Turkey Day in The ‘Dan.
Last year, I spent Thanksgiving Day in Rumbek, reminiscing over a cold Bell Lager Thanksgivings past
When I was a Kids’ Table Thanksgiving Delegate, we always celebrated with friends. All of my extended family was overseas so we’d celebrate with a few British Expat families around the east coast, alternating houses year by year. We had dinners in State College, and Saratoga springs, and some at home. As we grew older, it became just the five of us, my brothers and I watching football and exchanging media in a mess of Macs, but all of us enjoying our wine and our meal,
Thanksgiving ’05 I was flying to Tokyo, but missed my flight out of SFO due reasons I’ll refrain from professing publicly, though they were fairly astonishing and amusing. Stuck at the airport, I scrolled through the phonebook I’d amassed since junior year of college and called a few folks I knew. I ended up spending it with some good friends in the area who also were not going back home, but instead going to a party. It was a blast, and I had a real easy time being the coolest random person at the party: “Wait, how exactly did you end up here?”
I don’t think I remember that vividly Thanksgiving ’04, even though it was the last one I celebrated properly with my family. At that time I had just started my job in Vegas, had just graduated college; I was in another world.
None of this is really sad, I guess. It’s just evolution, more than anything, it’s the transpection and crossfluence of life and making up words.
This year, El Berkerino and I had planned a spectacular menu. Asian pumpkin soup, bacon and herb stuffing, maple-mashed sweet potatoes, haricôt verts, mashed potatoes, a fresh thyme and white wine velouté, roast turkey, and honey glazed smoked ham with a housemade mustard.
Yeah, we made mustard: we ground up dried mustard seed with Italian white wine vinegar, salt, and sugar. All those years I watched my old man mix up Coleman’s powder actually came in handy. It was about the one thing in the kitchen he could make.
Dessert was apple pie with fresh whipped cream. We were supposed to have two apple and two pumpkin, but we just ended up with two apple. Meh, you gotta work with what you got up here.
The whipped cream on the other hand, was a real treat. It was hand carried by our CEO in small cooler with ice and hand whipped by yours truly on the night of the event, which was by all means an event.
Thanksgiving eve before we stayed up late drinking with DeltaForce, an amazingly cool army dude who’d spent the last couple years volunteering at Ground Zero, running his construction company, and bouncing in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s truly a hell of a human being, a great talker, and an even greater drinker. We talked about his property in Mexico, his eastern block wife, working as an expatriate in Sudan, and the nature of America and international living. And we talked food. Growing up in the south, DeltaForce loves food.
The next morning, El Berkerino and I were both wishing we’d stayed in the night before, but DeltaForce given his staff the day off, so things were pretty chill. We’d just gotten in a shipment of tomato juice and so we quietly prepared some bloody marys for him and two of his staff members. He also let me check out his iPhone.
It was cool.
Lunch was slow, just a couple sandwiches and a quesadilla or nachos here and there.
Then we spent the afternoon prepping for dinner, until Berk got pulled to go to another site.
And the waitress didn’t show up.
It was an absolute shitstorm getting it all out. The current chef—the fourth in as many months—though enthusiastic, is not a take control guy, and is still learning American food. I did the sauce, the stuffing, the roasts, and had to chide and refrain from smacking him upside the head because I knew his third-pans of sides and starches would not be nearly enough for the hungry people awaiting the feast.
The notion of Thanksgiving itself is a beautiful one. No presents, not pretense, no events, nothing but but good food and good people. Maybe some football if you’re in the right time zone. It may be, perhaps, the greatest holiday in the world. I mean, you don’t even have to go to church!
It’s very American, I suppose, the idea of a holiday based solely on food, but as I explained to a couple South Africans that evening:
Some people had buckles on their shoes, some had feathers on their head.
The Buckle-shoed folks nearly died, but didn’t.
Now we eat a lot and children trace their hand and turn it into a turkey.
No one knows what a cornucopia actually is.
End of Story.
I think I confused them.
So, while tending to stuffing, sauces and stocks and painstakingly pulling thyme leaves off their stalks, I asked the waiter to arrange the dining room, explaining fully the intended layout, and even asked for confirmation of his understanding at each step.
