Turkey Day, China-style
Sorry this is so overdue y’all. Instead of going back and fixing, I left it as originally written so there’s a bit of temporal dislocation. Hopefully no one gets too disoriented.
As I have been teaching my students all week, most Americans celebrate the Day of Giving Thanks with feasts, family, friends and (of course) football.
However, on this continent we do things a little differently.
For starters, Thanksgiving is (obviously) not a recognized holiday, and most Chinese people only vaguely know that it exists. So no four-day weekend over here (which is probably a good thing, as they would make us do make-up classes for the next two Saturdays anyway; can’t have an actual day off ever). No, we got lucky though because it just so happens that this years’ Sports Days happened to fall right on Thursday and Friday this week, which means we had no class, and possibly one of the most hilarious events I have ever witnessed happening on the track, field, and courts just outside my door.
But that’s another post. This is the Thanksgiving post, in which I tell you about how all these little Western expat pilgrims cobbled together a (slightly bizarre) Thanksgiving Feast on the far shores of China, using microwaves, hot plates, toaster ovens, and whatever ingredients we could scrounge up in our friendly neighborhood Chinese grocery stores.
Okay, that is somewhat of an exaggeration. We do have international groceries here. They are expensive, and often not very convenient to get to, but they do exist for times when a person absolutely must have Italian herbs and Bisquick.
We got off to a surprisingly organized start, with a sign-up sheet sent via e-mail list from our fearless leaders, which predicted starvation and doom for anyone who didn’t contribute to the meal. The sign-up sheet began filling out nicely, with folks offering to do mashed potatoes, stuffings, green beans of various preparations– all the requisite Thanksgiving meal foods, along with the folks who volunteered paper plates and bottles of cola. Then folk started getting creative. Chili was added to the list; someone volunteered risotto. Suddenly we had a curry happening, and promises of a Snicker’s-bar Divinity salad. This began to happen as people looked around their supermarkets and looked around their kitchens and realized that it was just not going to be possible to bake a casserole, and also brussells sprouts do not exist in Southern China. A week out, and suddenly it was the smorgasboard of Odd Foreign Food– and it all sounded delicious.
As previously mentioned, we had nominal work days Thursday and Friday– the students were competing in their sports activities, but the teachers were all required to be there anyway. So on Thanksgiving day proper, my evening consisted of scrounged-up leftovers (seared chicken in marinara sauce over a baked potato, surprisingly delicious) and a whole lot of old episodes of Star Trek on Youtube.
So fast-forward to Saturday, when our big CTLC party would be happening. I had been asked (manhandled, really) to do stuffing for the day, so I got myself together at about 8am and started frying up bits of bacon and mirepoix. The cooking instruments found in my kitchen are as follows: a hot plate whose settings are OFF and CHARRED with not much in between, a toaster oven the size of a postage stamp, a smallish soup pot and a non-stick frying pan, and aluminium foil. Also a microwave, but I forwent it in favor of actually cooking things. Basically I spent roughly half an hour actually making the stuffing in my frying pan, and then it took me almost 3 hours to bake it off in small batches on aluminium foil in my toaster oven. By the time I finished baking the last batch, I didn’t even really want to see how cold the initial batch had become. Which was okay, because then my day involved a 2-hour trek via public transit to the school where we were holding the party anyway, so the expectation was that all the food would be cold on arrival as it were.
Turns out the smorgasboard was even stranger upon actually beholding it than it had sounded via e-mail. Folks were bringing mashed potatoes in rice cookers, an assortment of Chinese breads, not a few styrofoam containers of chao mian (aka chow mein) and jiaozi dumplings, the aforementioned Snickers divinity thing which turned out to be, essentially, a Snickers bar and cut-up orange segments in what seemed to be Cool Whip, though where they would have gotten a hold of that I have no idea– and about a dozen roast chickens. Let’s talk about the chickens for a minute: apparently there is one single farm near Shanghai which handles the turkey market for foreigners around the holidays. Evidently turkey is not a meat that is consumed by most Chinese people. At all. So this one farm in Shanghai gets business from all the waiguos at Thanksgiving– talk about a niche market.
However, this year, the turkeys were “broken.”
I don’t actually know what this means. (None of us do.) Our national coordinator was on the phone with this farm about a month in advance of Thanksgiving, getting our order all placed and ready. About 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, she called them to check in, and after a fairly long and involved conversation with the representative, all she could get out of it was that the turkeys were in some way “broken” (huai le) and that there would be no gobblers for us at our Thanksgiving feast. I suppose we could have looked into further, but being the resilient expats we are, instead we had whole-roasted chickens which sort of tasted like turkey anyway; I mean, at some point, who cares? It was an odd enough meal as it was. Side note– when I say “whole-roasted” I do in fact mean whole-roasted; I was given a bag of chicken at the end of the night because the girls who had brought it were staying with me, and inside the bag we found a chicken head and a couple of chicken feet, as well as an entire chicken carcass which had been fairly well-stripped of its meat. It’s too bad my soup pot is so small, because I could have made so much chicken stock. Also, carrying a bag full of chicken carcass home at rush hour on the bus was maybe not the strangest thing I have ever done, but it’s close up there.
So that, ladies and gentlemen, is Turkey Day, China-style. The boys went out to play some football afterward just to have a little taste of tradition, and we did actually manage to have some apple and pumpkin pies provided by a CTLCer who has invested in an oven (they disappeared VERY quickly); and the Thanksgiving food-coma definitely struck us all with a vengeance. In all, a strange but successful day.
Again my apologies for being SO VERY BEHIND. Next up, Christmas in China– then I’m going to be taking a break again whilst I go travelling through SE Asia for a month; but my intention is to get back on the horse in full force for the spring term. Back soon!