The leaves are changing colors, the warm weather is slowly disappearing, then on the scarfs and gloves and jackets (and sometimes umbrella!). That’s when I know that it is time for my favorite holiday in the US: Thanksgiving.
Typical rich shade of fall. Source: Odyssey.
I had my first American Thanksgiving experience during my second year in Davis, thanks to the International House. The gigantic turkey, aromatic stuffings, fluffy mashed potatoes topped off with silky savory gravy, and a hint of tangy cranberry sauce were more than enchanting. The lovely companions could not have been better. It felt familiar. It reminded me of Chinese New Year celebration in Indonesia, when families and friends would gather, visit each other and stuff our faces in a massive feast. And just like that, I felt welcomed to my new home.
Such wonderful moments inspired me to host a memorable dinner of my own. Aside from my love for cooking, organizing this big event gives me joy. For a moment, it keeps me away from my hectic life as a Ph.D. student, yet I can never go far from my root as someone who works in a laboratory. My friends joke all the time about how I planned the whole extravaganza with military precision. Everything was timed, shopping lists were organized by category, and I even made flowcharts for all of my recipes just like the lab experiment protocols!
Then came the D-day. One by one, guests arrived with a bottle of wine in hand. Hugs were exchanged. Chatters were filling my small living room, and sometimes the guests overspill might have to resort to the bedroom, which has also been turned into the boots and jacket room. While waiting for dinner to be served, my guests were kept busy by making their own paper hand turkey crafts. It felt as if everyone was a child again; people were excited to show off their creations and post them on the wall using sticky tapes. Once the golden brown turkey was carved, everyone started filling their plates and sat around the dinner table. For a while there was silence, then laughter broke as someone commented that we were too busy munching to talk. Only after that conversations started to flow freely as we talked about our daily lives, holiday plans, and more often, cultural and social issues. All this is accompanied by glasses after glasses of chilled sangria. It is truly a great way to be around friends and connect with each other. Everyone is welcomed with open hands.
Food, friends and entertainment
Despite that I have hosted five Thanksgiving dinners, last year we had to skip it as we have just moved back to Jakarta and needed time to get settled in. It didn’t hit me how sad I was having to miss it until just recently. I started toying with the idea of hosting a big dinner and inviting some people we know here, yet there are more concerns than affirmations. Everyone lives so far away, my fridge is too small and won’t fit some of the dishes that have to be cooked in advance, and it’s quite difficult to do a booze run here. We’re simply not ready to host yet. I had to shrug off that idea, yet as the weeks go by I realized, I just have to start this tradition again or it will die off just like this blog almost did.
I made up my mind. I’ll cook the best damn Thanksgiving dinner in Indonesia for four people: me, Sean and my parents.
First challenge was to find the turkey. I know that Ranch Market do carry them, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to cook a whole turkey. A 12-pound turkey would be too much for the four of us. I didn’t even know if my parents would like it! Luckily, we found cut up thighs and legs for sale in the supermarket. I guess they know the demand is slightly raised around this time and not everyone can afford $70 for a whole turkey. In the basket they go.
Second challenge was how to close your eyes and just fork over that debit card. Man, Thanksgiving is heavily associated with fall ingredients and they are EXPENSIVE here. I had to hold myself back and get two sticks of butter only, the least amount of butter I’ve ever bought for such a meal. That yummy brussels sprouts would have probably cost our firstborn son if we have had any. I could’ve substituted the ingredients with some local stuff, but I just couldn’t get myself to do it this time. I might do it next year, who knows.
Third challenge, which is the most difficult one, was how to create a menu that would please everyone. A day before our shopping trip, my dad had specifically claimed that he didn’t want any turkey. He was scared of it because he thought it was too big. I couldn’t make everything savory because my parents like a hint of sweetness on all of their food. On the other hand, I couldn’t change up the flavor profile too much because there’s an American boy who’s missing that Thanksgiving feel.
After much deliberation, here’s the menu I came up with:
This year’s Thanksgiving menu.
To accommodate everyone’s schedule, dinner was done on Sunday. As opposed to what I did the previous years, I didn’t spend days planning and cooking. I made the pumpkin cheesecake a day in advance. The rest were all done the day of, starting at 8 in the morning.
Surprisingly, Mom didn’t keep asking if she could help with anything. By now she probably has understood that I like my peace and quiet when I’m cooking. The worst thing you can do when I’m in the zone is to ask me a bunch of questions. Just leave me alone and let me chop, sear, sprinkle and glaze!
Dad, curious as he was, kept popping in and out of the kitchen, sniffing and poking every single thing as much as possible. He seemed really interested with the stuffings and so I gave him a piece. It was all poker face. I couldn’t tell if he liked it or not. One thing for sure, every time he came by and I was cooking a different dish, he would comment that the menu was so complicated. I find it odd since his mom, my grandma, used to make elaborate meals for everyone. I was once a three-year-old who had a table full of food for my birthday party. No bounce house or magician, but here, take a deep-fried meatball.
As for the love of my life, he played the role of a co-pilot who was ready to hand me anything I need and to wash incoming dirty dishes and utensils. He did a good job as a taste-tester, too.
Dinner time came and one-by-one, I started plating all of the dishes. Carving the turkey was probably the biggest nail biter of all. I had never cooked turkey in parts before and I was not very familiar with the oven at home. I simply stuffed a slab of home-made Cajun butter underneath that turkey skin and did a Hail Mary. The football kind, not the religious kind. To my relief, the meat was juicy, tender and well-seasoned.
All the food. Did you notice the iced tea? Ha ha XD
We sat around the table and tried to take a family picture as my dad and Sean frantically tried to scoop up food onto their plates. A few trials later, I called it quit and started following them as well. Sean and I had to explain what the dishes were and which sauce goes with which dish. Not long after, we all dug in and there come the yummy noises. The mashed potatoes were a hit with Mom and Dad admitted the turkey was actually tender, not at all what he expected. They both liked the savory gravy and sweet-sour cranberry combo. Even though the whole meal will never be comparable to my mie sapi or hot pot, they definitely were pleased with this new experience.
Mom wants me to print this out so people can see our family when they come over.
The perfect Thanksgiving plate.
Based on our history with new types of food, I actually anticipated my dad’s eating behavior by providing some rice and sweet soy sauce with chopped chili on the side. He didn’t touch them! Success!!
It’s fair to say that this was a great Thanksgiving experience for everyone. I’m glad Sean and I got to relive that holiday atmosphere and my parents had the chance to try something completely foreign to them. It is indeed a lot of work for a dinner for four, yet I will not hesitate to do a sequel in the upcoming years. Here’s to our first (and not last) Thanksgiving meal in Jakarta!
Disclaimer: A part of this article has previously been published on Aggie Voices, which unfortunately is no longer available.