I proceeded to continue with the stuffing adding varied amounts of rendered turkey fat and butter. I stepped away for a moment to receive a phone call about our weekly order that had never made it, and I returned to the stuffing moments too soon. I walked in the kitchen to find my assistant cook standing over the stuffing with a bottle of soy sauce and a pensive look on his face that seemed to say, “I think this brown stuff would make a excellent addition to such a strange bread concoction.”
“NOOOO!” I cried out in a deep voice as slow motion took over the scene. My Wolverines slipped as I tried to stop him and I ended up tackling him to the ground, breaking his collarbone and and simultaneously initiating a war with his entire extended family.
In actuality, I called his name sharply, stared gravely, shook my head, ‘no,’ nd he put the bottle down
An hour later, the stuffing was seasoned perfectly and I’d fixed the litre or so of sweet, cinnamony pumpkin soup the Chef had made into something with a little bit of garlic, ginger, chili, onion and in a quantity that would feed more than a nuclear family. The waiter, on the other hand, had done little more than wrap some plates in plastic wrap and smoke a cigarette.
After a good five minutes of following the waiter around at a brisk pace to ensure he moved faster and speaking quite forcefully and succinctly about everything that needed to be done, he actually got moving.
The smoked ham I’d put in at 11:00 to cook real slow was blackened to a crisp when the staff cook thought the oven wasn’t hot enough and dumped some more charcoal in. I pulled it and let it rest until service.
It was nearly 5:00.
Once again, the waiter must’ve missed something in my direction as he was was pulling beers and sodas out of the deep freeze as the guests were arriving.
“What does six o’clock sharp mean in your time?” asked TheColonel as he rolled up at 5:59.
“Uh, it means, uhh, hang out, have a drink, relax, have dinner in a few minutes?”
“I thought you said cocktails were at four?”
I inhaled audibly and glanced at my staff running around like mad trying to complete the commands I’d given them. For once, they actually had a sense of urgency. I scolded myself in my mind as their lack of efficiency was a direct reflection on their direct supervisor; in this case, me.
“Well, no one showed up at four, so we pushed it back a bit,” I weaseled out, wincing at my own words.
TheColonel did not look amused.
More guests arrived.
We had highly ranked soldiers from various countries’ armed forces sitting right next to mechanics and construction managers and logisticians. After about fifteen minutes, they were all starting to get antsy.
I was running around scared to shit about whether the turkey I’d roasted in a charcoal oven was properly done. I was pretty sure it was cooked enough, I just had no idea how to tell with no meat thermometer nor the knowledge of the actual temperature of the oven itself
The layout of The New Restaurant is not the best. It has the kitchen and main dining room at the same level with a fairly un-level and rocky patio on a lower level that’s barely accessible due to placement of steps and the railing around the dining room. Professor Robson would not have been happy with whoever had designed this place, and neither was I.
Since the lower level was unfit for seating, we had stationed the the grill and the charcoal oven there, in effect, right next to and below the dining room. I’m all for an open kitchen, but this set up was a bit ridiculous. However, we had no other choice. With neither proper ventilation nor sufficient plugs in the kitchen, we could only have gas burners and the fryer inside. With no semblance of level ground around the place, nor easy access to the kitchen, the uneven, but still concrete patio was the best place we could manage to have our oven.
I poked and prodded both birds all over and inspected the juices. 15 minutes more carry over, and the first one would be about perfect, so I pulled it, covered it, and instructed my cook to pop bird number two back in the oven. With the first turkey set and everything close to a state of readiness, I touched all the tables and informed the guests that dinner was served.
People hit the soup first, luckily extending the turkey’s rest time and allowing for the juices to lock into the meat. A moment of calm swathed over me as people enjoyed the soup until my waiter furiously scurried to get more bowls.
I smacked myself in the forehead and hurried to assist him
A few minutes later I was inspecting bird number two in the waning daylight with my SureFire E2D. The juices were not clear enough. Visions of a salmonella outbreak infected my mind and lodged themselves there like a trichinosis cyst. A voice thundered in my ear and I looked up to see DaddyLongLegs, a gigantic, jovial, and generally jolly guy from Texas, enjoying a cigarette and the bustle of the evening
“Did the little button pop up yet?” he asked with a warm southern accent and an even warmer grin on his face.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my wrist and managed a laugh. This guy is awesome. He’ll answer, a ‘how’re you’ with a ‘fine as cat hair’ and had told me my pulled pork sandwiches were good enough ‘to make [one] wanna smack [one’s] momma.’
