This morning at 8am, India Standard Time, our Thanksgiving turkey arrived at our flat. With a little help from friends it was surprisingly easy to come by. Unlike chickens, which can be seen running around every yard or patch of untended land, or ducks, which are pretty ubiquitous in Kerala’s watery byways, turkeys are just not that common here in India. So when I saw a few milling around someone’s yard while Milo and I were kayaking on the backwaters some time back I just had to ask our friend (who happens to own the neighboring property) to see if they might sell one to me. The rest is history, as they say.
All holidays have their culinary traditions, but for me Thanksgiving resonates more than most. (Kerala has its own version of Thanksgiving called Onam, a holiday filled with color and flavor celebrated in September or October, depending on the Lunar calendar.) Each region of the United States has its own definition of the same seemingly “standard” dishes. What in the South is called “dressing” the North calls “stuffing”, with common additions of oysters or chestnuts, respectively. Living globally has allowed for both a redefinition of my own idea of “standard” as well as challenged my ability to achieve it.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed a range of experiences as an expat celebrating Thanksgiving. In Costa Rica turkeys are now readily available, although there was a time when Americans had to fly them in personally from Miami. There I have run the gamut of brining and smoking the birds, to just plain roasting with good results. Cranberries were hit or miss, brought in by visiting family members if I was lucky. Chestnuts were impossible to find, but the palm fruit pejibaye made a good textural substitute for the dressing. In France I discovered that a turkey could be purchased from the butcher and actually cooked for you on the open air rotisseries ubiquitous to Paris boucheries. With a pleasant smile and the price of the turkey itself, I could head home with a beautifully cooked bird and a small container of drippings to boot. (Quite a convenience when our small oven was the size of a typical microwave!)
In Croatia turkey was a typical meat, but usually served as cutlets, not an entire bird. I remember asking around on the island, but everyone who raised poultry were doing so for their own consumption. I went to several butchers and each time was directed elsewhere, but I finally found success with one of the large grocery store chains. The birds were quite small, so I remember buying two. (Had it been so easily done I would have asked for a second one here, but I’m just counting my blessings that I have one at all.) Croatia in November also had the bounty of chestnuts, Brussel Sprouts and a gorgeous pumpkin-like squash called tikva. So I would say that our Thanksgivings in Central America and Europe were usually a success.
No matter how I turn the story over in my mind, there seems to be something ironic about celebrating Thanksgiving in India. Maybe it’s the wrongful nomenclature that Native Americans held during my youth. Maybe it’s living in a lush land of plenty where any old stick will sprout while celebrating a time when my country’s ancestors almost perished for want of their own harvest. Had it not been for the help of the Wampanoag “Indians” there may have been no thanksgiving, so perhaps it isn’t that ironic after all.
So here we are, in Kerala celebrating Thanksgiving with Indians, with a bountiful harvest of food on the table and friends around it.