The Butterball Challenge (Haitian Style)

As Sara and I continue to pack up our lives here in Haiti, and I continue to reflect and reminisce about some of Haiti-related “challenges” we’ve faced over the last year, I simply must share, for those of you who may have missed it, the following about our effort to prepare a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner for 24 under, shall we say, less-than-ideal conditions:

In honor of the upcoming holiday, I’ve decided to share, over the next several days, a few of the challenges we’re facing trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner from Haiti.  So stay tuned all week for the sometimes amusing, sometimes maddening, sometimes mind-numbing complications that inevitably arise when celebrating this most American of holidays in the least American of locations.

Today I give you the oven-related challenges.


Is my Haitian oven up to the Butterball challenge?


I told Sara when we were looking for a house here in Haiti, that I simply had to have an oven.  Neither of the two homes we had in Vietnam had anything other than a cook top in the kitchen, which bothered me to no end, since I like to bake—cookies, cakes, biscuits, pies, muffins.  The only thing I like more than making them is eating them, but that’s another post for another day.

 So Sara did what any Tollhouse-cookie-loving partner would do.  She got us an oven—a real honest-to-goodness gas oven—minus the thermostat.

 I kid you not.  There’s no way to set any specific temperature on this most essential of kitchen appliances, any temperature either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

 Now, I love Sara more than anything, even more than my daily dose of cake and cookies, and those of you who know my inclination toward carb-consumption, know that’s saying quite a bit.  But sometimes she misses the most obvious of details.

 “Oh, that’s not that important.  You’ll figure that out.”

 Twelve attempts and twelve burnt batches of cookies later, I’m still figuring. 

 Which brings me to the matter of needing an oven this week, a temperature controlled oven, I might add.   In America we can’t celebrate Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.  It’s the most Thanksgiving of Thanksgiving desserts—even when celebrating from here in Port-au-Prince—especially when celebrating from any far-away, cholera-sickened, earthquake-toppled part of the planet!

 A pumpkin pie likes to bake for the first 15 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit and the final 45 to 50 minutes at 350, temperatures too precise even for the oven thermometer I brought back from the US.  It only seems to get me in the ballpark of a particular temperature, give or take 100 degrees. 

 But what about the turkey Sara plans to roast, what about the thermostatic requirements of the old Butterball?

 Oh, that’s not that important.  She’ll figure that out.

Have you had any memorable Thanksgiving dinner disasters?

30 thoughts on “The Butterball Challenge (Haitian Style)

  1. I love your committment to cooking. I would have chosen the cooks over the kitchen. Then Husband and I started to grill our turkeys outside. One year, TH was away and I hosted solo. I was so proud of myself for having continued the grilling-the-turkey outdoors tradition. Until I was carrying it across the deck and it slid off the tray onto the ground.


  2. This is a great story that brings back many cooking memories . . . the half cooked turkey at the orphan Thanksgiving dinner . . . my first time roasting a chicken ever as I tried to help my fellow Americans living in Japan feel less homesick on Christmas . . . a Passover seder in Japan with Israeli friends which included noodles and other non-Kosher but delicious Japanese fair. Ah, the joys of cooking at homes away from home.


    • How fun that you know these experiences! There’s nothing like them–absolutely nothing! Your Japan expereinces sound amazing–have you blogged about them? If so, I’d love the links! Hope you have a great Thursday, Lisa!


      • I have a few posts scattered throughout the blog, and am planning on writing more. You can find them by clicking on the Japan tag on the right side of my blog.

        I hope your packing is going well! I have good friends in Lexington, KY and spent a few days with them just before Christmas.



  3. Cooking for me is always either hit or miss. (Last night was a hit: chicken and rice casserole, lol…but how do you mess that up??) Thanksgiving, though…good lord. In my family, Thanksgiving is an extraordinarily hurtful cooking holiday. My grandmother has always ALWAYS provided all the food herself, despite her daughter and daughter-in-law (my mother) consistently begging her to allow them to bring something. Every year, my aunt peels potatoes and my mom brings iced tea–one gallon of sweetened, one gallon of unsweetened. I rebelled two years ago and brought an uninvited (and therefore unexpected) appetizer of chili cheese rellenos with Ritz crackers. They were delicious and everyone enjoyed them…but I couldn’t shake the distinct feeling that I had jumped rank, not just over my grandmother but over my mom and aunt as well. Last year, I wanted to bring an apple onion tart (recipe is on my blog)…but my mom wouldn’t let me. “Let’s just enjoy that at our house after we do our Black Friday shopping and while we watch football, okay?” she offered. I gave in. What could I do? I would have needed her oven to make the dish in the first place.

