Where the turkey is called chompipe and other Thanksgiving stories

BOSTON — Many of us at GlobalPost have had adventurous Thanksgiving meals prepared, against the odds, while abroad. And sometimes we've given up on the adventurous preparations and just spent time with the ones we love, giving thanks. See below for tales of Thanksgiving in Spain, France, Nicaragua, Russia, Bangladesh, Italy, Zimbabwe, Germany, Jerusalem, Switzerland and Belgium.

Emily Lodish on turkey at 30,000 feet:

Turns out Swiss Air is lenient when it comes to traveling with frozen poultry.

I know this because in 2003 I called a nice woman over at Swiss Air to ask her that very question: “What would you do if, say, a traveler tried to board with some frozen turkey?” “Hold on,” she said, barely muffling the phone receiver as she inquired of her coworker into any existing policies regarding poultry. It was OK, she said, so long as the poultry — turkey in this case — was fully wrapped. “No problem,” I said.

It was all part of our plan to import Thanksgiving to one of my dearest friends, Elisa, who lives in Barcelona. Spain’s second largest city boasts many things — Gaudi architecture and a lively nightlife — but it does not brag easy access to a turkey. So, another friend, Mike, and I had planned to fly from New York with turkey in tow. We had stuffing planned, pumpkin pie on the mind and we’d been told cranberry sauce wouldn’t be hard to get around Gracia, where Elisa lived.

The plan was to package our bird in a cooler with an ice pack or two, which, based on preliminary calculations, would keep her frozen to frozen-ish for the duration of our transcontinental flight. The idea was to arrive in Barcelona just as the turkey completed defrosting, which was, conveniently, going to be Thanksgiving morning. We’d pop her right in the oven — after removing the giblets, of course, and shoving some rosemary up her keister.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly until we got to the Barcelona baggage claim with nary a bag in sight. “Your bags are in Zurich,” we were told. “What about our turkey?” we asked. “Was your turkey in your bag?” “Yes.” “Then, your turkey is in Zurich.”

Our turkey was in Zurich, where we met our connecting flight, and there wasn’t a lot to be done about it. Mike and I were distraught at the prospect of coming up short for Thanksgiving dinner, displeased at the prospect of handling rancid poultry and just plain bummed out that our delicate ballet of turkey-related fun had been so badly bungled. “How come she gets to see the Alps?” Mike wanted to know.

We dragged our sorry selves to Elisa’s pad to think what to do. We checked in periodically with the airport, to see if our bags had arrived, explaining each time how time was of the essence where the turkey was concerned. It was, maybe the fourth time we called, when the answer was: “The turkey has landed.”

Indeed, it seems that Mike and I had underestimated how chilly the belly of the plane gets, and as a result had a still half-frozen bird on our hands.

And give thanks we did for our tasty, well-traveled bird.

Mort Rosenblum in Paris:

Back in 1979 — when all that France knew of Le Sanksgeeveeng was a chestnut Art Buchwald column about “Merci Donnant,” featuring Captain Kilometres Deboutish — a friend and I decided to cook a major turkey.

We dispatched guests on a scavenger hunt days before. Pumpkins were easy; cranberries tough; marshmallows as scarce as white truffles. Everything ready, we looked again at our apartment oven. It could have handled a partridge in a pear tree. Our turkey was out of the question.

A neighbor across the hall had the solution, obvious to anyone French: Go see the baker downstairs. Having just moved in, we didn’t know him. That didn’t matter. At 4 a.m., Monsieur Martin happily popped our 10-pound bird into his 10-ton oven.

For that, and so many other reasons linked to crispy crusts and pain au chocolat, my Thanksgiving list still includes French bakers.

John Otis in Managua, 1991:

The Sandinistas had been voted out the year before yet Nicaragua was still recovering from the Contra war and the economy had yet to fully open up to the outside world. They still had what they called "the diplomatic store" — a leftover from the country's alliance with the USSR that was the only place to buy semi-fancy foods. Still, getting cans of Libby's pumpkin pie mix was out of the question. We did, however manage to track down a turkey — in Nicaragua, it's called chompipe — which a street vendor sold us at an intersection.

Thanks to poverty, shortages and perhaps lack of imagination, Nica food can be pretty basic. The national dish is gallo pinto, which is a bland mix of beans and rice. In fact, I developed a lifelong addiction to chile peppers and hot sauce while living in Managua just to make the food a litte more interesting. For their part, Nicaraugans often fancy up the main course by stewing the meat, fish or fowl in a sauce of tomatoes and onions. Or, in a pinch, ketchup. And they often serve spaghetti with ketchup. And these customs would come back to haunt us on Thanksgiving.