We chatted a little bit, and I told him about my stuffing, which he called ‘dressing.’
‘Well, I tell ya,” he interrupted himself with a spluttering laugh, “if I have some good dressing and summadat giblet gravy, I’m a happy man. I don’t need no turkey.”
“I know, dude. Turkey’s alright. . .but when the stuffing and gravy is proper, that’s the best part.”
“Yes indeed. Though, I gotta say though that ham you got out there looks daaaaamn good.”
I explained how I made the mustard and the glaze and he made a DeNiro face and nodded in approval. I didn’t tell him how I trimmed of the black, charred, cracklin, and reglazed it just before service. I was talking rapidly and looking over his shoulder at the dining room, indicating subtely my need to depart, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Now, there’s one other thing,” DaddyLongLegs leaned forward, “I hear that you make one fine bloody mary.”
“Well, I thought they were pretty good,” I replied.
“Who in holy hell drinks a bloody mary with Thanksgiving dinner? I am not making that shit!” cried the InMo as he stormed off to look for scotch.
“I heard they were downright amazing,” DaddyLongLegs said, “and I’ll have one on Sunday. But how are you on dirty martinis?”
I sigh under my breath, smiled, and asked him if he minded if the olives had pits. He shrugged and stroked his mustache a little.
The line for the buffet was extending, the turkey, the ham were being carved, so I did a quick walk-by.
Both looked phenomenal.
The chef and the cook were all smiles as they got to be out in front, chatting with guests and hacking away at dead animal carcasses. On the way into the kitchen, DeltaForce showed up and doubled the martini order. I rushed into the corner of the kitchen we had designated as the bar. I got a jar of olives and dumped them into a bowl. Using the jar as a shaker I dropped in a couple ice cubes, a dash of white wine for lack of vermouth, a 16-count of Smirnoff blue, and strained the greenish liquid into wine glasses. I skewered two olives on each toothpick, dropped them in and ran the drinks out.
Oh, calamity of calamities, why did I make them with vodka, cause DeltaForce and DaddyLongLegs had an affinity for gin. I did a once over on the dining room and set out to try and re-make the martinis.
The carving station was set up, people were lining up and enjoying their meals and all I had to do was keep everyone happy. I ran out the two new martinis with gin to DaddyLongLegs and DeltaForce with apologies for the vodka, and ran back to chew out the waiter for not having enough spoons on the line.
While in the kitchen, I heard my name called out loudly.
Well, it was something close enough to my name.
“What now?!” cried the InMo in unfettered exasperation.
Evening had fallen in and the setting sun made the dusty haze above Juba seem like blanket enclosing it, giving the hectic town an almost calmed and relaxed air about it; as if the over crowded mutatu buses and bumpy roads were silenced and lazy for the time being. The purple sky cast black the solitary mountain in the distance and the lights from camps and compounds dotted sparse the landscape. Leaning out the double doors of the kitchen, I scanned the dining room and my eyes adjusted to the candle-lit contrast of the kitchen’s fluorescent refulgence.
Smiles were flickered alight by burning wicks and laughter and chatter from the thirty-plus guest overshadowed the Australian rock playing from the Chinese stereo. My name was bellowed again and I turned my head to the source of sound and saw DaddyLongLegs and DeltaForce.
I walked briskly towards them to find what they needed, but before I took two steps they raised their glasses to me. I stopped in the middle of the dining room and nodded at them both in a silent reception to their thanks. They quickly set their glasses down, and both began to applaud slowly and loudly. I smiled (probably somewhat sheepishly) at their unabashed and egregious appreciation and I bowed my head in thanks and acknowledgment. I turned back towards the kitchen.
I had only taken a few steps when I realized the entire room had broken out in applause. I turned around, honoured, humbled, and elated at such a brazen giving of thanks. I basked for less than a second as a few, ‘yeah!”s followed by my name were called out. I motioned with hospitality points—open hands, thumbs tucked tight aside the palm—to my cooks at the carving station and my waiter on the floor, like Broadway actor giving credit to his stagehands and lighting crew, bowing once more.
I turned on my heels, straight into the kitchen. I grabbed a beer from the coolbox, walked out the back door, breathed deeply through my nostrils and looked up at the stars, reveling in the cool night breeze and a job well done.