The holiday season is upon us, and I was recently asked what the Thanksgiving experience is like for American expats in Turkey.
I grew up in the midwest and we celebrated Thanksgiving very traditionally. We all met at our grandma’s house. She was a wonderful baker, using recipes passed down from her mother and I imagine her mother before. Her apple pie was good, her pumpkin pie was great, but her mini pecan pies were deeply revered. We would stand around the kitchen gorging ourselves on these bite-sized bits of heaven. My grandma would make hundreds but they rarely made it into the next day’s leftovers. My sisters and I try to recreate the magic every year, sending critiques by email. Our meal was always within tradition, I was in charge of the mashed potatoes. Grandma always used an old fashioned potato masher and so that’s what I still use today. The chunks give it character. After dinner we would all lay around reading magazines. We were a female heavy family much to my brother’s chagrin.
Fast forward many years and the majority of my family became vegetarian. Our blended family with new grand children to feed were served side dishes and meat substitutions which my dad declares “weird”. He still isn’t sure where he went wrong. But he is outvoted, no turkey, much to his chagrin!
So with that I do have some experience with non-traditional Thanksgiving. My first few years in Turkey I didn’t celebrate the holiday. I didn’t have much involvement with the expat community and unlike Christmas (which does have some buildup here) Thanksgiving can sort of pass you by if you aren’t paying attention. But that changed once I got involved in some groups and clubs of cooks and expats, several of which are represented on Facebook. The excitement and holiday cheer was much more present. Since the focal point of the holiday (besides giving thanks) is the meal, it isn’t surprising that the majority of questions and communications between these groups is where can we find such and such an ingredient and what is the price.
I should clarify by mentioning that while I am told by people who have lived here much longer than I, that imports have become much more available in the last 5 years. But it is still a challenge to find many products and when you can find them they are often very expensive. One of the most exciting things for many this year was that yams were widely available. In the past years if yams could be found they were exorbitantly cost prohibitive, only a true yam fanatic would buy them. This year however it seems most grocery chains have caught on to the demand and the price was quite fair. Although there was a controversy on my cooking page about some of the yams baking up gray and flavorless. ‘The Great Turkish Yam Scam of 2014’ as I am sure it will come to be known. A few other new entrances into the scene this year were dried cranberries, cranberry preserve and the classic canned cranberry sauce which in the US costs from 1 - 2.50 dollars. Here one can retails at 45 turkish lira or in US dollars 20.25! Another hot item was cream of mushroom soup. One lady I know stocked up on 10 cans.
Turkey (or hindi as it is called) ironically is not a bird that is often consumed in Turkey. I have been excited to find one upscale grocery chain which sells turkey more often, but never a whole bird. This year whole birds were available in some of the chains and a larger “costco” type store had them available for order as they have in past years. So expats can find them more easily. Unlike say, the green beans which may be available at one tiny gourmet shop on the Asian side or the stove-top stuffing which is only in one gourmet shop in a high-end European neighborhood. Gathering ingredients can literally have you spanning continents. And more than likely several times. Seasoned expats make plans well in advance of the holiday, bringing supplies in their suitcases from the US. Which is something many of us do anyway, but seasonal planning takes the smuggling to a whole different level.
So with all this effort, planning and expense, what are the gatherings like? Typically the parties consist of a hodgepodge of expats, many known to each other some not. Some of us may be brand new in town and an acquaintance took pity. My first Thanksgiving invite, I was that person. But by the end of the party I had made some wonderful friends.
One of my friends as a rule only invites Americans but their Turkish or foreign counterparts are welcome to attend with them. Part of the reason she started the American only rule was she became increasingly more frustrated with the fact she would prepare traditional American food (this was over many different parties over many years) and the Turk guests would either refuse to try the food, pick at it listlessly or only eat the bread. Turks have a great patriotism to their cuisine and many don’t wish to try new things. I don’t blame her frustration! That’s an article for another day but it has been a source of agony for many foreign gals trying to feed their Turkish counterparts!
In the end the gatherings are lovely, not the same sense of family or home that you would get in America. But still a lot of camaraderie. The conversations tend to be quite similar and although you may not have a drunk uncle to embarrass you, more than likely some guest will be willing to take their place. It’s Thanksgiving after all.