I was invited to the house of the Miami Herald correspondent. Those were the fat old days for newspapers and he had a nice bungalow as well as a driver and a housekeeper. But he made the mistake of putting the cooking in the hands of the hired help and before we knew it, the housekeeper was basting the turkey in a gooey mess of ketchup and chopped onions. As I recall, we were able to save the chompipe from its unfortunate marinade. But in subsequent years, we did the cooking ourselves.

Miriam Elder in Moscow:

Growing up in a family of Russian immigrants, Thanksgiving was always a big deal. But it was a strange deal. The table would be littered with standard Russian fare: Salad Olivier (calling it a “salad” is a stretch, composed as it is of potatoes, peas, bologna and mayonnaise), herring, horseradish and pirozhki (dough stuffed with meat). The nod to the country we were living in and celebrating came in the form of slices of turkey lunchmeat.

The first real turkey I ever had came soon after I moved to Russia to report, in mid-2006. I was working at The Moscow Times then, the legendary local English-language paper that has launched the career of so many reporters around the world, and whose alumnae continuously fill the newsrooms of foreign wires and newspapers here. We all remain a pretty close-knit community.

I was new to the paper then, and one of the reporters invited me to his home for a Thanksgiving meal. I felt young and shy then, and remember walking into a Soviet-era apartment whose long table was laden with mashed potatoes and cornbread, cranberry sauce and stuffing. And then out it came: a massive turkey, missing a leg.

“It took us hours to find it,” my colleague said. “We searched all over the city.” But it was missing a leg? “We think it came from Chernobyl.”

It didn’t matter much, though, as we sat for hours, surrounded by the peeling wallpaper that Soviets loved so much, a dusty record player humming in the background and intermittent smoke breaks to the balcony that overlooked the great expanse of Moscow beyond. It was all very “an American in Moscow.” This year I’ll be heading back to New York for Thanksgiving, and back to being a Russian in America. Turkey slices await.

William Dowell in Geneva on Bangladesh, 2007:

Some American families based here in Geneva will be celebrating Thanksgiving this year with a special sense of just how lucky they are. Geneva is one of the wealthiest cities in the world for its size, but it is also one of the world’s leading centers for United Nations humanitarian operations.

Two years ago, on a different career path, I was working for Care International’s Emergency Group. On Nov. 15, 2007, a tropical cyclone labeled 06B, and otherwise known as Super Cyclonic Storm Sidr, struck the coast line of Bangladesh. The sea surge from the storm sent a wall of water 15 feet high surging across the flat coastal plains. The official death toll was 3,447 killed. Unofficial estimates ran as high as 10,000.

On Thanksgiving Day I was bouncing in the back of a jeep down a dirt road along Bangladesh’s coastline while Care’s emergency team tried to figure out how to move tons of food and drinking water into the stricken villages. Along much of the sea front, the only indication that a village had existed was a bit of cloth tied to the top of a tree to mark the spot. The shocked survivors lined the roads grabbing at packets of food and supplies tossed to them from the backs of trucks.

At least 600,000 people had been uprooted by the storm, and the water that they depended on for drinking had been rendered undrinkable by refuse kicked up by the storm and by the corpses of drowned animals. Bangladesh is a victim of climate change, overpopulation and extreme poverty.

We will all be gathering with our friends this Thanksgiving. We’ll taste the inevitable turkey dinner and drink some wine. But in the back of our minds will be the plight of those less fortunate than we are. Next Monday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs will be launching its annual consolidated appeal to provide funding for humanitarian emergencies around the world. The amount is less than 1 percent of the money spent to bail out private financial institutions during the recent crisis. The question, while we give thanks, is whether we think can still afford to help others less lucky than we are.

Eric J. Lyman in Rome:

When I inquired at various butcher shops in Rome looking for a turkey for my first Italian Thanksgiving, everyone had the same advice: “Buy a female.” They should have also warned me to get a dead one.

I think I went to half a dozen Rome shops before I found one where they said they could get me a turkey by Thursday. “Tanksgibing Americano,” Franco, the Testaccio butcher, said with a knowing smile. I told him a wanted an 8-kilo bird (17.6-pound), a female (“Yes, of course, you are smart boy,” he replied). I was to come back on Wednesday morning.

When I returned, the butcher was in good spirits, taking me by the forearm around the side of his stall to his minivan parked nearby. He threw the door open to reveal four live turkeys clucking around in the back. He picked up each one, proved they were all females, then stood back to let me decide which one I wanted. “You get a feeling about one,” he said when I asked what I should base my decision on.

