Every expat has a desperate food story.
On the one hand, expats are a flexible bunch when it comes to food. We are arguably the most adaptable people on the planet in this regard. We’ve all learned to substitute for ingredients we cannot get, like ricotta (scalded milk + vinegar and salt, let curdle) or fish sauce (soy sauce + broth). In addition, most of us have simply gotten used to diets that don’t include a lot of things that might be common back home. So, we’re pretty chill when it comes to food items we don’t have access to.
On the other hand, all of us have that One Thing. A food item so special and wonderful that we are willing to go to great lengths to obtain it. We are willing to pay insanely high prices for it when we come across it at the import store. We are willing to cart it across continents and oceans in our carry-on baggage. We are willing to pay exorbitant duty fees when our loved ones ship it to us. You get the picture.
If you’re around U.S. American expats in November, you will invariably hear great-lengths stories centering around our beloved Thanksgiving main course: turkey.
People have done crazy things and paid crazy prices to get a real, live turkey.
No, wait, make that a real, dead turkey. Preferably plucked, injected full of brine, and frozen. (There’s a different story about a live turkey my friends were gifted one Thanksgiving morning by some well-meaning Chinese friends who had heard that’s what Americans would want to eat that day.)
My family is no exception to the turkey madness that overtakes Americans in the fall. We gladly eat Beijing roast duck for Christmas and pork curry for Easter, but there’s something incredibly satisfying about getting to eat turkey for Thanksgiving.
For our second Thanksgiving in China, we were invited to celebrate at the home of some fellow Americans. Laura, the hostess, would roast the turkey. She had to special order it from the import store several weeks in advance, and arrange pick-up. The rest of us guests planned to pitch in to help cover the eyebrow-raising cost.
Preparations were under way that fateful Thanksgiving morning when Laura called me suddenly.
“Our power’s out,” she explained. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to be coming back on anytime soon.” She paused, then told me the really bad news. “The turkey’s only half done.”
In true, flexible, creative expat fashion, Laura quickly proposed a Plan B. The plan required the turkey to do a bit of unconventional travel. Laura would take the half-roasted beast to our house to finish cooking it there. And she would bring the turkey by taxi.
Laura did some magical engineering with the roasting pan, a good amount of aluminum foil, and several towels to make a carrying case for the bird, still dripping juices and quite hot from its too-short time in her oven. She hailed a taxi which brought her to our building, then lugged the thing up to our apartment. It was a quick exchange, just long enough for her to ensure the turkey actually fit in our tiny oven, then off she raced to finish getting everything else ready for the upcoming feast.
Thankfully, our electricity stayed on, and a couple of hours later, it was time for the turkey’s second and final taxi trip. In we got with our own towel-foil-pan-turkey load, the whole contraption steaming and filling the cab with its wondrous scent. (I’m sure those two drivers are still talking about the bizarre things foreigners bring into cabs.)
Taxi is not the only way we’ve transported turkey. Another year, we were planning to spend Thanksgiving out of the city, in a smaller town where some American friends lived. There was quite a bit of plotting and planning—we could only procure the frozen turkey in the city, but we needed to get it out to the town by train. Should I thaw it the night before, transport it thawed (but somehow cold enough to pass health code for a few hours) and then roast it at their house? That wouldn’t work unless we wanted to be eating at midnight. Should we come out the night before with it still frozen?
We finally decided on a solution: I would roast the turkey in the city, then bring it fully-cooked on the train. For a good long Martha Stewart moment, I considered trying to bring the turkey in its beautiful whole form, thinking of the taxi ride a similar bird had had a couple years before. In the end, practicality won out over prettiness. We carved it up, and transported the pieces in a lidded container. Not nearly as dramatic or delicious-smelling as a fresh, hot, whole bird, but still memorable.
This year, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving with our colleagues in a big city where the electricity is reliable. So, it looks like we will enjoy our turkey this time without any adventure. But, then again, you never know. Maybe I’ll end up with yet another Tale of Turkey Transportation.