One of a Kind Thanksgiving: Back to the Basics

Yarn Skallah*: “So we have a slight issue. Baia does not think she can get us a Turkey anymore.”
Me: “Do you think you can get a turkey? I mean you can literally probably just kidnap one off the street? They just run around, maybe no one will notice.”
Yarn Skallah: “I was hoping you get one at your site.” I simply laughed at this.
Me: “What is a Thanksgiving in Georgia without a bit of drama? I have never seen a turkey sold here. But I will ask Dato and we will figure it out.”

*Yarn Skallah is a nickname that Ryan adopted during our PST experience. He has specifically requested for me to use his nickname in this blog post. I will refer to him as Yarn going forward.

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Turkeys literally just roam around in villages and towns. Suggesting to kidnap one is not unrealistic, but still unethical.

The above conversation is in reference to our planning stage for our Thanksgiving event in a nearby village. Baia, referenced above, is a local, famous, female winemaker who has a guesthouse attached to her vineyard. Our plan was to rent out the guesthouse, invite several of our Peace Corps friends, and celebrate Thanksgiving early with Baia. I also invited Dato, my director at World Vision, to celebrate with us.

Immediately after that conversation, I request Dato’s help, “Do you know if we can buy a Turkey here?” He nods and said, “Yes, at the poultry market. We can go today and see.” So within the hour, I hop in the car and Dato and I were off to this poultry market that I had no idea existed. Funny enough, it was a couple of blocks away from my host family’s house. This market was filled with live chickens and pigs for sale. Unfortunately, that day, there were only 5 live teenage turkeys. We felt that the price was a bit high, so we decided to pardon the turkeys’ lives and let them live for another day.

 

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You can see a couple of pigs in the bottom right-hand corner. The rest of the picture is filled with live chickens.

I felt perplexed by the whole thing. I really wanted to brine the turkey for days before roasting it. However, Dato was convinced that on the weekends, the price of a live turkey drops. Considering that our event was on a Saturday night, this would work out in our favor. Whilst all this was happening, I could not help but laugh at the situation.

Here I am arguing about live turkeys for Thanksgiving with a villager who grows them for a living. In California, Justin and I would buy our turkey weeks in advance from Costco and begin defrosting it a few days before Thanksgiving. It got me thinking, did pilgrims, the ones who did not raise turkeys, have the same conversation at the market nearly 300-400 years ago? Or did they just kidnap one off the “street” like I jokingly suggested we should do?

During the whole week, I had a gut feeling that there might not be a functioning oven. I know that may seem odd to you, but MOST homes in Georgia do not have ovens. Yarn and I continue to discuss this potential dilemma on the phone while we are both working. Dato overhears me and proudly suggests, “We can just boil the turkey.” I swallowed. I calmly said, “we are not boiling the turkey. You do not boil turkeys. You roast the turkey. I cannot stress this enough, but we need an oven.”

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This is the picture Baia sent us. This oven was in no shape to bake anything beyond chicken breasts.

 

We call Baia to see her oven situation. She basically has something equivalent to an easy-bake oven. Her suggestion, “boil the turkey.” Hearing that sentence was making my blood boil. How do people think this is a suitable alternative to baking?!  In the end, I told Yarn that I will attempt to bake the turkey at my house and then wrap it in foil and come to the dinner a bit late. But then, we were stressing out because I had no way to bake the turkey unless I literally just put it raw and hanging on the oven rack. I do not have a big enough casserole dish or anything equivalent. This was a problem for future Rawan. I decided to just focus on buying the stupid turkey first.

I go to Georgian tutoring clearly stressing out about how to cook the turkey. A first world problem is, “oh, I hope I don’t make it dry.” A Peace Corps problem is, “I hope I have an oven. I hope I don’t get chicken $hit murdering a turkey. Oh, if I do find an oven and a turkey, I hope I have a way to bake it.”

My tutor’s suggestion for getting stressed about the turkey’s death was, “It is good you have yard.”
“What do you mean, Lana?”
“So Justin can kill it in the yard and you do not have to worry.”
I proclaimed, “Justin does not kill chickens. Turkeys are bigger. He still won’t kill it.”
Lana suggested, “For cooking, you can still boil the turkey.”

 

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OH, MY GOD. Stop it with the boiling suggestion already. 

 

On Saturday morning, Dato, my supervisor, was going to hire one of World Vision on-call drivers, Dato, to pick Justin and me up. Oh, this is not a typo. They are both named Dato. In Georgia, you will find a lot of Datos (short for Davit, the Georgian version of David). In fact, half of the males in my office are called Dato. Regardless, the two Datos, Justin, and I arrive at the poultry market early that Saturday morning. The plan is to see the marshutkas (mini buses) arrive from the villages with the live chickens, turkeys, and pigs in tow to ensure we get the best turkey.

While Dato was finalizing our transportation for the next morning, I sat on my dining room chair thinking about how I’m going to cook this turkey, Thanksgiving style.

Ryan calls me with a suggestion, “How about you cook the turkey at Baia’s?”
“But Ryan, I thought we went over this. Her oven won’t work. It might be better if I cook it my house. The turkey is supposed to cool off a bit before we cut it anyway.”
“What if I bring my oven?”
“You are telling me you going to lug around a big oven.” It would be a logistics nightmare to carry a huge home oven from the town to the village. Then, I remembered,  “Wait, you don’t have an oven.”

