Thursday, November 22, 2007



It’s been too long since my last posting, but I do plan to be more regular with this from here on out. In addition to Rick Penner’s comment on the second posting, he recently sent around an email to his wide network of friends endorsing this and several other blogs. So, I guess I’d better say something new.


I’m writing this on Friday, November 23, here in Quezon City. Most of my American friends and family are dazedly digesting their turkey, or trying to walk it off. One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving is the leftovers: leftover turkey, then the turkey sandwiches, then the white meat in the chef salad, finally, the soup.

Despite so much else from America that has been adopted by the Philippines, Thanksgiving is not one of them. In very recent years, even American style Halloween has become part of middle class Filipino life, the costumes and candy being pushed hard by the shopping malls. But not Thanksgiving.

Fact is, I never thought much about Thanksgiving over most of the years I’ve lived here. A telephone call from a family member, or a greeting card from my mother arriving a week or so after the holiday (mail service has improved even if no one uses it anymore), would remind me of what was happening back home.

That is, until I took over a study abroad program. A week ahead of the holiday, a member of my first batch of students called and said they would pay for the turkey, if I’d be willing to cook it. The party would be at the apartment several of them shared.

That’s when I met Mr. Butterball. I’d never cooked a turkey before. Growing up, Thanksgiving was something we alternated with my mother’s family – one year at our place, next year at there’s. Both my mother and aunt were great cooks, and I don’t recall the turkey ever coming out of the oven less than perfect. And, lucky for us, they went for the white meat leftovers, and we took the dark. My mother and aunt never met Mr. Butterball either.

So, I cooked the turkey for my students, and while it is surely jam packed full of chemicals it’s pretty hard to go wrong with an imported Butterball turkey. The first taxi driver wouldn’t permit us to put it in his trunk. The second one was willing to take the risk and, six years on, he probably still has turkey grease smelling up his cab.

We got it to the party, and if I recall, there were at least a few side dishes. The turkey disappeared almost instantly. That was a big group of 20-year-olds.

That launched a tradition. From then on I’d cook the turkey at home and have my students over along with several other close friends. We’d have a few side dishes, but the students would bring most of the rest. I think the last Thanksgiving dinner had well over 40 people.

Most of my students were second generation Philippine-Americans, so the side dishes might include store-bought pancit (noodles), home-made lumpia (spring rolls), and a whole range of other cooked and purchased items. I learned from an older Philippine-American friend that this would be a pretty typical Thanksgiving dinner for a Philippine-American family in the U.S. I was very proud of one of my few non-Filipino students who cooked up banana cue – bananas cooked in oil and sugar and not too badly burned.

Two year’s ago my wife had her first Thanksgiving in the United States. Again, the turkey was central, but the side dishes included sushi. No one in this brother’s family is Japanese, but it was in the Napa Valley, so one expects culinary surprises.

Last year I was reading in the New York Times that Thanksgiving is the favorite American holiday of migrants. It is vaguely religious, but unlike Christmas or Easter, it doesn’t showcase any particular religion. Turkey is almost always a part of it, but the side dishes might be curries, enchilada, or chopsuey.

I often suggested to my students that we do the dinner on Friday, so they wouldn't have to be concerned with class the next day. But they insisted Thanksgiving had to be on Thursday, and it had to have mashed potato.

One year some of my local friends, Filipinos of course, asked me to explain what Thanksgiving was all about. So, I gave them the rundown of the first Thanksgiving, of how the native people had supported the settlers through their first winter, and how the feast happened before the onset of the second winter. This is more-or-less historically correct, I believe.

Being a university event, however, I couldn’t pass up the “teaching moment,” so I had to say a bit more. After the close of the Civil War, and not long before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln first declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It was a way to bring the country together around a religious theme that wasn't too religious, and to try to move on after the devastation of the war. The sadly ironic thing is that this commemoration of cooperation between indigenous and settler peoples was made a holiday at the very time of the most deliberate and systematic slaughter of the remaining indigenous peoples. Some call it the Westward Expansion.

But as for the Butterballs, you might be wondering what they’re doing here. Well, the Philippines doesn’t observe Thanksgiving, but we do have the longest Christmas season in the world, starting on or around September 1. It’s the berrrrrrrr months of our tropical winter. For weeks now, the stone cold Butterballs have been piling up higher and higher in the shopping mall supermarkets!

Sadly, since the U.S. State Department declared a travel warning on the whole of the Philippines (this will be taken up in another blog one day), and I no longer have students, and I’m less reminded of this American holiday.

Yesterday, at the multilateral agency where my wife works, we did have our turkey, however. There are some 4,000 staffers there, and they enjoy a very good cafeteria with several different national cuisines served for every breakfast and lunch. Upstairs is the fine dinning restaurant. All of this is very good, and very cheap even by Philippine standards.

Probably not more than a few hundred of the staffers are American, but the upstairs restaurant did have a Thanksgiving Special. My wife and I were escorted to our reserved table by the window. It was lovely. The pumpkin soup was scrumptious. Then the main course arrived. I looked down at the plate, and mostly I saw a white plate! Hey! This is Thanksgiving! I shouldn’t see ANY plate below that food. I shouldn’t be able to walk away from here! A little dab of white meat, a little dark, some potato, and two – count them – two sprigs of asparagus. What is that?

My wife reminded me that this was a fine dining restaurant, and it was lunch, on a working day. People are going back to work within the hour.

Oh, okay. So it goes.

Happy Thanksgiving. I wish we could be together.

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