Thanksgiving in Paris

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Happy Thanksgiving, to those who celebrated last week! Thursday and Friday were work days here, so I hosted a belated potluck dinner on Saturday, after spending a small fortune at the Thanksgiving store (actual name), where they have a corner on the market for cranberries and pumpkin pie filling, and at my local rotisserie, where I ordered a 7kg bird that they cooked on a spit. Continue reading

Thanksgiving in Dakar

A belated happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate! Last week was stressful, between planning against the clock for a 4-country shoot that begins on the 1st of December, and trying to pull off an American Thanksgiving in Dakar at the same time. I am affectionately calling last Thursday’s festivities the toughest producing job of my life. But, in the midst of the madness, I did take the time to count my blessings and to acknowledge all that I’m grateful for. Which is so, so, so much this year.

Including the Thanksgiving meal itself. Until the moment everything was on the table, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. We didn’t even order a turkey until the day before. The price for a 13 pound bird? Almost $60. Turkeys are rare and thus expensive here. Having never cooked one before, having found no pan big enough to hold it, and having realized too late that I had neither a grill to lift the turkey off the pan (apparently very crucial) nor sufficient time to marinade the bird (also important), the possibility of a very expensive turkey fail weighed on me as I went downtown to pick it up from the Lebanese poultry shop at 9am on Thanksgiving morning.

But here is what happened. As soon as I got back to the house, Madame Lo – who had never seen a turkey before in her life – went to work washing and gutting the thing I was too grossed out to touch, patting it dry with a towel, rubbing it down with a marinade we left on for an hour, and then wiping it away and replacing it with so much smeared-on butter that it gave new meaning to Butterball. She also stuffed some of the herb mixture between chunks of the flesh, Senegalese-style, and when it was time to close up the bird after jamming the (American Food Store-bought) stuffing in, she shoved her brochette skewers into the bird, snapped off the wooden handles and bent the metal into staples like the Incredible Hulk, and hand-stitched any remaining holes together with cooking thread. It looked like Frankenstein but the job was done, and after plopping the turkey onto a found-at-the-very-last-minute tinfoil pan (which we filled with quartered onions and a quarter-inch of apple cider that the Internet told me was a suitable replacement for a grill), it was ready for the oven…

…which is on the second floor. Under the weigh of its contents, the pan buckled and almost broke on the way up the stairs. Then there was the problem of the temperature. I knew the turkey was supposed to cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 3 hours. I had converted that to Celsius, only to recall that the Lo’s oven isn’t marked with temperatures but with the meaningless numbers 1 through 8. So I had to check on that thing – with the only meat thermometer I could find, an unreliable non-digital version – every five minutes for the last three hours of cooking. When it finally came out of the oven I had absolutely no idea if it was undercooked, overcooked, cooked on top but not bottom, or what.

The Lo’s have two women who come to do the cooking and cleaning on weekdays, and Madame Lo wrangled them to help me prepare the other dishes. I would have been sunk without them, though the three of us made a rather ridiculous group: they were completely unfamiliar with everything I wanted to make and the ways I wanted to make it, and I sort of was, too. I’ve been making some of these dishes for years, but in Dakar I had to come up with creative ingredient substitutions and use completely different cooking tools. It’s somewhat shocking to me that we made it work.

One dish that actually turned out better the Senegalese way was the sweet potatoes, which we cooked on the grill that they usually use for fish.

And a French baguette beats Wonder bread any day (though I know this from past and not current, i.e. gluten-free, experience.)

Speaking of which, the pumpkin and apple toffee gluten-free tarts that I ordered from a German baker who has a counter at the American Food Store were better than anything I could have whipped up. And it meant that we had an American, Senegalese, Lebanese, French, and German Thanksgiving. Exactly as it should be.

I wasn’t sure how the Lo’s would feel about the meal. I’ve cooked for them a few times before and I’m never sure if they are being polite or truthful when they compliment the food (except for Mamie, who is without fail so effusive that I know she can’t be faking it). But this time they all went as nuts as Mamie usually does. They were in especial rapture over the (miraculous) perfectly cooked turkey, the pumpkin pie, and the green bean casserole, all of which they had never tasted before. Which meant that Mamie had to take it to a whole new level. She took off work early the next day to come home for the leftovers lunch.

Now Madame Lo is talking about making turkey for Christmas instead of their usual mutton. And I’m thinking of surprising them with another pumpkin pie that day. It’s amazing how much joy sharing food between cultures brings.

[P.S. In the first photo, from left to right is Monsieur Lo and Madame Lo (I really call them that, which I find both hilarious and heartwarming), George (a friend of Tantie’s), Tantie aka Armande, and Mamie aka Cecile. Felix is the oldest son and he no longer lives at home, Cecile is in her early 30s, Andre is in his mid-20s (and not pictured because he was working late), and Tantie, at 22, is the baby of the family. This is how I ended up living with them.]

The American Food Store

After eight months of living without many of my most familiar, beloved and/or regularly eaten foods, I finally visited the American Food Store in Almadies. I had been holding out as a point of pride, but also because I was never in the immediate vicinity and didn’t expect to find much there that I’d really want. There’s no way to not sound like a snob saying this, but most American food exports are not the kind of thing I ate in the United States anyway, whether because of dietary restrictions, nutritional preferences, or personal taste.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago on my way to drop off my absentee ballot at the American Embassy, I passed the American Food Store and felt it was time to stop in and see what they had to offer.

Surprisingly, the answer was: the entire range of human emotion. Browsing through the aisles of the American Food Store, I swung widely from one strong feeling to another. There was the joy of cultural recognition when I saw the jumbo-sized canisters of Heinz ketchup, yellow mustard and relish. There was amusement when I spotted the section devoted to beef jerky. There was deep (misplaced) nostalgia at the Jiffy-Pop stove-top popcorn. It was misplaced since when I was a kid we used to make popcorn with a machine, but something about the Americana of it got to me. There was deep (real this time) nostalgia in the candy aisle, with its Mounds and Mars and Three Musketeers and Baby Ruths.

There was delight when I spotted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups among the chocolate offerings. (Ten minutes later, there was disappointment when I realized that my palate has changed after months abroad, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups now taste more like sucking on a packet of sugar than eating deliciously sweetened peanut butter.)

There was relief when I saw that they sell cans of cranberry sauce, which means that I can attempt to recreate Thanksgiving here in Dakar. There was detachment when I spied Starbucks coffee, a newly stocked item, next to the Café Bustelo and resigned myself to sharing this city with the empire I hate most. There was gratitude when I found gluten-free pasta, and anger when I noted the 300% markup of gluten-free pasta (and everything else).

But mostly there was revulsion. Not to make a mountain out of a molehill… but the United States has really lost its way when it comes to sustenance of both the body (and, I would add, the soul). I already knew that while I was living there, but “dropping in” from somewhere else makes it stand out in sharp relief.

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