Thanksgiving: It’s Not About The Food

Thanksgiving Australia
2009, Australia. Turkey not pictured. French fried onions courtesy of my mom & the USPS.

For 30 years, I thought Thanksgiving was about the food.

Consequently, every year that I’m out of the US, I make an ill-fated attempt to re-create my favorite Thanksgiving recipes.

Since 2003, that’s eight out of nine Thanksgivings spent as an expat. I have learned the following:

1. You can’t make your own French’s french-fried onions for green bean casserole. Even if you google a recipe that calls for a frying pan, butter, milk, flour, and onions. YOU CAN’T DO IT. Please don’t try.

2. The only marshmallows that are suitable for yam casserole are mini-marshmallows. If you can’t get your hands on them, go ahead and cut that recipe out of your meal. Under no circumstances should you try to use colored marshmallows.

3. Throw another turkey on the barbie? Sure! It frees up the oven and gives Thanksgiving a cross-cultural Australian element.

4. You can make pumpkin muffins, bread, or pie without canned pumpkin. Turns out it works just as well if you buy a real pumpkin and cook it up. Who knew?

5. Spending an unreasonable amount of money to source foreign ingredients won’t make it feel like Thanksgiving.

Re-creating the spirit of Thanksgiving

I was mentally planning for another Thanksgiving this week. I needed to get vegetables at the 5-day market and a chicken from the corner butcher. I’d have to buy some bread and leave it out to go stale if I wanted breadcrumbs for the spinach balls. 450 grams of butter costs about $7, but I’d need to get some. The cooking would have to be done on a rotational basis, since we only have a crock pot, not an oven. That meant all of the food would come out at 45-minute intervals. We’d probably finish eating at ten o’clock.

Then I realized, “This isn’t Thanksgiving. This is a pain in the ass.”

Food doesn’t make Thanksgiving. You need your family for that.

The oldest Thanksgiving tradition in my family is probably nationwide: giving thanks.

Well, duh.

We all sit around the table, salivating at the spread before us, while my dad insists that we each say one thing we’re thankful for. My sisters and I grumble, but secretly we love it. Usually it goes something like this:

Dad: I’m thankful to have my family together, and for our health.

Me: That’s two things.

Dad: I can say two things. I’m your father.

Mom: I’m thankful for my three girls.

Kate: You can’t say that. It’s the same as saying family. You have to say something different.

Mom: Okay, I’m thankful to see you three chasing your dreams.

Me: I’m thankful that I have parents who support my dreams.

Megan: That’s not fair. You took mine.

Kate: That’s practically copying Mom’s anyway.

Me: Well, think of something else. And no, it’s not.

Kate: I’m thankful for my friends.

Megan: No fair. I was going to say that.

Kate: Maybe you should be thankful for being the youngest, which means you always have to go last.

Me: And for being a copycat.

Dad: That’s enough.

Megan: Yeah. That’s enough. Anyway, I’m thankful for Princess and Mittens.

Kate: (under her breath) Lame.

Me: Totally.

Mom: Okay, let’s eat!

All the way to the elbow

When we were teenagers, my mom announced that she was starting a new Thanksgiving tradition. She summoned the three of us to the kitchen sink, where the turkey was defrosting. It sat in a puddle of its own blood, looking extremely unappetizing.

“One day you’re going to have to cook your own Thanksgiving turkey,” she said. “You need to know what it’s like.”

“I already know,” said Megan. “It’s gross.”

“I’m not touching the turkey,” I said.

“But I’m a vegetarian,” Kate protested.

My mom ignored us.

“Come up to the sink and put your arm in the turkey.”

We all backed away from the sink, horrified.

“Come here,” my mom said. “Put your arm in the turkey or I’m not cooking it.” She looked right at me. “You first. You’re the oldest.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and stuck my fingers in the turkey.

“Nope,” my sisters cried gleefully. “All the way!”

I looked at my mom.

“All the way to the elbow,” she said.

It was a big turkey.

I pretended I was James Herriot, super-veterinarian of the Yorkshire Dales, reaching into a heifer to turn a calf out of the breech position.

It didn’t help.

What did help was watching my sisters do it, knowing my turn was over.

“Don’t forget,” I said. “All the way to the elbow.”

Afterwards, my mom turned back to the sink, smiling.

“You can go now,” she said. “Make sure you wash your hands.”

Thanksgiving in Korea

It’s been six years since I’ve been in Indiana for Thanksgiving.

My efforts in foreign kitchens have never brought me the satisfying holiday I strive for, but that’s because Dorothy had it right: there’s no place like home. I’m all for new traditions, but I’ve been dragging the same one through the mud for years. I think my new Thanksgiving tradition is to not cook Thanksgiving dinner.

I did put my free-talking class through a Thanksgiving lesson today, which was like pulling teeth. Apparently pilgrims and cornucopias are ‘jaemitopseoyo’ (not fun or interesting). I forced them each to write down three things they were thankful for, which elicited answers like:

  • Myself
  • My Wii
  • Growing 10 cm this year
  • Money
  • Plants
  • INFINITE (a K-pop boy band)

I’ll have to remember those for the next family Thanksgiving. Bet no-one will accuse me of stealing their answers then.

My co-teacher surprised me today by ordering a platter of smoked turkey to the office. The turkey was labeled with a sticker that said, in Korean, ‘product of the USA,’ which inspired a rare burst of patriotism in me. Jared’s co-teacher brought in a portable cooker, and we staged a Thanksgiving dinner with re-heated turkey, salad greens, chili sauce, and chopsticks. It was unexpected, unconventional, and one of the most thoughtful Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve had away from home.

I’m still sticking with my plan – the next time I make a Thanksgiving dinner, it will be in the United States. Until then, I know that the spirit of Thanksgiving doesn’t come from the turkey. It comes from the people around you, and you can get it in any country around the world.

And that’s what I’m thankful for this year.

That, and the fact that I didn’t have to put my hand anywhere near a turkey’s backside.

Turkey Korea
Beats the heck out of today’s seaweed/fish jelly lunch combo.

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  1. Wow, 8 Thanksgivings in a row you’ve been abroad? This is my third one and man I am struggling. I didn’t used to, but before I had friends around to keep me company — in Paris, all my friends are off visiting family or whatever (lame) so I’m all alone today. Excuse me while I stream the Macy’s Day Parade online and pretend I’m not crying in my room with a bottle of red wine.

    1. It is so lame. I’m completely over being away for the holidays,especially because Thanksgiving was always one of my favorites. I’m finding myself in a weird untethered state today, just sort of drifting around this Peruvian beach town and not sure what to do with myself. I think the wine/streaming combo is a winning option.

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