Or: How an old dog can learn new tricks.
That's what I learned when I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for the very first time, here in Kunming. Past celebrations always saw someone else — my mother, a friend — slave for hours in the kitchen. Now it was my turn for voluntary servitude. Living as an expatriate in China, American traditions rise up on all the hoary family holidays. The thought entered my mind: I will assuage personal nostalgia and introduce my Chinese family — meaning wife and step-son — to Thanksgiving.
How can a neophyte ever learn to cook such a feast? On the internet of course.
Wasted an enormous amount of time wading through food web sites. Come on people. I just want to cook a simple Thanksgiving meal! Way too many complicated menus and frilly recipes out there.
Would I ever overcome my bake-the-turkey phobia? That's fear of undercooked bird. What's more, I didn't have a meat thermometer — can't find one in stores around here. My wife had the perfect Chinese solution: poke with chopstick, stop baking when juices stop flowing.
Anyway, I settled on what seemed a reasonable formula from the depths of cyberspace — 20 minutes per pound of turkey. I found the 10 kilo frozen bird at Metro — imported from Chile to a German-owned supermarket chain in Kunming. It was the smallest I could find. Cue metric conversion.
Another thing, the oven. The majority of Chinese households don't have an oven. We do, thanks to my resourceful wife, who purchased a small one a few years back. We use it almost exclusively for cooking American casseroles. Hmmm. More importantly, Mmmm!
"Small" here means tiny. The oven takes up invaluable real estate on the counter of our small kitchen. I repeat: "small" means tiny. Many Chinese kitchens are similar, hilariously cramped by American standards. For a neat description, overgrown closet-sized is apt. My wife wants to emigrate to the USA so she can have a larger kitchen.
The oven, just how tiny is it? I measure it at 32 x 15 x 30. That's centimeters. By antiquated British imperial measure that makes the oven 13 inches wide, 6 inches high, 12 inches deep.
Consternation! The bird can't possibly fit inside! Back to the internet, where I discover an ingenious solution. Cut bird in two. Just goes to show, how in today's new world order the internet is a basic necessity of life, just like air, water and shelter.
But first, defrost. My wife suggests setting it on the kitchen table for a couple of days. I balk, for fear of bacterial growth at room temperature. But I know where she's coming from. With no central heating in much of southern China, if you want more warmth, wear more clothes. Or buy a space heater. We don't have a space heater — I wear more clothes.
My wife routinely stores leftovers at room temperature. Just remember, room temperature here ain't yer standard American room temperature. We enjoy excellent intestinal health.
In the end, I win the defrost debate, and into the icebox the big bird goes — a safe three days ahead of the big event. A quaintly old-fashioned term, icebox, but that's how the Chinese word translates.
Our oven handles only one dish at a time, which is a slight impediment when preparing a Thanksgiving banquet. I'm helpless without the internet, so back online I go. What a revelation! You can actually cook a dish ahead of time and reheat it later. I even learn how to stack dishes on top of the oven, to keep warm while the turkey roasts. For the first time I'm starting to feel like I can pull this off.
Cut to the chase.
9.00 A.M., Thanksgiving Day. I adjourn to the kitchen and begin cooking. Hours and hours of it. At 6.00 P.M., friends arrive to join our feast.
Success! The meat tastes good, just like turkey meat should. The casseroles, fine. The eggnog, a hit. Stuffing and gravy, superb. Good food, good friends, good times. We are thankful. Passing around the table, we each give thanks for the previous year. Which invariably reflects back on the ones we love and for whom we are grateful.
Now about next year. Will the man cook Thanksgiving dinner again? Will he recall the hours of slaving in the kitchen? Will he remember how some restaurants in Kunming cook turkey to order, or even entire Thanksgiving dinners?
Yes, old dogs can learn new tricks.
Thanksgiving in China Menu
火鸡 (literally translates as "fire chicken")
土豆泥 (sometimes called auntie's potatoes, because old folks like eating soft foods after losing their teeth)
Sweet potato casserole
红薯砂锅 (made from red yams)
Green bean casserole
Home-made turkey stuffing
肉汁 ("meat juice" made from turkey drippings)
(Struck out. Every place in Kunming I checked didn't carry it or sold out)
Apple pie & pumpkin pie
苹果排 & 南瓜排
(I cheated. Ordered pies in advance from Wicker Basket)
(Couldn't find anywhere in Kunming. Made from scratch. Tasted wonderful but oh, so filling!)
Happy festive season everyone!