I have never cooked a turkey before. That’s really the only place to start this story.
It’s either there or on a bus headed across town balancing a box full of pumpkin pies and a bag of onions and ground beef.
Last week I helped organize and cook for an ‘expat Thanksgiving’ with my Czech friend, Katka.
It was a last-minute affair. About the only details nailed down were that I was bringing pumpkin pie and that our bird would need at least 3 and a half hours to finish cooking.
We planned to serve dinner at 8:00 so that meant I had to be in Katka’s kitchen at 4:00 or we wouldn’t have a cooked bird when everyone showed up.
I trekked out to school Wednesday morning with an overnight bag packed, a cloth grocery bag with 24 rohlíky (bread rolls) for the stuffing, and a cardboard box containing twelve plates and two precariously balanced pies.
I skipped lunch break at school to run to the local Billa to pick up more ingredients for the stuffing.
Hungry – and further saddled with nuts, raisins, celery, onions, a weird vegetable that smelled like it would taste good in stuffing, and several packages of ground beef – I made my way through chilly streets towards the bus stop.
By the time I got on the metro, I was beginning to realize that the pies were not going to make it. No matter how carefully I held them, I could feel them shifting and sliding in the box.
Katka texted me a bird update. (I was getting worried she might not find one because turkeys aren’t very common here).
“Ok, I got us a turkey. It’s GINORMOUS. It’s on the balcony, stuffed in a black trash bag. I feel like a murderer. When are you getting here?”
I was still forty-five minutes out and it was well after 3:30. I texted back, telling her to put the turkey in warm water in the sink to help it get up to room temperature. A few minutes later she texted back:
“Pretty much the scariest thing ever, but done. What next?”
Our instructions went back and forth – mine on how to prep the turkey, hers on how to get to her house from the metro (another long bus ride in which the pies decided to sit on top of each other).
Katka picked me up at the bus stop outside of a Lidel, carrots and potatoes in hand.
We stomped through the cold and the dark to her house, shifting our groceries and sharing our experiences with dinner so far – hers being de-necking the turkey and mine involving an unfortunate mix-up in the store over the celery. The language barrier continues to stalk me (no pun intended).
We dropped our ingredients on the floor of the kitchen and I turned to find myself face-to-face with a magnificent, massive, extremely dead turkey.
“Wow, this is a bird,” I said, lifting it slightly. “Will this fit in your oven?”
“I hope so,” she said. “But I have no idea what we’re gonna cook it in.”
“Did you take the stuff out from inside?” I asked. “The giblets?”
“The what?” She looked at me confused. “No, they asked me if I wanted the stuff inside or not and I said, ‘no’ obviously. There’s nothing in there.”
I peered down the neck of the turkey. It looked pretty vacant.
“So, they probably killed this guy this morning,” I said.
“Yesterday at the earliest,” said Katka, shuffling around for a pan to cook our bird in.
“Poor Tom,” I said, giving the bird a pat.
“You can’t call it Tom,” Katka said with a dismissive chuckle. “It’s a girl.”
“All turkeys are called Tom,” I replied.
“But this is a female,” she insisted. “In Czech we have a different word for male and female turkeys and they said this one was a female.”
“I don’t care if it was an alien,” I said. “Every Thanksgiving turkey my family has ever eaten has been named Tom. We’re not stopping that now.”
Katka held up two pans, one with a wider breadth and one with a taller rim.
“Thomasina?” I said, pointing to the taller-rimmed pan.
“Fine,” she said.
We put the turkey in the pan and I sewed up its neck. I knew that we had to get the bird cooking now or it would never be done in time, so I made the executive decision to put it in the oven while we worked on the stuffing and then bake the stuffing while we took the turkey out for basting and final prep.
At first this plan seemed perfect. Tom didn’t go into the oven easily – she was a big gal. But when we finally had counter space to chop onions, shred bread and crush nuts, the stress level decreased dramatically. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.
Janek – Katka’s younger brother, an adorable twelve-year old who is one of my favorite human beings ever – peeled about 35 potatoes for us. Our last cooking project together, we made him grate 8 ounces of cheese, which he did silently and without complaint. It took him almost an hour, but we dubbed him the Cheese Master.
“Now I’m Potato Master,” he said in his broken English.
Yes you are, dude.
We pulled up my email so I could check the recipe Mom sent me – not that we really followed it.
About that time, Matouš made his entrance. Katka’s older brother, Mat, was the brawns of our operation.
You see, we weren’t actually having dinner at their house. They are in the process of moving to a new home down the street. It is currently empty of furniture but has a lot more room.
