Turkey Day In Turkey
After missing Thanksgiving in Paris last year due to illness, this year I doubled down by holding a lunch with some Turkish friends and going to a friend’s house for dinner.
I spent a week or so planning the menu in my head and trying to figure out how to get all the ingredients to make it a real feast for my first-time T-Day in Turkey guests. I’m lucky to have a commissary for a turkey and all the squash and pumpkins for decorating the table – otherwise I would have been driving all over the city to see if I could get my hands on a bird. Even though I usually see live turkeys while hiking outside of Ankara, no grocer seems to carry turkeys for cooking. Fun fact – in Turkish, a turkey is called an Indian Chicken (hinti tavuk). Pumpkins and squash, the classic American fall harvest decoration items, are also hard to come by here. At the regular markets in Turkey, you only see large, pale green pumpkins – the rest of the traditional Thanksgiving/fall bounty just isn’t part of the produce on offer here.
My cleaning day is Wednesday, and when my maid found out my guests were Turkish, she went into overdrive cleaning the common areas of my apartment. Before the Turkish bayrams (holidays), where one of the customs is to visit neighbors and family, homes are deep-cleaned, full Navy Field Day style. They even wash the windows! I think the American standard must be a little different. My maid also reminded me fifteen times before she left to close the door to my depot, or storage room. Turks won’t understand something like this, she said over and over. So, the morning of, after storing the pies and overcooked spiced nuts on my ironing board, I shut the door to the depot. I don’t think anybody ever saw the excess of my American lifestyle! On Wednesday we also chopped and peeled most of the vegetables, and I prepared the pies and dinner rolls, so that I’d only have to throw them in the oven when the turkey was done.
I was never a huge fan of turkey (the eating kind). Growing up vegetarian, we only had a real turkey if we went to a grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. Otherwise, it was Tofurkey, or a Wham roll – stuff that makes every vegetable dish taste phenomenal. So I never really learned how to cook a turkey. I made one in 2001, and when we realized it was still not cooked when all of the other dishes were ready, we dumped it on the porch for the wildlife to share in the feast. For my second attempt at cooking turkey, I consulted the oracle of google and learned all about brining. Luckily I read all the info far enough in advance to transfer the turkey from the freezer to the refrigerator in time for it to thaw, almost completely, and still have time for brine. I read lots of complicated instructions for brining and then went with a simple mix: brown sugar, salt, peppercorns, oranges, thyme sprigs, ice, and water. I stirred it all together in a bucket lined with a turkey roasting bag, threw the turkey in, tied the bag closed, and threw it in the refrigerator overnight.
In the morning, I pulled the turkey out of the refrigerator and drained the brine to let it rest before I put it in the oven. To make the most of the oven preheat time, I made spiced nuts. A friend at the commissary recommended that I pick up allspice, since it’s frequently called for in pumpkin pie recipes. This was great advice, since I thought I had all the spices that comprise allspice, only to learn that it’s actually a completely different thing. The bonus was a recipe for spiced nuts right on the label! It also made for great lost in translation joking when my guests asked what was in the nuts and the pie, and thought I was talking about cologne when I said I added allspice! I had to grab the jar from the kitchen to prove that I wasn’t feeding them food laced with men’s perfume.
Cooking the turkey was pretty routine, I think, except that the skin quickly browned and I added the foil tent about 30 minutes into cooking. My small oven heats very unevenly, but there was only one way to fit the turkey, so I had to make it work. I’ve since ordered an oven thermometer so I can figure out what’s going on in there.
While the turkey was roasting, I finished setting the table and made all the sides: glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, green beans with tarragon, and stuffing. I almost forgot to reheat the squash soup I had made the night before in the Vitamix (a great trick, by the way. You can make hot soup from raw, uncooked ingredients.) I thought everything was coming together well, but before I knew it, the guests had arrived, nothing was ready or plated, and the kitchen was a mess. I joked that this was a real traditional Thanksgiving: when you show up and the food isn’t even ready. The first Turkish know what do with a cooked turkey, luckily, since neither of the two Americans present had a clue. With a pair of kitchen scissors and a knife, Meral cut the whole thing up and then decorated the platter with items from around the kitchen.
While she worked the turkey, my other guests started cleaning up my kitchen! How amazing is that? I was concentrating on the gravy, which I had never made before. I was also explaining a lot of the recipes to my friends, as all of this American food was pretty new to them.
Eventually, we got it all together and were able to sit down to eat. We started with butternut squash soup, which was a shock to my Turkish guests. Here, squash is only served as a sweet dessert, and it took a little mental gymnastics to accept it as a savory dish. I tried to make it more appealing by offering the spiced, roasted nuts on top. One friend thought it was so neat because she had seen people eat it in American movies! My friends were also really into the sparkling apple cider that I had picked up from the commissary – now I have to see if it can be found in any of the Turkish shops.
I really enjoyed sharing the meal, and the tradition of giving thanks, with all of my friends who had opened their home to me in the past. We went around the table for each person to give thanks – the most popular: for families, friends, and a hope for world peace. Some threw in a couple of digs at the government for fun. Finally, it was time for pie, my favorite part of Thanksgiving! Everybody loved it, but even more than the pie, they like the whipped cream in a can that went on top.
Due to the time zones, there was no football on for us to watch, but I think otherwise, my friends got a great first Thanksgiving, and I took great pleasure introducing them to our foodie holiday. Instead of football, I relaxed with some schoolwork before heading out for a second dinner.