This week as I’ve been agonizing over my covid-19 Thanksgiving plans, I’ve been reflecting on my ghosts of Thanksgiving past. I have such an enormous, close family that it can be easy for me to gloss through the surface of my holiday memories, recalling only the big joyful feast days where laughter, movies, and games vied with cracking nuts and singing around the piano with my mom and sisters, my dad abstaining because he believes you can sing in the key of “H.” These were the classic Americana Thanksgivings of my youth, where we might use the china my mom had accumulated piece by piece through a special promotion at the grocery story, or just pull out the paper plates because we had more guests than dishes.
I gave my children as many of these Thanksgivings as I could manage, but holidays wear many kinds of faces, and if I am to be honest I must steer clear of setting a Norman Rockwell snapshot as the gold standard, and therefore predispose myself to a long face when the unwanted pulls up a chair. In this time of covid, it might be best to approach the holidays as a new adventure, and decide ahead of time that we will enjoy it, no matter what it looks like. I’ve actually had a lot of practice at this.
Because we were out of sync with the rest of the population, Thanksgiving in China was generally a bit off-kilter. “Cranberries? We don’t know what is ‘cranberries?’” And turkey . . . have you ever seen a turkey in a wok? Neither have the Chinese people.
Our first Chinese Thanksgiving found us traveling in Shenzhen to tour factories, and when we’d finished our morning looking over printing capacity and acetate thickness, the owner steered us to a Brazilian restaurant where we had our first taste of western food in a month. I have no idea what I would think if I were suddenly air dropped into that same restaurant today, but that day, starving for any menu that did not offer chicken feet, we were pretty sure a batch of caterwauling angels had flown through and dropped a vat of manna still sparking with heavenly glory.
I should probably mention that at this point we didn’t know jack squat about how anything worked in China, and had been largely living off of odd pastryish sorts of things and Swiss Miss hot chocolate, because the package was in English. Hot chocolate was an easy choice because in China boiling hot water was always, always available. Cold water, on the other hand, was a bit of a unicorn, so much so that when we returned to the U.S. and started house hunting, a fridge with an icemaker was nearly as important as a working toilet.
That Thanksgiving the Brazilian restaurant led to tandem biking around a lake with an itty bitty Chinese woman and her boss the stick figure, where we couldn’t stop laughing, and the locals dubbed Porter, Harry Potter. Then we found ourselves at a crazy international Thanksgiving buffet at the Shenzhen Ritz Carlton, where evening gowns rubbed elbows with hiking boots, and Porter, age nine, fell in love with goose liver pâté—who knew. It was a strange and wonderful holiday, but as time passed, we became better and better versed in the arcane ways of noodle and dumpling, and set ourselves a challenge to create a more traditional Thanksgiving at home. I’d figured out how to turn pumpkins into pies, and found fresh cranberries on the internet. So, where do we find a turkey? A farm, of course.
Jiangsu Province didn’t exactly suffer from a glut of turkey farmers, but we had a car by then, and off we went, deep into the countryside in search of a man raising turkeys in his back garden. The further we got from Suzhou, the fewer and fewer road signs had English or pinyin, until we were finally faced with nothing but Chinese characters. We turned up the GPS, which sounded like an Australian woman, and hoped we were going the right direction.
At long last we arrived in a little village where the locals gathered around to stare at the funny-looking foreigners, until the farmer appeared to guide us to his turkeys. After a harrowing journey over a bridge that looked nervous to carry a bicycle, let alone a minivan, we arrived at the enclosure and carefully picked out two birds. The farmer then ducked in and snatched up two at random, packaged them up by cutting a hole in two burlap sacks, and sticking a gobbling turkey’s head through each one, before tying up the bottoms, and handing the two squirming bundles to my sons, Chase and Porter. He sent the boys to ride in the back of his cart with their live cargo, and before we were out of the yard, the birds had been named Henry and James, rather awkward since we were heading to the butcher.
The butcher shop turned out to be a no-frills three-sided cinderblock bunker with a water tap in the back, and a barrel out front for catching the blood. Snip, snip, and Henry expired in a little ruby rush. Chase and Porter were not amused.
Having met its demise, the bird was blanched in boiling water to loosen the feathers, and in a blink the body was plucked, cleaned out, and handed off in some semblance of what it might have looked like had it been wrapped in plastic at the grocery store. The weirdest part was the egg. The butcher handed it to me because Henry had categorically proven herself a Henrietta who hadn’t quite gotten around to laying her last omelet. I’ve often wondered why I accepted the egg. Maybe it was shock or a strange flash of adventure, but having taken it from the butcher’s hand, I guess I felt obligated to carry it home. However, when it came right down to it, it’s one thing to boil an egg from a carton, or even from a nest, but seeing it yanked straight from the innards of the bird rather smacked of the cesarean, and no one ever had the nerve to eat it.
Then it was James’s turn, and as she was being plucked, an elderly woman came up offering me a full bowl of blood. Apparently it belonged to me, freshly gushed from my birds, but I was already holding a cesarean egg so my hands were full. I refused. She was shocked. But I offered the bowl to her, and she soon busied herself loading several open, brimming bowls of blood onto her scooter, balanced precariously on the back rack and footboards. I hope she made it through the dirt roads okay, because one good bump and it would have looked like a double homicide.
With a dubious egg and two plucked birds in our cooler, we headed back to Suzhou with our precious traditional turkeys. The minute we hit the door, they were stuffed and put directly in the oven where they cooked in record time because they had never fully cooled from the blanching.
Chase and Porter said James was the best turkey they had ever tasted . . . and they’re no longer in therapy.
Happy Thanksgiving, whatever it looks like this year!