Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

When I was little, my dad used to call me his little turkey. I have no idea why.  Perhaps it’s because he grew up on a farm. However, the name was very apropos for my meltdown last week.

I live in Israel, but work at an American company. So last week, the social committee of said company hosted a Thanksgiving Dinner.  The company provided drinks, tables and chairs, and the attendees had to each bring a dish.

I was unusually excited for this event. I was happy that I would get to celebrate Thanksgiving, even though I would be missing the time with my family.

The day began like any other Saturday (Shabbat). Typically, we stay home and lounge around or go to my in laws who live about 80 minutes away.  I ate a yogurt and then worked out for an hour. Then I watched the baby, while my husband ran as I prepared lunch.  I didn’t eat very much of the lunch, because I was saving my calories for Thanksgiving Dinner.

In the afternoon, I prepared the dish that I was bringing: pumpkin casserole. I am a decent cook, but typically a terrible baker. First, I had to bake the pumpkin because there is no canned pumpkin here. After baking it, then I had to scoop it out and puree it. However, from the beginning there were already some issues. We bought enough pumpkin to quadruple the recipe, but did not have the right amount of butter.  So, I substituted applesauce and olive oil thanks to advice from a quick internet search.  Also, the recipe called for dried milk. I think that’s gross, so I wanted to use coconut milk.  But I didn’t have enough coconut milk, so we added skim milk. I do not have the greatest oven, so it’s never really clear what temperature the food is cooking at. Also, because it’s in centigrade, even a minor change is a huge temperature differentiation.  My lack of aptitude, bad decisions, the wrong ingredients and a not-so-great oven were not the best conditions to be baking.

The aluminum pan was super heavy. So Lior transported the pan on a cutting board to the oven as I assisted.

After an hour, the time allotted for it to bake, it looked like pumpkin soup, not casserole. We gave it a half an hour more, and then another 15 minutes. By then, it looked ready. Lior took it out from the oven and oh &%#@!  The pan collapsed.
This is what it should have looked like. Click here for the recipe.

Besides the intense cleanup just as we were dressed and ready to go, we lost about half the pumpkin casserole. I wasn’t mad or upset. My grandmother, when I was 9, was terribly burned by a pan collapsing that spilled hot oil on her legs. She honestly was never the same after that, although perhaps it was a symptom, not a cause. Regardless, I was just glad that no one was hurt. We decided to make lemons out of lemonade and changed the name of the dish from casserole to pumpkin pudding.

We were one of the first to arrive at the dinner.  It wasn’t really a sit down event. There was a huge table set out for food (the company provided the tables, drinks and turkeys). The company I work for has about 100 employees, and most people attended,  plus their spouses, children or plus ones. As soon as we were given the all clear, I grabbed a little plate for Maya with a taste of several items except turkey - she only has four teeth. It was bittersweet that her first Thanksgiving meal was not with my family, but this was a nice compromise.  A husband of one of the veteran teachers looked at my plate for Maya and said with a troubled face in Hebrew, “That isn’t a lot of food.”  I responded “Yes, but it’s for a baby.” His look was foreboding, but I shrugged it off, not understanding his silent prophesy.

Lior and I have a pact. He eats first, I feed Maya, and then I eat, because he eats so fast  Whatever then needs to happen with Maya, he takes care of while I eat.  So as I was feeding Maya, Lior went to get his food. He stood in line for a while and then came back to eat.  He was done eating 3000 calories in about 100 seconds. So then it was my turn. I don’t really eat baked turkey, but I was hyped up for mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, creamed spinach, artichoke dip, green bean casserole and whatever else was there. Many of the Israelis brought traditional Israeli food, hummus, taboule, Israeli salad, etc,  although I had no plan of eating any Middle Eastern food. After all, it was Thanksgiving Dinner.

As I approached the table, I grabbed a plate and then looked.

No food.

It was all gone.

Not a marshmallow, not a crouton, not a spinach leaf, not a green bean.

There was just a little bit of hummus that was left, mocking me.

And so, I lost it. I could feel the tears welling up and had to run to get Lior so we could go. I had to keep it together. My boss was there, the superintendent was there, my colleagues who I always plaster a smile on my face for were there.

I had to keep it together.

On my way to find Lior, I ran into a colleague. She is a Jewish Canadian immigrant to Israel who is 9 months pregnant. She saw my face and asked me what’s wrong.

“There’s no food,” I said.

