A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Don’t Take Your Thanksgiving Turkey For Granted

us army soldier eating with thanksgiving mealFor some Americans living overseas, finding a Thanksgiving turkey can be an ordeal. Not every American eats turkey on Thanksgiving Day, but when you live outside the country, these kinds of cherished American traditions can take on a sense of heightened importance to the point where re-creating an American style Thanksgiving dinner, even if you’re in Dushanbe or Khartoum, becomes an obsession.

My wife was the Community Liaison Officer, a job that some have described as a sort of cruise director, at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and finding turkeys there fell under her vague job description since it was considered a “morale issue.” Americans take for granted the ability to walk into any grocery store in the country and get what they need for a Thanksgiving dinner in ten minutes, but in many parts of the world, it can be a serious scavenger hunt to get the items you need.One year, when I was posted in Trinidad, I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking for Karo syrup for a pecan pie recipe. (I had no idea at the time that other recipes don’t require it) I must have visited every store in Port of Spain before I finally found a bottle and felt as though I’d scored a golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and their family members have one luxury that most expats don’t – the ability to order products online and have them shipped to a U.S. address. Those who are at posts with an APO address can get things quickly, but everyone else has to wait anywhere from a week to a few weeks or more to get their mail. But no matter how you slice it, you still can’t order a turkey on Amazon.com.

soldiers eating thanksgiving dinnerAt the time we lived there, it was impossible to find turkeys for sale in Macedonia, and, unlike larger posts, we didn’t have a PX or a commissary that sold them, so my wife had to do some detective work and ultimately found a way to get birds from a military base in Kosovo and have them trucked down to Macedonia. It wasn’t as simple as driving over to the local Safeway but we probably appreciated them more.

With a little effort, expats can usually cobble together some semblance of a Thanksgiving meal but the hardest part of being overseas is having to spend the holiday season away from family and loved ones. I arrived at overseas posts for the first time shortly before Thanksgiving on three occasions: Skopje, Macedonia, Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Budapest, Hungary, and it’s always a little odd to arrive at a new post without any of your household effects or cookware before a holiday like Thanksgiving.

Even if you’re the most repellant jerk in the world, someone will invite you to Thanksgiving dinner. At some posts, the Ambassador will invite singles, newcomers and other strays to dinner and in others, people just informally make sure that no one is home alone without access to turkey meat unless they want to be.

In a way, it’s kind of a remarkable thing the way FSOs host fellow colleagues they barely know for this really important family holiday. Can you imagine having Thanksgiving dinner with a work colleague you barely know in the U.S.? We had kind souls host us in Port of Spain and Budapest and, in our first year in Skopje, I went to a meal hosted by the Ambassador. On other occasions, we introduced local friends to our favorite American holiday.

We were grateful for the invites we got, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it can be a little depressing to spend Thanksgiving with a collection of people you don’t know well. No matter how good the company is, you can’t help but wish you were with your real family, rather than your Foreign Service one, which can feel very much like what I imagine a foster home experience is like. And I never had to serve in a combat zone, where Thanksgiving dinner means waiting in a buffet line with a tray.

There are lots of advantages to the Foreign Service lifestyle but being away from family members during holidays and important occasions is probably the biggest drawback. Those of us who are fortunate to be with family members and near readily available dead turkeys this year should raise a glass and toast members of the Foreign Service, the military and every other American that’s serving their country and dealing with ad-hoc bird meat and improvised company this year.

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[Photo credit: US Army Africa on Flickr]

Eel, venison, and pumpkin pudding: where to get a really traditional Thanksgiving

As we sit down to eat huge quantities of turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberries, we might want to remember that this traditional Thanksgiving feast isn’t so traditional. Like all traditions, Thanksgiving dinner has changed over time and has little in common with the event that inspired it.

Most history books mark the first Thanksgiving as the feast the Pilgrims had at Plymouth Colony after their first harvest in 1621, even though there had been a Thanksgiving feast at Berkeley Plantation in 1619, and various Thanksgiving feasts by Spanish settlers in Florida and the Southwest decades beforehand. Inconvenient historical facts aside, let’s look at what everyone ate on that “first”, most famous Thanksgiving.

No exact menu exists, but several accounts of the feast let us make a good guess at what they served, and even come up with a list of recipes. The Wampanoag tribe had saved the Pilgrims from starvation by showing them how to catch eels and gather food from the forest, so we can imagine eel would have been included. There’s also specific mention of wild turkey (much smaller than today’s hormone-stuffed factory turkeys), venison, and cornbread. Pumpkin pudding was also on the table. Pumpkin pie wasn’t invented until years later.

If this is all sounding tasty, why not try it out yourself? Plymouth, MA, runs a series of events every November to celebrate the season. This year they sponsored National Indian Pudding Day (cornmeal with molasses, yum!) to showcase what they call “one of the ugliest, yet great tasting, bicultural culinary treats”. There’s also a series of dinners with traditional fare, some of which you can still catch. If you’re too full to eat another bite, don’t worry because they’ll do it all again next year. You may also want to check out these other historic Thanksgiving places for their events.

Pass the Indian pudding, please, but hold the eel. I tried it in Denmark and I can’t say I’m a fan.

Hotel Jerome’s awesome Thanksgiving deal

The Hotel Jerome is offering a fantastic deal, but its for Thanksgiving weekend only. So, if you’re sick of carving into the same dry turkey — yet again — watching the damned parade on television (or worse, in person … trust me), book a last-minute trip to Aspen, Colorado. The Hotel Jerome’s “120th Anniversary Celebration” package costs only $1,889 for two people from November 25 – 29, 2009. Why? That’s when the hotel opened: 1889. It’s also a savings of more than 50 percent.

The package includes four nights in a junior suite, two full-day lift tickets per person and two tickets to the hotel’s 120th anniversary party (where an 1889-themed costume!). And, you’ll get a full Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday night. Even though you won’t have the stress of the holiday to weigh you down, each person will also receive a 50-minute massage at the Aspen Club & Spa.

Yeah, or you could stay home and watch a couple of football games …