I had no feeling about any of them, though I did notice one seemed a little less beat up than the others. Was she younger? Better able to defend herself? Did she just mind her own business? Was she undesired by the males? Were these good or bad signs?

I picked the least beat up one, who, appallingly, seemed to make eye contact with me just as I pointed her out, as if to say “I’ve stayed out of trouble my whole life, and this is the thanks I get?”

I explained that I was too busy to butcher the poor bird myself, and that there was no way for me to bring a live turkey home on the bus. The real reason, of course, was that I didn’t know how to kill and clean a turkey. I came back in the afternoon and she was ready — not quite Butterball clean but close enough. The head and feet were still there; a few stubborn feathers still clung to her body.

I don’t know if it’s because she was so fresh, or because the old Grand Union supermarket near my parents’ house back in Florida only sold male turkeys, or because of something else. But the taste was great: moist, flavorful. Now whenever I’m in Rome this time of year I do the same thing — almost. I go back to Franco, ask for a female, and then tell him I want the bird cleaned and ready for dressing. “Of course,” he tells me each time. “You are a smart boy.”

Andrew Meldrum on Zimbabwe:

Thanksgiving in Zimbabwe is a challenge.

In November the weather is hot and rainy. Turkeys are hard to find and cranberries are unheard of.

But while living in Zimbabwe for 23 years I found many different ways to mark my favorite holiday. A few times my wife and I were invited by people from the U.S. Embassy to enjoy the traditional meal with fellow Americans. They got all the necessary provisions sent in by diplomatic pouch.

Once we had a Thanksgiving meal at a nice Harare hotel, but the turkey and stuffing were accompanied by a sweet jam and the whole meal felt like a British Christmas repast.

My favorite Thanksgiving meals were at our own home with our Zimbabwean friends. I think the best meal was not with a turkey, but with a churkey. That was the Zimbabwean term for the cross between a chicken and a turkey. Actually the correct term is capon, a castrated rooster that grows big and fat. Capon or churkey, the bird makes a splendid meal — excellent meat, and much more moist that an ordinary turkey.

We learned where to get canned cranberry sauce in South Africa which my wife mixed with orange bits and pecans to make her special family relish.

A wide variety of pumpkins are abundant in Zimbabwe and we discovered a specific type, that was white on the outside, flat and had deep orange flesh that made a good pumpkin pie.

Another challenge is that Thanksgiving Thursday is not a holiday in Zimbabwe. And it is hard to make a full T-day meal after returning from a day at work. However, Thanksgiving was never meant to be easy. My favorite Thanksgiving was when I was working at home. I could prepare the churkey and stuff it, roast it and make a good gravy. The cranberry relish and pumpkin pie were made in advance. In those days Zimbabwe produced a cornucopia of fresh vegetables and fruits. We got some South African wine. It was a feast.

It is also a pleasure to share the history of Thanksgiving with people who have never heard the story. It prompted discussions about the treatment of native Americans and how they live in the U.S. today.

Everybody understood and appreciated the sentiment that we all have a great deal to be grateful for and that it is good to get together around a great meal and give thanks.

Cameron Abadi in Berlin:

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and though the ones I've celebrated in Germany have been significantly more abstract than the ones I grew up with in the United States, I think they've been my favorite of all. Now, there are definitely bigger hassles involved: Unless you've ordered ahead, it's unlikely you'll find a turkey; sweet potatoes and cranberries are likewise tough to find; football isn't on television. And since the actual day is likely a normal working Thursday, there's a good chance you won't be able to gather a quorum of people on the actual day, even if someone volunteers to take the day off to cook all the food.

I don't mean to suggest that being forced into an improvised Thanksgiving is in itself edifying. But contemplating eating roasted chicken, rather than turkey, on Saturday, rather than Thursday, night, has always forced a re-consideration of Thanksgiving First Principles: Where do you draw the line? What can't you compromise on and still call it Thanksgiving? And I've always been grateful for that essentially personal thought process.

So, what are my Thanksgiving First Principles? First: I have to be eating together with people I really care about. No BS there. Second: some variation of my mom's stuffing has to be on the table. And so every year I arrange to sit around with a few good friends. And everyone year I struggle to follow the rice-based stuffing recipe liberally spiced with dill and cumin, the one that doesn't even quite taste like it belongs at a traditional Thanksgiving, the one that my
mother herself invented sometime after arriving in the United States from Iran as an adult.

