Saturday, November 29, 2008

An International Thanksgiving

Well, it's over. My first international Thanksgiving has come and gone, leaving me exhausted but pleased with how everything turned out in the end. Jeff and I celebrated this American holiday with 4 other Americans, 4 South Africans, 4 Nigerians, and 1 Indian. A truly international Thanksgiving!

During our first Thanksgiving away from our families, Jeff and I decided that we were going to host a more-or-less traditional American Thanksgiving potluck dinner for our life group. Everyone in our life group was invited, but several were traveling or attending office dinners instead, so there were supposed to be 10 of us total. Then we discovered that two expected arrivals were stuck in the U. S. a little longer than expected and wouldn't be able to join us after all, dropping the total to 8, with two of them being children. So what did I do once the guest list dropped to the point where I'd actually have matching forks for everyone (I have 12 china place settings but only 8 flatware settings, although we also have another set that Jeff used before we married)? I--through Jeff--invited four more people! Yes, it makes perfect sense to me, too. We invited our friend and neighbor, along with his daughter (his wife is traveling), and another couple that we met through the embassy, bringing the total to 12.

We decided to host the dinner the day after Thanksgiving, in deference to the fact that Thanksgiving is not an Egyptian or international holiday, and not all of our guests would be off work on Thursday. I've been thinking about and preparing mentally for the dinner for a few weeks now, but I started the real preparations on Wednesday. I went to this great handicraft shop called Markaz and bought two tablecloths: one for the table itself, and one smaller one that I could fold and turn into a runner for the buffet. Each one came with matching cloth napkins, so I ended up with 10 of those. I got home and pulled out the large tablecloth just to make sure it fit the table like I thought it would. Lo and behold, it was too small. I was sure the size I purchased should have worked, so I got out the tape measure and discovered that the package had been mislabeled; the tablecloth was a smaller size than I had purchased. I called the shop, expecting to be told to bring it back and exchange it for the larger size, but I had forgotten that I'm in Egypt now. The shopowner was incredibly apologetic, remembered exactly who I was and what I had purchased, asked for my address, and told me the "boy" would be there in 90 minutes or less with my tablecloth. Every shop here has a "boy," actually a grown man, who can deliver anything you want to buy. The "boy" is deployed at the drop of a hat if there's a problem that was the shop's fault. The customer must not be inconvenienced in any way! With the problem of the too-small tablecloth solved, I washed the tablecloths so they'd be ready for Friday. When the washer was done, I threw them in the dryer and went to bed.

On Thursday morning, I pulled the tablecloths out of the dryer and decided to check the fit again, since the saleslady had told me they would shrink when washed (they're 100% cotton). Lo and behold, the new larger tablecloth now fit the table just like the smaller one that I had sent back the previous day--it had shrunk a good foot in length! Now, this wasn't the shop's fault. They had told me it would shrink; I had underestimated just how much it would shrink. So I announced to my husband that we needed to buy another tablecloth, on top of all the other things I needed to do that day. We decided to look at a shop on Road 9 to see if there were any tablecloths there that would complement the runner for the buffet (it shrank too, but now it fits perfectly rather than being a little too big, so that was a good thing) rather than going all the way across Maadi back to Markaz to get a bigger one that was exactly the same. I had to go out to Road 9 anyway to pick up a donation for the bazaar and to drop off some complimentary tickets for a big donor.

So out we went to Road 9. We went to the home linen shop and found a tablecloth that matched the runner in color, but was a more formal material with a fancy design on it. It was the same size as the other one was originally, but we were promised that it wouldn't shrink, so we bought it. It came with 12 napkins, so now we have 22 cloth napkins, one large tablecloth that fits the table with the leaf in it, one smaller tablecloth that fits the table without the leaf in it, and one really small tablecloth that, when folded, works well as a runner for the buffet.

After that, we went to a shop where we picked up a gift certificate for the bazaar, then to another shop where I expected to just drop off the comp tickets and leave. But again, I forgot that I'm in Egypt now. You don't just run those quick little errands. The shopowner offers you a seat, which you must accept. Then you chat. And chat some more. The shopowner offers you tea, which you also should accept--although if you're a foreigner and you don't accept it, that's okay with the shopowners who are more world-wise, as this one was. This particular shopowner wanted to know how to cook a turkey. His wife wants to cook one for the upcoming eid, but Egyptian turkeys are dry, so he thinks he can get an American one either from a specialty shop or from a contact at the commissary (I don't want to know who that contact is, because it isn't allowed), but his wife doesn't know how to cook an American turkey, which is far larger than an Egyptian one. So I'm going to write down how you cook turkey--as soon as I figure it out--and give him the recipe. After a long discussion about turkey, Thanksgiving, and how the southern U. S. isn't the same as the big cities of the northeast and the western coast, Jeff and I left the shop.

On the way home, we had to stop at another shop to buy some more glasses. I had realized that the glasses we already had were a set of 10, and one of them broke years ago, so we only had 9 glasses. Twelve diners and 9 glasses is not a good combination, so we bought a new set of 12.