“Are we going to move the table?” asked Mat, his college bag still slung over his shoulder.
“I still think we should just sit on pillows on the floor,” I said.
Mat scoffed at me a little – it was that “Ridiculous Americans” look that I’m so used to.
“No, we should definitely bring the table,” said Mat. “Otherwise things will get stepped on and we’ll make a huge mess.”
“It would be like an indoor picnic!”
Mat shakes his head and smiles.
“We’re going to carry the table over. Just tell us when.”
It’s time for our turkey-switch. Our stuffing – which looked a bit like a bread salad with clumps of uncooked hamburger meat on top – waited on the counter. I opened the oven and wrestled with a piping hot, very heavy turkey. Katka slipped in the stuffing and closed the oven door.
Smooth work, team.
The turkey looked amazing. It had turned all golden and crispy on the outside. Katka had a butter and rosemary baste ready. She was pretty excited about it.
Periodically, throughout the evening, one or both of us would start singing a new rendition of Meghan Trainor’s “All about that bass.”
I’m all about that baste, ‘bout that baste, ‘bout that baste.
Interrupted with shrilly sung declarations like,
I’m bringing tuuurkey baaaaaaack. Tell all your skinny chiiickens thaaaaat!
While we waited for the stuffing to bake and turkey to chill out and for Janek to finish peeling the potatoes, we looked at our recipe for candied yams.
Sweet potatoes are also really hard to come by here but I’d heard that you can use carrots instead.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Katka asked.
“Yeah, I’m positive,” I said.
I had some pretty serious doubts.
“This says we need marshmallows,” said Katka.
“I forgot to pick them up at the American store,” I said, “But it’ll be fine without them. Besides, we have the brown sugar, and that’s what’s most import–”
“Kat! I left the brown sugar at home!”
“Can you call Jared and tell him to bring it?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said, grabbing my phone. “He’d have to come early though.”
I sent him a desperate text. He responded with a request for bus times.
Thank goodness for Jared.
This is when we ran into turkey problem #2: stuffing a partially baked turkey is just like, really hard. Physically and emotionally, if I can be so bold to say so.
The stuffing had some issues of its own, but trying to fit it into the gaping hindquarters of a dead bird that was squirting warm juice everywhere was one of the oddest and most disturbing things I have ever done on a major holiday. Furthermore, sewing the turkey back up again also proved to be a challenge.
“This was not meant to work like this,” I said.
“But just think,” Katka said. “You will always remember this as the Thanksgiving disaster and it will be magical.”
It was pretty magical, I thought, looking at Tom who was bursting in odd places with stuffing. She was even harder to get back into the oven once stuffed, on account of the fact that now she weighed about as much as a small manatee.
Janek had peeled and halved the potatoes and had started washing dishes without being asked. We started boiling the potatoes and dicing carrots. At some point we poured cranberry preserves into a saucepan with ginger, cinnamon and currents.
It was a waiting game. Waiting for the turkey to do its thing. Waiting for Jared to show up with the brown sugar. Waiting for the ten or so people to show up and wonder why nothing was ready. Waiting for something to go tragically wrong because of course something would.
We played music and danced around with vegetables. I broke a glass which we then had to sweep up.
I’m all about that baste, no cheesecloth.
I was beginning to worry about our turkey time-line, with so many things waiting on it being finished – nothing could go into the oven until it was done and we couldn’t finish the gravy without drippings from the bird. Also, Jared was still AWOL with the brown sugar.
My phone buzzed. Jared:
Abort mission. Planet does not support life.
Jared and I are both slightly obsessed with Interstellar right now.
I texted back.
DO NOT QUIT ON US, JARED JOSEPH. WE NEED THAT BROWN SUGAR.
“Katka,” I asked. “Can Mat wait for Jared when he gets to the bus stop? I don’t think he’ll find his way in the dark.”
“Sure, I’ll ask him.” Katka hollered upstairs and I checked my phone again.
Jared was in line. Good.
We washed dishes and finished the mashed potatoes. Between the potatoes and the gravy, I used every drop of butter and milk in the house.
The gravy was becoming a problem. No matter how much flour I added to thicken it or milk I added to stretch it out, it seemed to stay the same size. We had about three servings worth. I had to make three servings cover a dozen people.
“You disgust me,” I told the gravy as I added salt and pepper.
Jared texted me.
2 minutes to Saturn. Will await visual.
Mat was still doing an inventory of drinks we needed and hadn’t left yet. I texted Jared back.
Enroute. Slight delay. Stay positioned for contact.
“Marek said he’s bringing juice,” said Mat. “I’m going to pick up some cider and … Jared.”