….an awkward moment of silence…

Ryan admits, “Yeah, I just bought one.”
“What do you mean you just bought an oven?” In pure excitement, I continued, “You are literally the Thanksgiving Santa Claus. You literally just saved Thanksgiving.”

Ryan had bought a small, electric and very portable oven. It was similar to Baia’s, but it was bigger. It would be enough to cook a very small, teenage turkey. (Well, so we thought…more on that later).

I called Dato immediately after and told him the change in plans. We were now going to go early to Baia’s so that I cook the turkey there.

When Saturday rolled around, Dato was very matter of a fact about the whole thing.  We strolled to the turkey section of the market. He looked at me and said straight in the face, “Which one do you want?”  I felt very connected to my food at that moment. I said, “I don’t know.” So Dato proceeded to pick two up and offered both to me to see which one weighed more.

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Holding up the turkey at the live market!

As I held up the turkeys by its legs, they were both super chill and calm about it. To be more specific, they did not object. Both of them just hung upside down, blinking at me, unknowing that one of them was literally about to die. The picture above looks like it may be flapping its wings. Trust me though, the wings naturally spread hanging upside down. Another side note, turkey features are super soft.

Here is a Georgian turkey shopping hint: blow on its features while it is upside down. The trick is to blow softly (but hard enough) to see the skin below the features. That way, you can tell what food the turkey is fed. Is it junk food? Is it proper cornmeal?Don’t ask me how exactly, but skin color has something to do with it. I’m not sure I believe in this, but my boss totally took a huff puff or two.

When I finally came to my decision, I gave both back to Dato and said, “That one!” It felt very off-with-its-head-queen-of-hearts moment for me. The turkey seller took the turkey and went off to butcher area for it to be killed (picture below). I could have went home with the live turkey, but I decided to spend the whole 5 GEL to have it killed and plucked! It was honestly the best 5 GEL that I ever spent.

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Sorry that the picture is blurry, I was trying not to be weird taking photos of this moment. 

 

The process of killing, plucking, and cleaning the turkey took about 30 minutes. While we were waiting, we stood in the warm “roasting pig room.” The men who worked there were so curious as to why these two Americans and one Georgian man were at the market early in the morning buying a turkey. Second moment of confusion, why would I waste a whole 5 GEL to have someone else kill it for me. Would you like to guess what happened next?

 

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The room where we waited while the turkey was being killed

 

You guessed it, they gave me suggestions on how to cook the turkey. You guessed again, “Ah, just boil it!” I looked at my boss and I finally snapped. “I’m sorry. I’m not going to take advise from people who have never cooked a turkey. And, I’m not going to take advice on something so inherently American- something that is almost a 400-year-old tradition.” Dato laughed. I, on the other hand, am serious about turkey.  On a depressing note, the conversation was a very good distraction to the noise of the pigs being killed. Silver lining, our turkey was very quiet.

When it was plucked and cleaned, the lady offered to put the turkey in a garbage bag for me and Justin. It was so awkward just going home with a plastic bag with a turkey just lying dead there. I think I miss buying meat and poultry where it is on a styrofoam platter covered with saran wrap.

 

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Me, preparing the turkey before baking it in Ryan’s oven!

 

While I started preparing the turkey at Baia’s, I noticed something I was not happy about. The turkey was not fully cleaned out of its insides. Anatomy lessons are great, I just wished I did not have to have one on Thanksgiving. I was surprised to see how small some of the organs were. If I’m grossing you out, I’m sorry. At least, you were not the one who had to clean it out. I look all happy there, but moments before, I was nervously about to cry while cleaning the turkey out properly. Again, another first world privilege I took for granted.

As the way Peace Corps life goes, another challenge awaited. After I prepped the turkey perfectly, we noticed that it did not fit in Ryan’s oven. I picked the smallest turkey I could find at the market, but it was a bit too big. Neil, another Peace Corps Volunteer, tried punching the turkey’s breast so that the bones would break. That didn’t work. So we took regular kitchen scissors and tried cutting it while maintaining its main form. That slightly worked. So I wrapped the whole thing in foil so it does not directly touch the oven’s “ceiling.”

 

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Dato and I literally squeezing the turkey in the oven

 

The turkey was so small, it took less than 2 hours to bake! Remember how I said I bought one of the small turkeys at the market? Well, apparently, it showed when we took it out of the oven. The poor turkey was so underdeveloped that the breast was protruding. It looked like a bunch of voulchers took a few nibbles before we were able to serve it.

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The turkey once it was done baking. This is before we ate it.

Regardless, it was delicious. I mean, how could it not be? It was the freshest turkey any of us have ever had. I also managed to cook it perfectly, despite my conditions. It was not dry and it tasted like a real, American Thanksgiving meal.

At the dinner table, many of us toasted to our friends and family back home. We combined the Georgian tradition of toasting with hoars and the American tradition of going around the table individually giving thanks.

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Yarn toasting with a Georgian horn to express what he is grateful for.

When it was my turn, I gave thanks to the turkey. Without this turkey, this Thanksgiving would not have been possible.

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*Only one animal was harmed for the making of this thanksgiving.

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