The Butterball Challenge (Thanksgiving Haitian Style)


In honor of the upcoming holiday, I’ve decided to share again a few of the challenges my partner Sara and I faced last year, trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner from Haiti.  So stay tuned this week for the sometimes amusing, sometimes maddening, sometimes mind-numbing complications that inevitably arose trying to celebrate this most American of holidays from the least American and most inhospitable of locations.

Today I bring you the oven-related challenges.

Is my Haitian oven up to the Butterball challenge?

I told Sara when we were looking for a house in Haiti, that I 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–in bulk, I might add.

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 was no way to set any specific temperature on the oven we had in Haiti, any temperature, either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

Maybe I should have been grateful. At least I wasn't working in the most common kind of Haitian kitchen.

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,” she insisted.

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

So  last Thanksgiving I needed an oven, a temperature-controlled oven, I might add.   In America we can’t celebrate Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.  It’s the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of Thanksgiving desserts—the high-stepping, baton-twirling creme de la creme–even when celebrating from Port-au-Prince—especially when celebrating from some far-away, cholera-sickened, earthquake-toppled part of the planet!

Now, a pumpkin pie likes to bake for the first 15 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit and the final 45 at 350, temperatures that were too precise to register on the oven thermometer I had brought back to Haiti  from the US.  That thermometer  only got me in the ballpark of a particular temperature, give or take 100 degrees.  How’s that for thermostatic precision?

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

As I said to her last Thanksgiving, “Oh, that’s not that important.  You’ll figure that out.”

Did Sara cook in this kind of Haitian kitchen?

(Continued here)

Have you had any memorable Thanksgiving dinner disasters?

45 thoughts on “The Butterball Challenge (Thanksgiving Haitian Style)

    • It’s hard to believe, but you were one of my first 3 or 4 subscribers, I think. Not many folks were around when I originally did this. I’ve tweaked and added photos, but it is largely the same. Thanks for reading again, Renee!

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    • Well, I exaggerate just a bit. It probably wasn’t quite 12 batches that got burnt, but way too many–so maybe I’m not really all that patient. But basically, I had to keep trying. What other good alternative did I have?

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    • Thanks so much for tweeting. How would I describe my relationship to twitter? I have an account, but have never tweeted. I need to get my butt in gear in that regard. Twitter was my only/best access to local news in Haiti, so I used twitter a lot to get information–just didn’t really share it myself. It would probably be a smart thing to use for generating more blog traffic, wouldn’ it? But, gosh, thanks for tweeting. I really appreciate that!

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  1. The kitchen has never been one of my real comfort zones. I’m a decent cook and I like to bake, but I also feel helpless without recipes and measuring utensils. And there’s no way I could manage using only guesswork as to oven temperature. I have hosted my share of family Thansgiving dinners and have so far been successful. Thank god Mom has been around to make sure the gravy is perfect though. I’m always hit or miss when it comes to gravy.

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    • Terri, it has always sounded to me like you are pretty good in the kitchen. But–I’m like you. I HAVE to have recipes and the ability to measure. At least I was able to to do that in this situation in Haiti. And I’m not good ar gravy either. Happy Thanksgiving, Terri!

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    • Recipes and measuring utensils aren’t such a bad thing! It’s like they say: “Cooking is an art, but baking is a science”. You can be a lot more casual making a stew than you can when you’re baking bread or a pie. 😉

      And Kathy: I could never have managed without a way to gauge the temperature in the oven. It’s fun to read this post again!

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      • I didn’t think it could be done. I swore it couldn’t be done. But it could have been worse. I mean, the pie wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t horrible either. Glad you enjoyed this even the second time around.

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  2. Oh how funny. We have a similar problem with our oven. We do have a thermostat but it is not accurate. To warm up the oven takes for ever to get to the right temp. So, I can relate. And, I don’t cook!

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  3. I’ve always been a guest so I’ve only co-cooked one Turkey Day dinner in my life, in 1994, with my sister who had just given birth to my niece two months earlier. I was very excited to meet the new baby who was adorable. I have zero recollection about how dinner turned out, but I assume nothing disastrous happened for I tend to recollect the horrible as clearly as the top songs from my youth. I am confident that Sara found some way to roast that bird.

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  4. I only just started cooking last November, and it was all vegan stuff no one had any interest in eating. I remember being around for screaming matches over the most perplexing of stuff, but then I watched Buffy’s Thanksgiving episode and it all made sense. 😉

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  5. I have never cooked a turkey but can prepare a pretty mean meal over an open fire (including bread)

    When I am big i am going to get me a nice gas stove and oven. Right now I use a camping stove and a miniscule counter-top portable oven.

    Love your pictures Kathy.

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  6. I grew up with a range cooker, where the oven temperature was related to the strength of the fire. Not an appliance that was worth risking with a soufle, but it produced plenty of less temperature sensitive things like scones and soda bread and casseroles. It’s long gone, of course, but I still find myself perching in that spot when I’m in my parents’ house as my mind still associates it with the warmth. Bread baked over an open fire is something quite traditional here. Griddle bread. My gran still talks about it, and also apple tart cooked in something she refers to as a ‘bastable’. I’m afraid I don’t know what that is though!

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  7. I love that you thought the pie was more important than the turkey. A kindred spirit. I love pumpkin pie and didn’t get any this (Canadian) Thanksgiving. I was thankful anyway, but maybe a touch less so 😉

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  8. Bread on an open fire: Use a black pot as in your picture. Place your dough the well oiled pot and close the lid. Put the pot over smoldering coals (raise it a bit (about 2 inches) so it’s not too hot and then put some coals in a circle on the lid of the pot and do not open the pot for 40 – 45 minutes replacing coals if the get too cool.
    Afraid I don’t have pictures but will take some next time I make some.

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  9. Kathy, you know, it has taken me this long to figure out that you’re not in Haiti any more. LOL! I love your stories. You have your readers on the edge of our seats as we wait to discover more. We had a Thanksgiving disaster this year which involved me mistaking a bottle of thyme for a bottle of sage. Yes, you guessed it. We had Thyme Stuffing this year. Barry is writing his newspaper column about it…I may not mention it in the Blogging World. 🙂

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