Global Adventures in Holiday Re-enactments (Thanksgiving edition)

This year I decided to host Thanksgiving. I know the concept of 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. And besides eating delicious food with my friends, I also wanted the challenge and adventure of 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, so I promptly invite 15 people to come celebrate Thanksgiving. I sketch out a skeletal menu of dishes like stuffing and mashed potatoes and ignore it for a week, unconcerned that I am preparing dinner for 15 people by myself. I tell my doña about my plans and she faints on my behalf.

This would probably be a good time to mention that I have never cooked a turkey before. Beyond mashing the mashed potatoes each year, my culinary contributions to Thanksgiving have been minimal. However, none of this alters my unwavering confidence that I can learn how to do everything online 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 go acquire a turkey. One of my Argentine friends, Jorge, works at a café and offers to hook me up with a distributor who sells pavitas (small 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. I am an idiot. November is spring in Argentina, which is also the breeding season, so turkeys typically aren’t harvested before December. This 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 3 full days to thaw in the refrigerator—and I don’t have that much time. Now my only safe option is to thaw it in cold water. At 11 pounds, this means 5 hours of thawing. Since I plan on putting the turkey in the oven at 11:00am, I will have to get up at 6:00am… and stay awake to change the water every 30 minutes.  *head smack*

On Thursday evening, I go to 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. (Since moving to Argentina, I no longer let anything surprise me.) I check the packaging date and it is December 2010, which means this turkey is at the tail end of the recommended Could Taste Good Someday spectrum. I begin to feel an impending sense of doom but instead shove the turkey inside a 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, I realize I own neither an oven thermometer nor a meat thermometer. I reason that I should probably acquire one of these things if there is the slightest hope of cooking the turkey fully and not poisoning my roommates. My oven doesn’t have numbers on the dial, so there’s no way of knowing the exact temperature, but I find a neat trick online where you put a piece of white paper in the oven for 5 minutes and determine the temperature of your oven based on the paper’s color. With my oven at the highest setting, I cannot get the paper to darken beyond “light brown biscuit,” which 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, and fill the sink with water. The sink immediately empties. Hmm.  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. Considering 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. Perfect. Satisfied with my solution, I head upstairs to eat breakfast—until I hear the sound of water steadily pouring onto the floor. The tub has a hole in it somewhere and water is quickly covering the kitchen floor. I experience 5 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 any 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 floating up to the surface, so I put 5 heavy dinner plates on top to keep it underwater. 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 Internets recommend that the thawing water be no warmer than 40 degrees to prevent bacterial growth. My new routine for thawing the turkey becomes filling two large pots and a pitcher with water, putting them in the freezer, and using the slightly colder water to cover 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 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 in their plastic bag come right out. I consult my roommate Juliana and ask her what I should do about the frozen breast—this thing has to go into the oven now. We decide to run it under agua caliente, even though every American bacteria-fearing sensibility I have is telling me not to, and I realize my greatest hope for this meal has become that I will not make my roommates violently ill.

Once the mound of flesh has been hacked and plucked and rinsed to our satisfaction, we christen it Turkey Baby and do a celebratory dance with it 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 it 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 3:00; 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 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 the turkey out one last time and finally the thigh is the right temperature! The breast isn’t quite ready, but we figure 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 carve 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?”

“It’s 4:00.”

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. 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?

Charlie and I delving into the turkey

Juliana and Max help out....

Here was our final menu:

  • pavo
  • 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

blurry but delicious mashed potatoes

From left: Max, Peter, Charlie, Lucky, Joanna, y yo

It was a perfect Argentine Thanksgiving: it was meat-centric, we ate and drank too much, and it was a great opportunity to introduce Charlie to the 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.

There’s no way in hell I’m doing that again, but I’m glad I tried it. Next year I’ll leave Thanksgiving to the Northern Americans.

Hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful!



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