And I'll admit that I'm always rather surprised by that. That it's not the turkey, or the mashed potatoes, or any of the other staples, that are irreplaceable, but one of the things that seems like it belongs least. That the most inviolable parts of the ritual — the ones you're most thankful for — are the most personal.

C.M. Sennott on Jerusalem:

On Thanksgiving of the year 2000, I was Jerusalem bureau chief for the Boston Globe and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was raging in the West Bank and Gaza. It was a wild and busy time and my wife, Julie, was eight months pregnant with our son Gabriel. We had literally forgotten that it was Thanksgiving.

I ran out to the Israeli butcher in the German Colony, where many American expats live. The kosher butcher informed me that whole turkeys were very available but had to have been ordered at least a week in advance. So then I walked down through the Damascus Gate into the Old City desperately searching for a turkey to feed my wife and our sons — we had two at that point and one who she was carrying and, of course, eating for.

My wife was mostly vegetarian before she began having kids, but when she was pregnant she had intense cravings for meat. Ravenous cravings. And she was having one of those cravings. So there was no way I could come home without a bird.

The Palestinian halal butcher offered a whole chicken or perhaps sliced turkey, but there was no whole turkey. Stuffing and cranberry? Forget about it. That wasn't happening.

I ended up bringing home a chicken and some thickly sliced turkey to try to simulate the feast, like any desperate native New Englander in a foreign land. At the end of the day, as I remember it, Julie was happy with the chicken. And the two boys were content in their high chairs to be pulling apart the slices of turkey and shoving them in their mouths. And, as I remember it, we had a lot to be thankful for even amid the swirl of violence and hatred that was then erupting around us.

William Dowell in Geneva:

The average American living in Geneva treats Thanksgiving as a patriotic affair, a way to emphasize that you are still American by foisting the largest turkey they can find on a group slightly confused Continental friends, stuffing it with, well, stuffing, and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to track down a source of cranberries. Most of the Europeans I know are mildly amused at the concept of gorging oneself as an expression of thanks, especially since the anxiety-producing question of the hour is the price and size of the turkey.

The average Swiss or French turkey weighs anywhere from 7 lbs to 12 lbs. But most expats feel that to be truly American, a turkey should weigh more than 20 lbs. The idea is to serve everyone around the table from the same cooked bird. Prestige is an important part of giving thanks. The cost isn’t cheap either. Turkeys in this area run at up to $8 or more per pound. A friend recently drove over night to the U.S. Air Force Base at Ramstein in Germany in order to buy a genuine American bird at $1 per pound. At the going price, the truly thankful ones around here are the Swiss turkeys, who narrowly escape execution during this curious celebration by watching their weight and pricing themselves out of the market. All they have to worry about is Christmas, when even some Europeans zero in on turkeys as the bird of choice.

Barbara E. Martinez on Brussels:

Our first year living in Belgium, we decided to pull out all the stops on Thanksgiving. We invited a group of about 15 American and European friends. We bought pounds of potatoes and even canned pumpkin — in that city of expats, the local supermarket had a handy "USA" section with an odd mixture of "American" foods including marshmallow fluff and microwave popcorn.

But for the turkey, we went local. I stopped by the butcher shop on the shopping street near our apartment about a week before Thanksgiving and asked if he could procure a turkey for pickup the following Thursday. I made sure to ask for "les abats," which an American friend had told me meant giblets in French. Sure, he said. Would I like it stuffed?

That was a question I had not considered. But I did have to work half a day on Thanksgiving, so it didn't sound like a bad idea to have the butcher take care of the stuffing. "What do you stuff it with?"

"Veal, sausage, pistachios, truffles, cognac."

How could that be bad? I went for the stuffing.

When I picked up the turkey a week later it was neatly wrapped and bagged. The butcher instructed me to cut a stick of butter into pieces and placed them around the turkey and roast it for four hours, basting with the butter and drippings every hour. It was only when I got home and unwrapped the turkey that I realized how heavy it was. And floppy. In fact, it didn't have any bones.

And thus I learned that the traditional Belgian Christmas turkey is de-boned and stuffed, mostly with meat. You slice right through it and serve each guest a cross-section of turkey and stuffing. It's a portrait of master butchery. And it's quite delicious, if the richest Thanksgiving dinner I've ever eaten. Our guests took home pounds of leftovers.

The gravy, however, was something to really give thanks for. That heavy, boneless turkey sat on the bottom of the roasting pan and left behind all sorts of fatty, crusty, meaty bits. And those bits were roasted in real butter. With some stock and roux, it became the best gravy I've ever tasted — until we made it again the next year, at Christmas.