    I’ve asked my mom when it will be my turn to host a holiday meal, and she just gave me this withering look and said, “I’ve been married for over 35 years, and I don’t even get a holiday meal yet.” The implication was that there would be no way in hell that I would get to host a holiday dinner before she did. I guess the upside is that my grandmother has her Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner menus so well practiced now that it’s not the cooking that causes drama. It’s the politics surrounding the cooking! Lol.


    • My holiday cooking fiascos have only taken place when I am not home for the holidays. I am NOT ALLOWED in the kitchen when my mother is making a Thanksgiving dinner. By some miracle, she actually let Sarah help her with the pies this year–and gave her an apron as a chefs assistant. I’ve never been allowed in the kitchen for special meals. I think I am jealous of my daughter. 😉


    • Your grandmother sounds like a hoot, Amanda! I’m a good bit older than you, so my grandmother has been gone for nearly 3 decades, so it’s my mother who reigns at our holiday gatherings. However, she has willingly given up the cooking responsibilities for the most part and, I think, enjoys just being the matriarch–which she does well!

      And I certainly know what you mean by the politics surrounding the cooking! If only I were free to write about that stuff. Haven’t figured out how to navigate my way through that yet–both in terms of family politcs and politics politics.

      Love your response, as usual. Thanks so much!


  4. I am incapable of cooking even the simplest of things without a recipe. I can’t imagine having to wing it with an oven with no thermostat! How DID that turkey turn out, after all?


    • What’s really surprising is that the meal turned out really well! I don’t know how, but it did. And I’m like you, I thought I was doomed to fail–but you might be surprised too what you can do when you have to.


  5. Kathy–
    that’s a fun post–I can’t imagine “cooking by feel” like that–or like the pioneers did…

    I have no thanksgiving fiascos, as I am perfect, however, I did once bring a pumpkin pie to a tgiving feast day when we lived in Alabama and NO ONE would eat it–they all thought it was weird…and preferred the sweet-potato pie, apple pie and mincemeat.
    my feewings wuw vewy huwded. 🙂


  6. I think you were just starting to post about your cooking challenge when I started reading your blog as I do remember the lack of a thermostat. Has it really been that long already? Time flies when you find good blogmates. 🙂


  7. Yikes…I can’t imagine trying to bake without a way to control the temperature!

    I remember being invited to Jim’s mom’s for Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years ago…I offered to bring homemade rolls. I make awesome rolls, if I do say so myself! However, I’d never made them in that particular oven before (we’d just moved into our house). I made the dough, let it rise three times, and put the rolls in the oven. They hadn’t been in very long when I smelled something burning! I almost cried! I ended up throwing them out and starting again…



    • Bless your heart, Wendy! Sounds like a nightmare——————

      The weird thing about the pies, is that they turned out pretty good–at least not bad–and not burnt. It was a crazy week–Thanksgiving 2010. I’ll never forget it!


  8. I like what you said about pumpkin pie “liking to bake” at certain temperatures for certain periods of time. I like to view cooking that way, too…like the food has certain rules, and if I just follow them, they’ll oblige my efforts by being tasty.


    • In some ways I think that’s the ultimate “art” in so many things–writing, painting, cooking–intuiting what that thing wants, needs, demands of us. Thanks for helping me realize this in a new way—————-


  9. Kathryn, you are now my hero! (I wonder if Martha Stewart could have pulled off those pies?) I like to bake at least one kind of pie, and a cake for Thanksgiving, but this last holiday season I was working short term in a department store, and my daughter has a regular job in retail, so I needed to be at work on Black Friday at 6 am and she had to be at work at 8 am. She, my sister and I decided we would pick up deep dish Chicago pizzas for Thanksgiving. I was a little let down, I mean it just didn’t feel like a holiday — until we sat down on my cushy sofa and started to eat. That was the best pizza any of us had tasted in a long, long time, and we were together! It was a good holiday! I’m glad yours was, too.


    • Sounds like a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. I personally adore pizza–really, really , really LOVE it–so I would have been delighted by that meal. It’s all about being together, isn’t it–especially with the ones we love most!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s