For the serial expat, American Thanksgiving can mean a myriad of culinary and cultural challenges, depending where on the globe one happens to be planted.
Sara and I have celebrated the holiday in a number of countries from Southeast Asia to South America, and are anticipating our first this week in Cuenca, Ecuador.
By far, however, we hosted our most memorable Thanksgiving dinner in post-earthquake Haiti, on a day during which we had no electricity and had to generate what little we could to keep the refrigerator running and the lights bright enough to carve a bird that barely fit in our tiny oven.
Last year I was honored when the Huffington Post published a story about our holiday in Haiti.
This year, however, I’ve rewritten and improved it, first for a literary reading in Cuenca and now for your holiday enjoyment.
It’s meant to entertain, as the experience was anything if not laughable, but it has also forces me to question my own inclinations to over-consume, as well as my American well-fed place of privilege.
Here’s how it happened:
When my partner Sara and I moved to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake leveled most of Port-au-Prince, we faced some serious challenges. Sara directed recovery efforts for a major international housing NGO. I accompanied her in a non-official capacity.
When Sara began looking for our home there, I had only one request: I wanted an oven.
We relocated to Port-au-Prince from Vietnam, where we had lived for a year with only a cook top in our kitchen. I hated our oven-less life. I wanted to bake.
So Sara did what any cake-loving partner would do. She found us a home in Haiti that featured an oven — a real, honest-to-goodness gas oven — minus the thermostat.
“Are you serious?” I said to Sara at the time, realizing there was no way to set any specific temperature on our less-than-perfect-by-American-standards home appliance, any temperature, either Fahrenheit or Celsius.
“Oh, that’s not that important. You’ll figure that out,” Sara insisted, when I pointed out the problem.
I moaned to myself over the coming months, especially when twelve attempts and twelve burnt batches of Schnickerdoodles later, I was still figuring.
But for Thanksgiving I needed an oven, a temperature-controlled oven, I whined in my own mind, and sometimes to Sara.
As an American I couldn’t imagine celebrating Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. After all, it’s the Macy’s Parade of Thanksgiving desserts — even when celebrating from Port-au-Prince, a far-away, cholera-sickened, earthquake-toppled corner of the Caribbean, one that was feeling less and less like home.
Now, a pumpkin pie likes to bake for the first 15 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit and the final 45 at 350, temperatures too precise to register on the oven thermometer I’d brought back from the U.S., hoping to resolve this issue. That thermometer only got me in the ballpark of a particular temperature, give or take 100 degrees — not exactly the kind of precision I was wanting.
Then, when Sara herself struggled to duplicate the thermostatic requirements of the Butterball we’d managed to find (not an easy feat), I reminded her, “Oh, that’s not that important. You’ll figure that out.”
However, shopping challenges also threatened our Haitian holiday.
Wisely, Sara and I had brought back from the US several Thanksgiving comfort foods we worried wouldn’t be available even in the expat-oriented grocery stores in Petion-ville, the upscale Port-au-Prince suburb where we lived.
One of these was canned pumpkin.
As it turned out, there wasn’t an ounce of Libby’s to be had on the entire island, or so it seemed to me — cherry pie filling, yes — canned yams, yes — canned pumpkin in time for Thanksgiving pie-baking — no sir, none of it — anywhere. And believe me, I looked.
I didn’t have a thermostatically controlled oven to bake the pie in, but I did have a full, 29-ounce can of “America’s Favorite Pumpkin” to put in it—thanks to my gift for what Sara deems OVER-packing. OVER, my ass! Did she want pumpkin pie or not?
I had another seemingly “serious” scare two days before Thanksgiving trying to track down celery.
Standing in Giant Market unable to find this vegetable, almost as essential to stuffing as sage itself, I came close to a celery-induced panic attack. I found myself wondering, “What would Jesus do?” What would the son of God himself (assuming he were a turkey-stuffing kind of carpenter) use in his stuffing, were celery not available? If he turned water into wine, could he turn carrots into celery? Could we?
However, it was Sara herself who performed a miracle in the end, finally finding a celery-looking substance in a store near her office. Catastrophe averted. We were that much closer to stuffing the bird we hoped to roast — at a temperature that was not yet determined.
Then, the day before Thanksgiving Sara sent me to the super market for chicken broth.
Actually, Giant carried the item in both the Swanson and Campbell’s varieties — the Campbell’s canned with MSG, the Swanson’s, in a carton and without. But being a health-conscious, not-wanting-to-consume-excessive-amounts-of-sodium American, I selected the latter. In fact, I tried to check out with three cartons of the stuff, since Thanksgiving dinner calls for broth in both the gravy and as a moistening agent in any celery-rich stuffing.
There was one hitch, however. Though the store stocked the Swanson’s (over-stocked it, in fact) — they wouldn’t sell it to me. And, if sheer quantity were any indication, wouldn’t sell to anybody, for that matter. They couldn’t decide on a price. So, when, after thirty minutes of trying to determine one, no member of the sales or management staff could still settle on an amount to make me pay, I suggested they charge me anything.
“Over-charge me,” the comfortable-and-coddled-in-me offered — a concept they seemed not to grasp.
But undeterred and unwilling to waste any more of my time-is-money American minutes, I gave up, bought the cans of Campbell’s, and headed home, risking ill-health in the coming days.
As it turned out, the MSG didn’t matter in the end.
Celery, perhaps, the most frivolous of vegetables, didn’t make or break our stuffing. The turkey roasted perfectly, even without a thermostat. The pies baked beautifully, or, at least, beautifully enough. Our dinner was delicious.
Still, the lovely meal we ultimately served our 24 expat friends also ate at me.
And now three years later I continue to ponder the ethical implications of hosting a feast for folks with plenty to eat in a country where children remain hungry, where they are sent to bed without a drop of dinner and wake in the morning with no substantial breakfast either.
Frankly, I have yet to resolve this — the fact that famine and feasting both exist in the same world at the same time, sometimes within mere meters of one another.
I don’t mean to imply that Americans should step away from their own plates this Thanksgiving. That helps no one. But, perhaps, it’s important that I step up to the plate in other ways.
I come from a country with an obesity epidemic but lived in one plagued with not enough food and a population too poor to feed itself. This was a painful irony.
It still is.
I still struggle with guilt about that dinner.
I still ask myself if Thanksgiving in America could mean more meals for Haiti, more aid for other hungry places on our planet.
You see, trying to model our Thanksgiving feast in Haiti on the one any American Grandma, back home, might have catered, taught me to alter my expectations when we came to Ecuador. Clearly, in Port-au-Prince, I faced multiple obstacles to meal preparation that would have been so much simpler in a place like Pittsburgh or Baltimore. And though these complications seemed slap-stick ridiculous at first, I ultimately realized the morally complicated mess in which I found myself, attempting to host a feast of any sort in the poorest and, arguably, most hungry country in the western hemisphere.
I wonder what Thanksgiving in Ecuador will bring, since we won’t be cooking this year but celebrating at a restaurant with other American friends.
I wonder how next Thanksgiving I can make a difference here, as well.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I thank each of you for reading and commenting over the past year. It’s an honor to call you my friends. Hugs from both Sara and me!