December 06, 2002
As a thank you to my friend Jacqueline and her family, for putting me up when I first arrived in Melbourne, I offered to cook a "traditional" Thanksgiving dinner. Jacqueline thought this was a great idea and soon we had a group of 8 (Jac, mom, dad, sister, sister's boyfriend, Jac's friend Jo, and mutual friend Adrian) excited for the event.
In my opinion, most Americans look at Thanksgiving dinner as the quintessential "banquet" meal - something for a home cook to aspire to. But, since I was not a novice in this field (I've actually done it all myself more than once) I didn't think it would be too difficult. Silly me. The first "snag" came when Jacqueline informed me that most of her family was vegetarian. Right. "No worries," I said, even though in my minds eye I was picturing the Turkey centerpiece and realizing that the one thing I know how to do well is a Turkey. "I'll work something out." Flash forward to me surfing www.epicurious.com to find some vegetarian recipes. To their credit, they had many options. But it was then I realized that most all of the traditional Thanksgiving foods are those usually found during the "harvest" or fall season. It was late spring in Melbourne. Strawberries were much more plentiful than cranberries, and I hadn't seen a pumpkin anywhere. Still I was upbeat - no worries.
The next "snag" came when we went grocery shopping for the event, my recipe print outs from epicurious in hand. "How much cream do you need?" said Jac. "Two cups," I said. "How much is two cups?" Jac said. Right. Australians follow the metric system, Americans do not. "No worries," I said, "I'll just estimate - how far off can I be?" Yeah, right. In my head I was beginning to panic, but my outer layer was still cool and composed. "What else do you need?" said Jac. "Canned pumpkin." "Hmm, I don't think we have that - but I can get you fresh pumpkin." Ok, that should work. Then she brought back something that looked remarkably like a butternut squash. "What is that?" I said? "A pumpkin," she said. Suddenly, the idea of cooking Thanksgiving dinner in a foreign country seemed rather unadvisable, if not downright stupid. Did I mention that with the exception of the sweet potato dish, I had never cooked any of the planned menu? Oh yeah.
Thanksgiving day arrived, bright and sunny, and I got straight to work cooking. Jacqueline and her mom were out, so I had the house to myself. The night before, we had found an exchange guide that would allow me to transcribe the recipes. Good thing - baking the stuffing at 375 degrees F in a Celsius oven doesn't exactly make for edible cuisine. Still, with the exchange calculator, I was not too worried. Until I saw how grossly I had miscalculated the ingredients. I either had twice what I needed or half as much as was necessary. I quickly pulled out my journal and wrote down the following: Thanksgiving Day, 2002, Melbourne Australia. "Next year, I will order Chinese take out on Thanksgiving day. Regardless of where I am on the planet."
Amazingly, however, everything worked out. The family arrived, the meal was eaten, compliments were thrown around. I was actually pretty impressed with how it all turned out. And, I didn't miss the Turkey as much as I thought I would. My favorite part of the evening came when the family started asking me questions about Thanksgiving, why it is celebrated, what it means - and, the best, are presents exchanged? I gave them a run down (Pilgrims, Indians, Hard Winter, Big Harvest, Joint Feast, sharing what you were thankful for, football, leftovers, etc.). Then, with regards to gift giving, I let them know it was only traditional to give gifts to the person who cooked. :)