This year, I decided to host Thanksgiving at my house in Buenos Aires. I know the concept behind Thanksgiving has noble intentions, but to me it’s nothing more than an excuse to get together with wonderful people and stuff your face until you’re on the edge of diabetes. In addition to eating delicious food with my friends/housemates, I also wanted the challenge of re-creating a North American holiday feast using South American ingredients. For example, can you even get pavo (turkey) and papas dulces (sweet potatoes) in Argentina?
Let the long story begin…
After doing a little research online, I find a delicatessen in Buenos Aires that sells pavos. I promptly invite 15 people to come celebrate Thanksgiving. I sketch out a skeletal menu of dishes including stuffing and mashed potatoes and ignore it for a week, unconcerned that I am preparing dinner in a few weeks for 15 people all by myself. I tell my landlord and friend Fernanda about my plans and she faints on my behalf.
This would an excellent time in the story to mention that I have never, ever cooked a turkey before. Beyond mashing the mashed potatoes, my culinary contributions to Thanksgiving have been minimal year to year. However, none of these facts alters my unwavering confidence that I can either learn how to do everything online beforehand and/or wing it. I watch a series of genius videos from the New York Times on turkey preparation and feel like Julia Child reincarnated.
About a week before Thanksgiving, I realize that I should probably acquire said turkey. One of my Argentine friends, Jorge, works at a café and offers to hook me up with a distributor who sells pavitas (smaller turkeys). He finds me a 5 kilo (11 pound) turkey for a good price and I happily accept his offer. He promises to deliver the bird by taxi a couple of days before Thanksgiving.
A few days later, it occurs to me to ask Jorge whether the turkey is fresh or frozen. November is spring in Argentina—which is also the breeding season—so turkeys typically aren’t harvested before December.
When I call Jorge to ask, he confirms that the turkey is frozen. Even better, the turkey is arriving on Thursday night and I’m hosting Thanksgiving on Saturday afternoon; based on its weight, it will require three full days to thaw in the refrigerator. I don’t have that kind of time.
My only safe remaining option is to thaw the turkey overnight in cold water. At 11 pounds, this means approximately 5 hours of thawing. Since I plan on putting the turkey in the oven at 11:00am on Saturday, I will have to get up at 6:00am… and stay awake to change the water every 30 minutes. *Homer Simpson forehead smack*
On Thursday evening, I pick up the pavita from Jorge’s apartment. We gleefully pull it out of the freezer and I see that it’s not vacuum sealed—it’s in a loose plastic bag with two small holes in it, allowing one of the wings to peek out and say hello. I have no idea how the holes occurred and do not bother inquiring. I check the packaging date and it is at the tail end of the Eat Before It Freezer Burns spectrum. I begin to feel an impending sense of doom but instead shove the turkey inside another plastic bag, hop on a crowded colectivo during rush hour, and cram it into my freezer. I think about adding a bottle of vodka to the freezer to keep it and myself company.
On Friday morning, I realize I own neither a meat nor oven thermometer. I am not thrilled about the idea of purchasing two thermometers, so I begin investigating homemade tricks for getting around this. I find a neat trick online for darkening paper to determine your oven’s temperature (my oven’s dials don’t have any numbers, of course). With my oven at the highest setting, I cannot get a piece of white paper to darken beyond the color “light brown biscuit,” which the website assures me is about 325 degrees, the lowest recommended temperature for cooking a turkey. I am relieved that I no longer have to purchase two thermometers and begrudgingly lay down 80 pesos (20 bucks) for a digital meat thermometer. YOU’RE WELCOME, ROOMMATES.
Saturday morning finally arrives, and I get up at 5:30am to thaw the turkey. I am minimally functional but I have a plan, so surely everything will work out. I’ve decided to thaw the turkey in the kitchen sink as it’s large enough to fully submerse the turkey, and no one else in the house will be up for several hours to disturb it. I put a small dish in the drain to block it, carefully place the turkey in the sink, and fill it with water. The sink immediately empties.
Onto Plan B. I look around for a bucket to put the turkey in and find a container filled with cleaning supplies in the closet. Taking into account that this is perhaps not the cleanest receptacle in the world, I wrap the turkey in two small garbage bags to keep out the water from the cleaning tub. Perfect.
Satisfied with my solution, I head upstairs to eat some breakfast—until I hear the sound of water steadily pouring out onto the floor. The tub has a hole in it somewhere and water is quickly covering the kitchen floor. I experience five seconds of genuine, expletive-laden panic until I think to take the turkey out and dump the water into the sink.
It is 5:50am. I am technically ahead of schedule, but I desperately need a Plan C.
I look into our rarely-used third bathroom and see there is a large sink. It appears not to have been used in quite some time—but it can’t be worse than the cleaning bucket, right? And, praises to the universe, there is an actual drain plug. I fill the sink and put in the turkey. It taunts me by immediately floating up to the surface, so I put five heavy dinner plates on top to keep it submerged. It is 6:00am, but I have finally found a solution.
