My first Thanksgiving away from home was my freshman year in college. Being so far from home, it just wasn’t worth it to pay $500 to get back to Idaho for only a few days. My family is very close and we consider the holiday’s important family time, so I was a little sad to miss it. Fortunately, I was close with my roommate and she invited me home.
While her family was very welcoming, they were also very different from my own, so the holiday just didn’t quite feel the same. After spending a couple Thanksgivings with her family, I received an invite from Angela, another friend of mine. Her family is from Belfast and is hysterical, loud and tons of fun. In a nutshell, they reminded me exactly of my own family, so I was thrilled to spend the holidays with them.
#3. New York, USA
My last Thanksgiving in New York was also my favorite with Angela’s family. It was the first year her mom decided to let the kids cook. Everyone was excited and a little nervous. I went over early to help in the kitchen, which was filled with amazing food smells and laughter. Everything was going perfectly, until Angela went to take the turkey out of the oven.
There must have been a crack in the glass pan, because when Angela lifted it out of the oven, the change in temperature caused the pan to explode, sending glass everywhere. The turkey fell, fortunately landing on the still open oven door as everyone stood in stunned silence.
As her mom pulled up to the front of the house, everyone started scrambling. Step 1: Send someone outside to stall. Step 2: Pick up the turkey, make sure it’s glass free and put it on a serving platter. Step 3: Sweep the kitchen floor and dispose of the glass.
Angela’s mom entered the house as everyone stood, slightly panting, around the kitchen table. We had a nice meal as always, until her mom got up and went into the kitchen. Halfway there, she stopped, bent over, and picked something up. “There’s glass on the floor,” she announced to the entire room.
There’s dead silence as we all look around the table. Finally, someone speaks up, “Huh, I wonder where that came from!”
#2. Madrid, Spain
It can be very hard when you’re oversees to pull off a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Fortunately, in Madrid, there’s a fantastic place called The American Store that carries everything you could need. Not only do they have American items that are impossible to find in regular grocery stores in Spain, but around the holidays they carry all the special items you would need for traditional meals such as boxed stuffing, cans of pumpkin, and various spices.
My roommate, Isa, and I decided to host Thanksgiving with all of our friends. We lived in a small 2 bedroom apartment in Plaza del Callao that was about 450 square feet. We had 2 small bedrooms and 1 larger multi-functional room that was our kitchen, dining room, living room and guest room all in one.
We decided to invite all of our friends that we’d met in the few months we’d been in country. This included Americans, Spanish, English and Irish. We opted for a potluck style and assigned items accordingly. The Americans would bring the traditional Thanksgiving items, the Spanish and English would bring something from their home country and the Irish were in charge of booze.
The day arrived and I was cooking chicken breasts for 20+ people. (No, I didn’t buy a turkey. I have actually never cooked a huge turkey myself and have no desire as it’s way too time consuming. In my book, bird is bird.) There was standing room only in our apartment and that was with taking advantage of the walkway outside that only our unit used to enter the building.
As my first Thanksgiving oversees, my favorite part was watching people’s reactions to the food. We started out with appetizers-just a little something to munch on while everything was finishing cooking. Then came the main course. We already had so much food out that it barely fit on the table. The Americans were all ecstatic, but no one else could believe how much food we had. After we finished the meal and everyone had stood around chatting for a bit, we started putting out the desserts and I thought the non-Americans’ eyes were going to pop out of their heads. “There’s more???” they all asked.
It was fun to explain and laugh about a holiday that is really all about eating. But it was also highly entertaining when it came to clean up time and I offered everyone leftovers. Only the Americans left with food. Hmmm…
The next Monday, Nicky, who’s from England, informed me how odd she thought it was that I was offering everyone food to take home. Apparently, in some countries, you don’t load people up with plate of leftovers as they leave your house after a party, even when it had been potluck style and they all contributed. It was a great cultural learning experience as I’ve actually come across this several other times since then.
#1. Antsirabe, Madagascar
My absolute favorite Thanksgiving away from home was when I was serving in the Peace Corps in Madagascar. In the Peace Corps you can be placed in the same town as other volunteers or hundreds of miles away. The people closest to you are the ones that you usually meet up with once a month to get to a big enough town that you can do your banking. I had three other volunteers that I met up with monthly: Lorna, Phil and Shelby.
Shelby had extended her service a third year and actually moved to Antsirabe, which is the 3rd largest city in the country. We were planning a Thanksgiving dinner for the four of us when she learned that Operation Smile would be in town that week. While not all of the employees were American, some were, and we decided as a group to invite them to dinner. We now had to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in a developing country for 15-20 people. No problem, right?
We divvied up the responsibilities. Since buying, killing, cleaning and cooking chickens from scratch is a lot of work; we hired a local cook to take care of the meat. Potatoes were easy as we could do those on the stove. Stuffing and the green bean casserole were a bit more challenging but Shelby and Lorna took over those items. I was responsible for dessert and cranberry sauce.
The first problem I encountered was that there were no cranberries in Madagascar. Fortunately, at my request, my mom sent me some dried cranberries. She also sent a pumpkin pie spice mixture. Second problem, pumpkins were extremely scarce. I couldn’t find one anywhere nor could I find anyone in town that knew where to get one. Right about the time that I was ready to give up on pumpkin altogether, one of my fellow teachers was going to Tana, the capital, and told me he’d look for one. I explained that I only needed something small and I would take (and pay) for whatever he could find, if he had time to look. A few days later, Lanto returned with a pumpkin so big I could have carved it for Halloween.
A couple days before Thanksgiving I spent an entire morning, cutting, peeling, cleaning and cooking the enormous pumpkin. I had so much that there was no way that I could use all of it, so I shared some with my neighbors who were very excited to be getting free food. Since I had to clean the pumpkin anyway, I decided to clean off and cook the pumpkin seeds so we’d have them for a Thanksgiving snack. I made two desserts with the pumpkin including pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.
I then found a way to make cranberry sauce with dried cranberries by reconstituting them over the stove in orange juice. I also added a bit of the orange peel and some of my leftover spices from my mom. To this day, it’s still the best cranberry sauce I’ve ever had.
On the day of, I loaded up my goodies and made my way to Antsirabe. When I arrived and showed everyone the food I’d brought and explained how I’d made it (they couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten a pumpkin or cranberries in country), Phil promptly decided that I was MacGyver in the kitchen and that I could make a dessert from a toothpick, which is also one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given about my cooking skills.
Our chicken was delivered on time and Shelby and Lorna outside themselves by making a green bean casserole and stuffing in a Peace Corps oven. The Operation Smile gang showed up and I think we ended up having feeding about 18 people in total. Since we hadn’t asked them to bring any food, they brought beverages. It was a great meal and a fantastic day. It also gave the confidence that I could cook just about anything, even while in Madagascar.
This year I’m grateful for all the amazing experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have and for my incredible family that loves and supports me no matter how far from home I travel.