“There is food,” she said. “There’s some turkey and I think I saw some hummus.”

“No, I don’t want that,” I said.

“Okay, but why do you look like you’re about to cry?” she said.

“Because it’s Thanksgiving food,” I said.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “I can bring you sweet potatoes on Monday if you want.”

A fact about Canadian Jews. Unlike most American Jews, they do not celebrate Thanksgiving. So they do not have the same attachments to the customs. I also didn’t want to go on and on about it, because she is one of the few friends I have here, and I could tell she was giving me the, "you're weirder than I thought" look.

Then I found my beloved husband and daughter. “Lior, we have to leave now,” I said.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“I don’t want to get into it here, I need to leave,” I said.

Usually, he would be the first person to want to leave a party, but the inquisition began.

“Why?” he said.

“There’s no food,” I said.

“There’s got to be some food, let’s get you some food. There’s turkey, and I think I saw some hummus,” he said.

“I DON’T WANT HUMMUS!” I said.  “I want Thanksgiving food. I want green bean casserole. I want pumpkin pie. I want the terrible banana cake we eat every year at Thanksgiving for my brother’s birthday. I want to leave.”

“Sharna, this resembles chicken fingers,” Lior said.

He was recalling  a time when my then 3-year-old niece woke up grumpy from a nap. She asked what was for dinner, and my brother said hamburgers. She said she wanted chicken fingers and then cried for literally 45 minutes just repeating over and over “I want chicken fingers. I want chicken fingers.” He and I often joke if something bad happens, we want to know if it’s “chicken fingers” bad or as an adjective for a person acting irrationally about a situation involving food. For example, the time when I was pregnant and went to have a healthy snack of hummus and carrots only to open the hummus to find a half a teaspoon left. It was and has been the biggest fight of our marriage.

Yes, this was a chicken fingers moment so I gave him the look. You know, the universal look every wife gives to her husband when she is angry. As we walked out the door we saw the CEO, a lovely, cheerful man from Texas.

“Did you get enough to eat?” he said.

“Yes!” I said too enthusiastically. “We’ve got to go, the baby is tired.”

I rushed to the car with my Israeli husband behind me.

“Sharna, I don’t get it,” he said. “I can make you mashed potatoes if you want.”

That comment made things worse and then the tears came.  These tears were not merely about food, but about being homesick, grieving my aunt, having almost no friends here, and panicking about all of the papers I had to grade.

I put Maya to bed, squeezing her tight, and tried to get control over my emotions. However, when I put her down, I started crying again. (PS: I did not become a crier, except for rare occasions until she was born) How could I be so selfish about food when people are dying in the Philippines and children all over the world don’t have enough to eat on a daily basis?

The next day I woke up with a crying hangover. I thought to myself, I have to get it together and get in the true Thanksgiving spirit.  I packed up a bag of clothes for a donation box, signed up to donate blood, and I suggested to Lior that we invite his family over, not for Thanksgiving, but Shabbat lunch the next week. They have never all been here, and it would be nice to get everyone together.

11/12 of them could come. During lunch I realized why there’s no Thanksgiving in Israel. For many families, every Saturday lunch is Thanksgiving. (They also have their own version in September/October).

I made stuffed chicken breasts, the pumpkin casserole and curried ginger carrot soup.

We also bought wine, challah and soft drinks. But my in laws brought so much more food: salads, tuna salad, baked chicken, root vegetable, fried chicken, meatballs, and rice.

There was too much food to capture in one frame. This is every Saturday at Maya's grandmother's house.
We bought a cake and his sister made a cake to celebrate 3 family birthdays.

It was a wonderful afternoon. Maya loves her cousins. My husband was happy. And despite the language barrier, I was happy, too. (Although, I think my Hebrew is actually getting worse living here rather than better).

Maya getting a hug from her cousin who is about 10 months older than her. She is being held by her grandmother, or Savta.

So, I guess the lesson from this “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” is that Thanksgiving is really not about food but about family. And I miss my family, but I have a lovely extended family here, and I’m thankful that I have opportunities to enjoy being with them.  I’m also thankful for my husband and Maya, who was born a little over a month after last Thanksgiving.

Yeah, I love her more than sweet potatoes.

But man, I would kill right now for some of those American side dishes.  And although I try to be rational, sometimes I just think about that dinner and think bitterly,

“All I wanted was some f&*%@$# stuffing.”

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