I dutifully change the water two times when, around 7:00am, it occurs to me that the water from the faucet is not very cold. It is comfortably warm, in fact. I insert the meat thermometer into the water and it informs me that it is around 70 degrees. Expletive. The Internet recommends that the thawing water be no warmer than 40 degrees to prevent bacterial growth. I develop a new routine for thawing the turkey: filling two large pots and a pitcher with water, putting them in the freezer for a few minutes, and using the slightly colder water to submerge the turkey. I throw in a few ice cubes with each new batch of water and hope for the best.
Finally, at 11:00am, the turkey is ready to come out of the water. I pull the turkey out of the bag—most of the flesh is soft to the touch, but part of the breast is still frozen (it was directly underneath the plates), and there is a hunk of ice blocking the cavity. I wrench the ice out in one piece and decide that I have finally won a small victory. Pulling out the guts is easy after that; the neck and gizzards come right out in their plastic bag. I consult my roommate Juliana and ask her what I should do about the frozen breast—this thing has to go into the oven soon. We decide to run it under agua caliente, even though every American bacteria-fearing sensibility I have is telling me not to. I realize my greatest hope for this meal is that I will not make any of my roommates violently ill.
Once the pavita has been plucked and rinsed to our satisfaction, Juliana and I christen it Turkey Baby and do a weird celebratory dance with the carcass in the sink, because whether you’re 10 or 40, that will somehow always be funny. I stuff many tasty vegetables and spices inside the cavity and rub the body all over with a dry marinade made from tomillo (thyme), citrus zest, rosmado (rosemary), salt, and pepper and whisper my apologies to the pavo. I decide to become a vegetarian again when I return to the United States.
The next couple of hours are surprisingly stress-free. I’ve done a lot of prep work in advance: peeling, cutting, and boiling pieces of potato; roasting and mashing butternut squash; cubing two baguettes for stuffing; peeling and cutting cucumbers and tomatoes for a salad. The only remaining work is heating up and mashing the potatoes, baking the stuffing, and making gravy. The turkey smells amazing and turns a beautiful color after only an hour in the oven.
Three hours later, I pull the turkey out and plunge the thermometer into the thigh to see if it’s ready. Close, but not quite yet. I am hungry and eager so I check again 20 minutes later—nope, needs a little more time. At this point, it’s about 3:00pm. We’re an hour behind schedule, but since nothing ever happens on time in Argentina, I consider this to be all too appropriate, especially given everything that’s happened today.
The smell of the turkey has brought everyone to the edge of the kitchen, sniffing at the border like hyenas (no one dares enter the room as it’s about 100 degrees inside). After a little while longer, my friend Charlie—who has graciously offered his help and is the only other person brave enough to enter the kitchen—helps me pull out the turkey one last time. Finally, the thigh is the right temperature! The breast isn’t quite ready, but we figure that by the time we carve it, it will have warmed up enough.
We cover the pavo in tin foil and get to work on the remaining items—baking the stuffing, mashing the potatoes, making the gravy out of stock from the neck and gizzards. I keep glancing up at the clock to see when we can start carving the turkey, but every time I look, it seems to be 3:15. “This is taking forever!” I tell Charlie.
One of my roommates, Max, hears our conversation from outside the kitchen. “It’s 4:00,” he says. I look back at the clock and blink at him in disbelief.
“What?” I say. “Qué hora es?”
I look up at the clock again. The kitchen has become so hot that it has actually killed the clock battery. I have been looking at the same time for the last 45 minutes.
I start laughing maniacally. The universe has an amazing sense of humor. I want to kick it in the balls.
“All right, let’s cut this thing!” I yell. Everyone crowds into the kitchen as I pull off the tin foil and reveal our beautiful golden pavo. It looks truly perfect. I hack through one leg and let Max finish carving as I start handing out side dishes for people to bring up to the terrace. It is WAY too much food for only seven people, but when you have plentiful food and wine, when is that ever a bad thing?
Here was our final menu:
- pure de papas (mashed potatoes)
- pure de calabacin con canela (mashed butternut squash with cinnamon)
- stuffing de baguette con salvia, cebolla, y apio (French bread stuffing with sage, onion, and celery)
- ensalada de pepino y tomate (cucumber and tomato salad)
- maíz (ears of corn)
- salsa (gravy)
- brownies with frosting
- 8 bottles of wine + 1 large bottle of beer for the chef
It was a perfect Argentine Thanksgiving: meat-centric with plenty of booze. It was also a great opportunity to introduce Charlie to our house; he moved in one week later. We ended the night by going out for ice cream (yeah dessert #2!) and singing Shania Twain and Spice Girls in the streets.
Hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful!