This morning I woke up uncommonly late, belly still fully distended, happy and victorious that I had won the battle with “the Big Bird”. Last night I hosted my very first Vagabond Thanksgiving and after two days of preparation, I believe I can call it a success. What makes a Thanksgiving so vagabond you ask? We’ll get to that. But first, the bird…..
Reminder, I am on a tiny island in the Caribbean and besides some of the resorts, they are unfamiliar with some of our more gluttonous traditions. A ray of light, behold! The local supermarket has frozen turkeys, yes! We goin do this hoo boy! Having no vehicle, I buy the heaviest items and vow to return for the others. The sign says “Frozen turkeys, 10-15 lbs. $25”. I’m incredulous. That ain’t no 10 lbs. bird sir, but I’ll take it. As for the pumpkin, as my uncle might say “We don’t need no stinkin cans”. My roots are the tiniest bit redneck you see, and if the woman of the house can’t cook a rib-stickin traditional thanksgiving dinner, well that’s just unacceptable. I doubt canned pumpkin has made it to the Caribbean yet anyway so I pick up a giant gourd labeled “pumpkin” (in what world? Pumkpins are kinda round and orange. This one looks like someone sat on one end of it while it was growing and it’s got green stripes. Whatever. I make do). Balanced precariously on either handle bar and threatening to rip the handles of the plastic bags at any moment, I attempt to hop on for a ride. The bike immediately swerves into the road and my giant, pendulous bags swing wildly about like an old fat French woman tripping on a topless beach. Bad idea. Back to walking and hope no one I know saw that.
Back home the internet is working again, oh happy days! This is the one and only advantage of our frequent blackouts. It forces my neighbor to completely reset her internet, meaning I can go back to “borrowing” bandwidth before it inevitably drops out again some three, four days later. I type in “Thanksgiving recipes” and the first ones to pop up are by some English twat, Jamie Oliver. No offense to Mr. Oliver, I’ve used some of his recipes in the past, but this is the most ‘Merican of holidays and you can keep your dried figs, guava paste, and wine reductions outta my cranberry sauce. I will indulge one shake of the balsamic vinegar bottle, but other than that, it’s cranberries, water and sugar. Ok, I use brown sugar but still! As for the vinegar, try it. Believe me. Shockingly good.
I make my list of ingredients and check it twice. This year we’re going for stuffing (made with fresh baguettes, you can keep your box), glazed sweet potatoes (my favorite), big ass turkey brined in spices, apple juice, and orange rind, cranberry sauce bien sur, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin pie. My lovely guests (none of whom are ‘Merican or have ever celebrated Thanksgiving) are bringing green beans with thyme and almonds, baked sugar apples, and Belizean rice and beans (this is an international feast after all). Like any good mother, I plunk my turkey the size of a toddler into a cool bath in the kitchen sink, tell it to be good and mummy will be back, and promptly abandon it for a few hours while I go shopping.
I realize I will have to go to both big grocery stores and multiple small Chinese outlets to have any hope of getting everything on this list and even then, I have to make concessions. As I stand in front of a fancy refrigerator in the dairy section of the nicest store this island has to offer, I shake my head in anguish. There are literally over a dozen types of margarine filling this case and not one echt boter (real butter). I grab several of the one making the best impersonation of a stick of butter and proceed to check out. I give a silent “I’m so sorry” to all the chefs that have tried to impart their knowledge on me. They’ve been to the outer islands, they’ll understand.
That night I spend hours prepping while sipping rum drinks and singing along to Adele at the top of my lungs. Mummy always cooks with alcohol; sometimes she even puts it in the food. My roommate is with her man and my obnoxious neighbors torment me with the sounds of freestyle drag racing every afternoon so I figure they can bloody well put up with my singing. I am uncommonly cheerful that night and it has nothing to do with the cheap rum. You see, we don’t really do holidays in my family. Sure every few years someone gets the brilliant idea that this time will be different. I’m thinking the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results but whatever. We’re an odd lot; we put the fun in dysfunctional really. In small groups, we’re a helluva good time. Put too many of us together in one house with a hot kitchen for an entire day and don’t be surprised if things get interesting. If the day doesn’t end with at least one person storming out the front door in a hissy fit, another breaking something made of glass, and a third bemoaning in exaggerated self-pity “Why do I bother? Who’s got the vodka?”, then it’s really not the holidays. We have agreed on a peaceful but sheepish truce in the last ten years. Family gatherings are limited to no more than three people (extended family don’t count), going out for Italian is just fine, and all major holidays are allowed to pass with little more than a few phone calls.
But like I said, this is Vagabond Thanksgiving, and since I left home some eleven years ago, this holiday has actually started to take on meaning. The first few years I spent with my roommates’ family and was in awe of the number of pies and cookies along with the full dinner their mom managed to make effortlessly every holiday. Bless them, they took me as the fourth daughter, even gave me my own family nicknames, and I still count them as some of my favorite people in the world. The years after that were when the real traveling started and every year practically I found myself in some new far flung location with a motley crew made up of other similar travelers, far from home during the holidays, and woefully unaware of this thing we Americans call, Turkey Day. By group effort and eking out menus that were just as likely to include South African brau and Philipino loempias as cornbread stuffing, we managed to make the happiest and most delightful of feasts. Believe me, this wasn’t the first gourd by the misnomer “pumpkin” I’d dealt with. I found that no matter where I was in the world and no matter how long or how little I’d known the present company, the feeling of goodwill and camaraderie and yes, thankfulness, that took over that day was without exception. Being thankful for what you have, no matter how much or how little, makes near strangers into friends. This year having lots of time on my hands (being newly unemployed, oh man how thankful AM I?!?! fml) and living in a house with another American chick who was exhausted from a rough couple weeks at work, I saw the perfect opportunity to bring Vagabond Thanksgiving to this little rock and the awesome friends I’d made here. Besides all the happy squishy feelings associated with Vagabond Thanksgiving, you might have picked up on the other theme. Wherever you are, you sho ain’t in Kansas no mo so don’t forget the mosquito repellent.
The day-of I woke up bright and early and went for a big bike ride around the Southern tip of the island to clear my head and rev my metabolism for the beating I knew my digestive system would be taking later. Back home and freshened up, I kept my recipes and my facebook open, enjoying the giddiness and commiseration of my chef and cook friends around the Western hemisphere as we all collectively sweated it out to produce similar feast miracles in our respective corners. Thank god I’m friends with chefs. I put out the desperate call. “Guys I got dried cranberries mixed in a bag with raisins and cranberry juice. How the f*&^ do I make cranberry sauce outta this?” My chef friends stepped in. Boil the dried ones in sugar and water and they’ll plump up and gel eventually, don’t worry. I had my sister (a professional and excellent chef) on-call halfway around the world in France.
“Ok, I’ve just discovered another bag of innards in this turkey. I don’t know which one is the giblets. This is the neck I know; I think this is the liver; I have no idea what the round thing is. How do I make gravy?” I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I’m revealing my true inner dork here, but I had that scene from “The Lord of the Rings” looping in my head where Gollum asks Sam in a completely befuddled way “Taters? What’s….. taters…. Precious?” Except this time I was the befuddled one staring at a bag of squishy red innards going “Giblets….. which ones are the giblets, Precious???”
The redneck in me had been inspired at the last minute by the discovery of yet another bag of innards in the bird. If I totally effed up this turkey (and my mantra had been for days, “Guys if I burn the turkey, I don’t want any lip from you and we’re going for Colombian food around the corner. Got that?”), the only thing that might save it would be to drown it in gravy so I thought, oh yeah baby, let’s go all the way. We’re making giblet gravy, woooohhoooo!!!
My older and wiser sister tried to steer me away. “Don’t do it! Far too organ-y pour moi. Just feed’em to the raccoons or neighborhood cat or something”, she messaged. “I’m gonna go for it I think. But if it’s totally gross I’ll feed it to the sweet but disgusting dog that’s always wandering around the neighborhood. It’ll make his week” I replied. I’ve just remembered I kept some innards to the side for that poor skinny clumsy puppy. Hopefully he comes around soon. I sure feel bad for him. He’s mangy, desperate for love, smelly, and his eyes are usually kinda goopy. I indulge him in two-finger pats and snacks whenever I can. For the second time this year I’ve found myself saying to a mutt, if I had a home babydoll, I would take care of you and share it with you, but I don’t.
Back to the bird. I realize I don’t know the actual size of this thing (which determines cooking time), the kitchen scale only goes to 10 lbs. (whaddya think we’re cooking here, pigeon?), ALL my measuring utensils are in metric (yeah failed that course), I have no meat thermometer, no oven thermometer, no baster, I’m low on propane, and my tiny gas oven has the habit of turning itself off every half hour or so like “Surprise! Your dinner’s still raw!” No wuckin furries mate. There’s a strange little red pushpin in the side of the turkey that’s supposed to pop out when it’s done and I’ve got one large plastic spoon ladle-y thing. We are all good. Crap, no can opener for the condensed milk.
I violate the turkey but shoving handfuls of stuffing up its arse. I’ve got no twine either. Brilliantly the turkey manufacturer (and who could call it anything but? I know this is no free range, Farmer Ezekiel, non-GMO bird I’m dealing with, this is frankenbird) has cut a little loop in the bird’s arse so no need to tie up its legs with twine (noooo, that’s not nearly clever enough). I can literally keep the stuffing from falling out by shoving this bird’s legs through its own arse. Like I said, B-R-I-L-L-I-A-N-T.