So we finally got home around 1:30 p.m. I made a quick lunch for Jeff and myself, then started on the cooking for Friday. I was making my mom's sweet potato casserole, a new cornbread dressing recipe I found on, crescent rolls, pecan pie, and pumpkin pie. The guests were bringing the rest--including the turkey. Both the sweet potatoes and the cornbread could be prepped the day before and just baked the day of, so that's what I was working on.

I started with the dressing. Before too long, I realized that I had forgotten to buy a key ingredient: buttermilk. I sent Jeff down to Metro market to see if they had any (the commissary was closed), and he reported back that they had nothing that looked remotely like buttermilk. So, in a panic, I called Pam. "Is there anyplace other than the commissary where I can get buttermilk?" A thoughtful pause . . . "No." My mental response: What?! But I need buttermilk! I can't wait until the commissary opens tomorrow, this stuff has to chill for 8 hours before you can bake it! There has to be buttermilk. Then Pam said "But you should look in the Women's Guild cookbook. There's a list of substitutions in the front." I grabbed the cookbook and started flipping pages--and there it was. To make something approximating buttermilk, use one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice, then add enough regular milk to make a cup. I thanked Pam profusely and then went on with my preparations, with Jeff helping by dicing five cups of vegetables for me. (I'm a slow chopper; dicing that much onion and celery would have taken more time than I had.) With a break for church, the dressing and sweet potatoes both were chilling in the refrigerator by about 10:45 p.m.

The timing was just right for a video conference with my mother-in-law, her husband, and their family. There's a Thanksgiving tradition that we started participating in two years ago, and we didn't want to miss it just because we're on a different continent. But I'll blog about that separately. After the video conference, it was finally time to go to bed.

On Friday morning, with Jeff's help, I cleaned the public areas of the apartment, then started baking the sweet potatoes, dressing, pie, and crescent rolls. After a phone call to my mother--"Mom, the topping for the sweet potatoes is soupy. Is that normal?"--everything was ready but the dressing. Our first guests arrived while it was still in the oven. It was the couple we met through the embassy, and let me tell you, they were lifesavers! They brought appetizers--complete with serving dishes, because as I was told, "I remember when I was young and just starting out. I had no serving pieces at all, so I loved it when people brought serving pieces for the food they brought." She was right--I loved it, because I have very few serving pieces. She also helped me determine when the dressing should come out of the oven, because it never did turn "golden brown." Apparently the oven rack was too high or some such.

After that, it was a steady stream of arrivals. I also got a surprise when one guest--whom I had not realized was married--showed up with a wife and two kids. Yes, that meant I didn't have enough plates or glasses, but I pulled out salad plates and juice glasses for the five kids in attendance, so no one was the wiser. I think everyone had a good time. The kids chased each other around the house, provoking concern from the mothers, but none from me. Kitten-proofing the house is remarkably like child-proofing the house! There was lots of conversation as we all sat wherever we wanted--the table only seats 8, even extended, so we were on the couch, the loveseat, a couple of arm chairs, the recliner, the office chair, and around the dining room table. All of the food was really good. The salad was tasty, the turkey was juicy and flavorful, the green bean casserole tasted way too good to be vegetables, the dressing was so good it surprised me, and Mom's sweet potatoes received raving reviews (the topping hardened as it cooled, just like Mom said it would). Lawrence had provided soft drinks and juices, exotic (to me) ones like guava--yum. The dessert that Vijay brought was delicious. The pecan pie was okay. The pumpkin pie never set, so none of the guests knew it even existed.

After most of the guests left, the final couple--the same ones who had arrived early--stayed behind. I tried to get them to leave the cleanup for me (they were guests, after all), but there was no way that was happening. So while the men were in the dining room chatting about embassy life--the old hand imparting wisdom to the new guy--we women were doing the dishes and chatting in the kitchen. In that case, the experienced cook and hostess was imparting wisdom to the one who's never entertained and who only recently started cooking at all--before that, it was delivery and frozen or boxed meals only.

After everyone had left, Jeff and I tried to coax the kittens out of the bedroom, where they had been confined during the festivities. Isis came out and did a little exploring of the living room even before our last guests left, but poor Cleo . . . when I came into the bedroom after everyone had left, she ran away from me and hid under the bed. She finally let me pet her, and even pick her up, but the second I stepped out of the bedroom, she panicked. She clawed to get down, then ran back into the bedroom. All the noise and people and unfamiliar smells from the living room had scared her. The bedroom was her safe zone. She eventually came out and realized that her home is safe again. She's currently grooming herself on her blanket on top of the media center, perfectly content with Isis asleep beside her.

So that was our first international Thanksgiving. It was an adventure--a bit stressful, but a lot of fun. I don't think I'll be ready to host another such event by Christmas, but we'll see about next year.

1 comment:

  1. So glad your first International Thanksgiving dinner was a success. Still waiting for your writing about the "video conference with my mother-in-law, her husband, and their family. There's a Thanksgiving tradition that we started participating in two years ago, and we didn't want to miss it just because we're on a different continent. But I'll blog about that separately." I am looking forward to hearing what the Winner of the first ever International Ornament Competition has to say!


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