“Perfect,” I said, whisking into the gravy another tablespoon of flour.
A few minutes later, Katka’s phone rang and she walked away to answer it while I pouted over my hopeless gravy.
“Mat says Jared isn’t at the bus stop.”
Katka was standing in the doorway with a concerned expression.
“Should we be worried?”
I whipped out my phone and texted Jared.
What do you not understand about ‘Stay in position until contact’? Where the heck are you?
He never responded.
We took the turkey out one last time to baste and I spooned some of the drippings into the gravy. Between me, Tom and the pathetic grey sludge in the pot, nobody was having a happy Thanksgiving.
“Do you have a meat thermometer?” I asked Katka who was slicing the last of the carrots.
“Great. How are we supposed to know when the bird is done?” I said.
“Cross your fingers?” she said back. “Or just cut a slit in the side like normal people who don’t have fancy thermometers.”
A knock on the door interrupted our exchange and Katka went to answer it while I moaned over our half-cooked turkey.
“Guess who’s here?” said Katka with a smile.
But I already knew. My spidey-sense had gone off before she even walked into the room. I spun around, potato masher in hand, ready to dish out a steaming hot plate of ‘what were you thinking?’ – Jared.
“I hope you got my last transmission,” he said.
“Why would you abort the mission, Jared?” I asked. “Why would you leave the bus stop? Why don’t you ever listen to headquarters?”
Jared held out the brown sugar.
“I feel like I may not be in your good graces right now,” he said. “I’m going to wait at the bus stop to guide other people in. Would that be helpful?”
I sighed and mentally put crazy-cook in check.
“Yes, thank you,” I said. “That would be so helpful.”
He trotted off again and we set to work on brown-sugaring our carrots and starting batch #2 of mashed potatoes (because we didn’t make enough the first time. Of course).
I almost couldn’t believe how well everything was turning out when the first guests arrived. It was our friend and partner in crime, Kačka, and some of her classmates, a German boy named Nils who pretended not to know English to get out of helping move chairs, a German girl named Ellen who I can only describe as adorable, and Karyna, a Ukrainian beauty with both the wit and ferocity to take on and overcome any threats to the human world the 21st century might throw at us. I feel safer knowing she is on the planet.
Introductions were made and there was a general ‘ooo’ing and ‘awww’ing at all the food on the counter.
“What’s this?” asked Karyna, pointing at our ‘sweet potatoes’ with a curious smile.
“Those are sweet potatoes,” I said.
“No, I may not be American, but I’m not stupid. Those are definitely carrots.”
I laughed and explained our attempt to mutanize the dish.
“Let’s see the turkey,” said Kačka, always ready to push along to the next big thing. “We should get pictures with it so everyone can see what we made.”
“What we made?” said Katka with a gasp. “You just showed up! You didn’t help make any of this!”
“I’m included though,” reasoned Kačka. “I invited all the people and I brought the chocolate cheesecake so it’s my party too.”
There is no arguing with Kačka, ever.
I pulled out the turkey and set it on the counter while everyone took out their phones. Turkey selfies are the only way to start out the holidays.
The boys showed up and started moving chairs and the large wooden table to the house down the street. (“I don’t know why we’re doing this,” Karyna said. “We should just sit on cushions on the floor.” Mat rolled his eyes and continued moving chairs).
Eliška and Vojta showed up just in time to help us carry pies and potatoes across the street, but not before giving me a big, long-overdue hug. The company departed to the other house, laden with goods and furniture. Káťa (the third Kateřina in our ‘Trinity of Kats’) was already waiting there with a green bean, bacon and brussel sprout dish that was, um, LEGENDARY.
The only person missing was Marek, the world’s biggest sweetheart.
“These carrots have only been in here for twenty minutes,” I whispered to Katka. Any minute, Mat would be back to carry the turkey over for us and our carrots still weren’t finished. We pulled them out to have a look. The brown sugar had liquidized in the bottom of the pan and the carrots were only just beginning to get soft.
“Let’s just leave them in for another ten minutes,” said Katka.
“We can’t!” I moaned. “Everyone is over there with the food already! They’ll start without us.”
“No they won’t,” Katka said calmly. “We have the turkey. I did that on purpose. Always good to have insurance.”
I ran a nervous hand through my hair and thought for a moment. How do we fix half-baked carrots that don’t taste like sweet potatoes?
“Let’s puree them,” I said. Katka was hesitant but produced a kitchen-grade mechanical wizard and we started hacking away.
“What are you doing to the carrots?” asked Mat, coming in for Tom.
“Turning them into sweet potatoes,” we answered.
We both took a nibble of our orange mush.