There’s a small Chinese market next door to me and they are awesome. I run in and frantically search the dusty shelves. Can opener can opener…. gotta have one. Yes I know how to open a can with a knife or machete from my days in the outer islands, but I have one workable knife and I’m not risking the tip being knocked off. I make the can-opening motion to the lady at the checkout and repeat the words “can opener?” This gets me nothing but a regretful look. I quickly grab a can of tuna and repeat the pantomime. Who needs common language? Lo, a light bulb! She snatches a can opener from behind her and I slap my debit card on the counter with a genuine and relieved “Thank you! Savings please”. And the lady does something which makes me love her even more. She pauses and repeats after me “savings”. First one way, then another pronunciation, rolling the “v” around in her mouth like a new hard candy. We’ve been doing this a lot lately and she’s nearly got the word down. I think it’s amazing. The nice Chinese family that owns this store speak Chinese, local dialect, and English far better than I will ever speak Chinese. They probably speak Spanish and Dutch as well, but I’m just too dense to realize it. I’ve been in little Chinese markets all over the world (never in China mind you) and I’m always amazed at how adaptive, hardy, and hard-working these families are. Sure their products are crap and I’m sure this can opener won’t last a month, but the prices are good, hours are late, and the people friendly. I will never begrudge the Chinese for being excellent merchants. They’ve been for centuries; it’s just in their blood.
Back to the beast bird! I turn the oven back on (bastard!) and continue with my work. So far so good. Four more hours until the guests arrive. I’ve dragged out the nasty, rusty electric burners that shock me every time I touch a metal lid in hopes of making the propane last for the bird. Gas off again, curses! Re-light. Sweet potatoes are perfect. Stuffing pretty darn delicious. Time to clean up the house and myself.
Eventually my friends arrive and all the dishes miraculously finished cooking at the appropriate minute. Some friends had to cancel or couldn’t make it, and they were definitely missed. Some peeps got invited last minute and they were warmly welcomed (they had manners and knew unannounced guests must bring wine) and room was made for them at our ever cozier table. Everyone pitched in to serve and set. My roommate and I smirked at one another as we handed off carving duties to a Dutch guy friend. We might be self-sufficient, educated women of the world, but we know when sexism works to our advantage and as neither of us relished the idea of fighting that bird into pieces, we gave the big knife to the big man because although we might be trusted to cook the whole darn dinner, we certainly couldn’t be trusted to carve the turkey. The Dutchie did a fine job, though my roomie did have to give him a little carving etiquette lesson first.
One of the finest moments of Vagabond Thanksgiving is just before we tuck in and go around the table and say what we’re thankful for. I was really thankful for the friends I’ve made here and sad to leave them and my new home so soon. I thought coming down here would be the real challenge, having to learn a new job, find a home, adapt to a new culture and language, and do it all on my own this time around, but really, that was the easy part. I ended up rooming with the first person I called and she turned out to be awesome. My colleagues turned out to be the best bunch of knuckleheads any girl could ever ask for. We went round the table and the moment of appreciation was lost on no one.
Course after course piled on the plates and our Latino friends’ eyes went wide with amazement. So much food these Americans make, por que tanto? We spent a great part of the later evening on our beautiful terrace lit with Christmas lights, eating sugar apples and pumpkin pie, fondly ripping and ribbing one another for the social faux-pas we may or may not have committed some weekend past. “I did what?” “I don’t remember that. Where was I?” “Meh, it was three o’clock in the morning. Nuff said!” “If you don’t know I’m not telling you!” “Haha, even old ladies need love!!” We realized one friend was even cooler than we knew and vowed to drag her out with us more. Another friend I knew was missing his family something bad, and I hoped he was realizing he’d been lucky enough to land in a group of crazy knuckleheads that would look out for him and be his home away from home. We talked about life and love and friendship and I was reminded for all the money and luxury in the world, I would not give this up. I know so many people with so much and they are so unhappy. But these fellow vagabonds I’ve chosen to spend my twenties with, we share what we have, and we find more joy in a shared bottle of cheap rum than I think most people find in all the mega yachts I’ve ever worked on. Again I missed the ones who couldn’t make it and wished they could be a part of this, if only to have the chance to defend their honors against the merciless teasing! Fair enough, long after I’m outta here, I’m sure they’ll be taking the piss outta me and missing the entertainment I inevitably inject into all our raucous outings. I love moments like this and they made spending two days in a kitchen and even the disappointment of a three-month failed venture worth it. I can’t say why the universe sent me down here and then snatched me back out just as I was finding my rhythm, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the people celebrating around the table with me last night.
The plane taking me away from here is set to lift off in 7 days, 19 hours, and 55 minutes from now. I suspect this will be one of the harder leave-takings of the dozens I’ve had to do. I was ready to put down some roots here and it’s the friends I found that convinced me of this. But maybe this job wasn’t the one that was really going to let me stretch my wings and maybe around the corner I will finally find my place in the world. I know where I’m landing, but don’t know where I’m going, and for the first time, I’m a little scared. Whatever happens, I will definitely be leaving a little piece of my heart here on this rock. Luckily, it’s big enough to risk leaving yet another piece behind.