that they were already in the freezer.  The deed was done a day early.

I only cried a little bit.

Instead of being gripped by the severe depression that I had expected, I mostly just felt relieved, like a bandaid had been ripped off.  The suspense was over.

And I tried to find solace in the thought that making the acquaintance of my turkeys before eating them would make our meal more meaningful than simply choosing some anonymous ball of turkey meat from Stater Bros.

But either way, it was now time to focus on the rest of the meal.

Francois and I cooked non-stop on Saturday morning (not to mention the food prep on Thursday and Friday), Jamie prepared the house with a long colorful table decorated with fresh flowers and 3D paper turkeys (which started as napkin holders and ended the night as hair decorations), and by Saturday night we laid out the full spread for our 20 international guests:

  • Shelly and Hermione with stuffing
  • Mashed potatoes with Shelly and Hermione gravy
  • Green bean casserole with creamy mushroom sauce and crispy onions
  • Sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows
  • Cranberries
  • Pumpkin pie made from scratch

The food was a great success, but just as importantly, it was really special to share a part of American culture and tradition with our international friends.

First and foremost, we prioritized inviting all the other Americans we could find (there were only two others besides me and Jamie).  This in itself made for interesting conversation, because even though the Thanksgiving menu is pretty standard, each family has their own little idiosyncrasies in the way each dish is prepared.

And some are so adamant about it that they insist on bringing their own versions of dishes in fear that their host may not do it right (one of our American guests brought his own stuffing, because I had mentioned that I was going to put raisins in mine and he was not OK with that).

Also, of the four Americans present, I was the only one that comes from a family that tops its sweet potatoes with marshmallows, something that I find quite quintessential to Thanksgiving and can’t imagine doing without.

Next, we had several Canadian guests, who apparently also celebrate a form of Thanksgiving that they call Canadian Thanksgiving (to differentiate it from real Thanksgiving), which takes place in October instead of November.

They explained that their traditional meal is pretty similar to our American one, though oddly, none of our Canadian guests could satisfactorily explain what exactly the Canadians are celebrating during their Canadian Thanksgiving, since the Mayflower obviously landed in the US… but we were happy to share our feast with them all the same.

So, the North Americans then comprised about half of our guests.  The rest were a mix of French, Italian, Dutch, Scottish, and Congolese, most of whom had never celebrated Thanksgiving before.

(Click photos below to enlarge)

As we sat down to begin our meal, I gave a short explanation about the history of Thanksgiving and why we celebrate it in America.  I then explained that, according to my family’s tradition, we must go around the table, each person sharing with the others what they are thankful for.  I gave the example of my cousin Robbie, who, when he was a child, declared one Thanksgiving that he was thankful for the Power Rangers, and that they had two TVs in his house.

Apparently this explanation was not sufficient, however, and there was some confusion at the table.

“What does it mean, ‘to be thankful’?” one of our French guests asked.  This  started a lively discussion about the direct translation of the word thankful in French.

Apparently, there isn’t one.  There is reconnaissant, which is similar, but only applies to people (our French friends said that you can’t be reconnaissant for an object, such as a TV).  And then there’s content or heureux, which literally just mean happy or pleased, but that’s still not quite the same feeling as thankful.

(I don’t think we need to get into it here what this may mean about French culture…).

Even after this discussion clarifying what it means to be thankful, a handful of guests still had quite a difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea of announcing what they are thankful for.

“Are you supposed to make a joke?” one guest asked.  “For example, ‘I am thankful for this wine that makes me drunk’.”

“No,” I responded.  “It’s supposed to be sincere.  It’s a moment to reflect on the things that we take for granted in our lives and recognize what we’re truly thankful for.  Like your job, or your family.  For example, I am thankful for Sherry and Hermione, who gave their lives to feed us this evening and who taste so incredibly delicious.  And for Francois and Jean, who spoil us and make our lives so much easier us by cooking our food, cleaning our house, and doing all of our laundry.”

I was met with a couple of blank stares, but we went around the table anyway.

Most of our guests were very sincere, and I feel proud to think that our dinner may have weaseled some gratitude into their hearts!

Finally, in what may have been my favorite part of the evening, everyone loved the food and overate to an extent that would make any true American proud.  This is significant for two main reasons.

First and most obviously, delicious food is always significant.

Secondly, the stereotype that many Europeans hold of Americans is that we will eat everything and anything and have no real sense of quality cuisine.  I think that this stereotype is to large extent quite true, especially when compared to the amount of time, thought and energy most French and Italians that I know put into their food.  If you ever have a few hours to kill and want evidence of this fact, ask an Italian to tell you about the difference between Pizza Hut and pizza di napoli.

Given this not undeserved culinary condescension, it was satisfying to have the chance to show to our European friends through our Thanksgiving feast that, not only does America have its own unique cuisine (I’m pretty sure that no other country can boast a side dish topped with toasted marshmallows), but that we Americans can also have supercilious gastronomical tastes and discerning palettes, even if it is only for one day each year.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aunt Melodee permalink
    December 4, 2012 2:51 am

    Such a lovely narrative! And it just dawned on me that we missed the “round the table” expression of gratitude this year! How did that happen???? Just gonna have to have a deferred one at Christmas. Glad to know you guys are ok, and back home.

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