“Good enough,” I said. “Let’s roll.”
Katka and Mat shuffled around in the kitchen looking for things and I took our carrots out to the front door.
There was Marek, all nicely dressed for a real Thanksgiving dinner. Good friends will always be the sweetest sight for sore eyes.
“Do you need help carrying anything,” he asked with is typical genteel grin.
“No, we’ve got it all,” I answered, sticking a foot inside my shoe.
“Oh, please, allow me,” he said, swooping down to tie my shoelaces. “There. Now that I’m tying your shoes, don’t you feel like a real princezna okurka?’
I laughed at him, trying not to spill the carrots as I balanced on one foot. Princess is not the word I would have used to describe myself in that moment, wearing a food-blotched apron, hair flying off in Einstein directions.
“She may feel like a princess, but she looks like a three year old,” said Katka, coming through with utensils and napkins. “Come on,” she ushered us. “I’m hungry.”
We walked across the nippy, dark street into a warm house. The entryway was still partially under construction and there was no furniture or trimmings in the downstairs, but we could hear laughter coming from the dining room.
Our guests sat at a long table with the various platters of food spread out between cheap plates and mismatched silverware. Numerous bottles of wine, cider, coca cola and juice popped up around the table or waited in bursts along the countertop.
The last minute bustlers settled down around the table and Jared prayed over the meal.
And then we all stared at the huge, steaming turkey with stuffing popping out of places it wasn’t supposed to.
“Now what?” asked Karyna.
It was a valid question. With no clear “head of the household” we had no one to dish the turkey. I was sitting in front of it, but one attempt with the “meat scissors” and someone suggested I just sit back and enjoy myself instead.
Mat took over and I wandered around taking pictures and making sure everyone tried all the dishes.
“These really do taste like sweet potatoes,” said someone, to my relief.
There were plenty of mashed potatoes, the stuffing was out-of-this-world (and I don’t even like stuffing normally), and the final drippings from the turkey had done a miracle on my gravy which was now the lovely consistency and proportionate to the number of our guests. And the turkey. The turkey was perfect.
We chit-chatted about where people were from and what they were doing in Prague. We talked about food and friends and culture. My end of the table decided to only talk in song lyrics for about twenty minutes.
“Nobody said it’d be easy, but nobody said it would be this hard.”
We passed around pumpkin pie and chocolate cheesecake (“So tell me what you want, what you really, really want”).
Finally, I stood up, rung my class with a fork (I have ALWAYS wanted to do that), and apologized for interrupting the pleasantness.
“This will be the last time, I promise,” I giggled.
“Why don’t I believe that?” muttered Nils behind an empty wine glass.
“It’s just that, every Thanksgiving, my Dad gives a little speech,” I said. “He tells us about the first Thanksgiving in 1621. The Pilgrims came from England, fleeing religious persecution. They were in an unknown land and it was a harsh winter. Many of them died from sickness and starvation. At one point, they rationed themselves to five kernels of corn per day. But in the Spring they met people from the Wampanoag tribe who helped them farm and hunt, and in the Autumn, they had a huge harvest. They thanked God for all that he had given them, but they didn’t forget those days with only five kernels of corn. It was a reminder that God keeps his promises to us, he provides for us.”
I could see everyone’s attentive eyes searching for the point in my monologue. So I cleared my throat and jumped to the heart of my speech.
“My Dad always says we should remember days when we have little so that we can be grateful during days when we have plenty. Last year I came to Prague and I didn’t know anyone, and this year I’m spending Thanksgiving with all of you! I’m thankful that God has provided me with wonderful friends, even in a far-away place.”
There was a chorus of ‘awww’s and some glasses clicked.
Not the greatest Thanksgiving speech of all time, but it was heartfelt and everyone was so far into the turkey-coma stage of the evening that I don’t think anyone minded the brevity.
Mat leaned back in his chair and looked at me across the table as conversations sprang up again at either end.
“You brought a little piece of America to the Czech Republic,” he said.
I smiled. It certainly felt like that.
Around eleven o’clock, everyone left to catch buses, trams and metros home. Only Kačka stayed to help us clear dishes – she lives right down the road.
“This needs to be opened,” she said, plopping into an empty chair and cuddling a bottle of wine. Katka and I finished stacking plates and joined her. Mat lounged in his seat on the other side of the table and watched us.
“There’s a lot of food left,” said Katka.
“We’ll eat it,” said Mat.
“Tomorrow,” said Katka.
No one moved, but in unison, we sighed happily.
Katka looked at me and said, “This turned out really well.”
“It was your idea,” I reminded her. But I smiled. I had to. I had a lot to be thankful for.