A Non-Traditional Holiday, A Long Way From Home

I have no clue what a bean vermicelli is, but I am determined to find one in this grocery store. I wearily scan the box of rice paper wrappers, attempting to tease out a definition for the elusive legume from the recipe for “Authentic Thai Spring Rolls.”

Toss together thinly sliced carrots, bean sprouts, shredded lettuce, mint leaves, and bean vermicelli. Arrange a portion of salad mix into one rice paper, roll up twice, and serve with your favorite dipping sauce.

It all sounds so simple, and I’m tempted to leave the store without this one seemingly insignificant ingredient. But the overly-ambitious, first-born, type A voice in my head stops me before I even pass the hoisin sauce. What if that bean vermicelli is the magic ingredient that will make this meal so poetically authentic that it will go down in history as “the Thanksgiving to top?” My head spins and I sigh heavily. What am I doing here? I have been standing in the Asian food aisle in this New Zealand market staring at the unreadable labels of brown sauces and noodles for so long, I’m starting to get sideways looks from the stock boys filling the shelves. And that’s after having done the same at an entirely different market across town earlier this afternoon. With the passing hope that bean vermicelli might possibly be an Italian ingredient filed in the pasta aisle, I give up and start to shuffle toward the checkout.

Like a doomed relationship with a man out of my league, my fascination with Asian cooking is torturous. Was it the local Marlborough sauvignon blancs, their hallmark acidity and up-front grassiness calling out for the spicy, sweet flavors of Thai food? Was it the vast selection of Asian ingredients available at even the most pedestrian of warehouse supermarkets here in New Zealand? Or was it the simple fact that our furnished studio apartment conspicuously lacks an oven, attempting to compensate with a double-burner hot plate and a wok?

My mom emails me to say she is encouraged by my curiosity, that she is considering trying to prepare something easy like a curry or a simple noodle dish to start. (I try to imagine her sourcing ingredients for pad thai at her local Stop ‘n Shop in Idaho.) I detect a familiar nervousness in her writing. Like so many baby boomers raised on industrial-strength brown and white food, she is a little uneasy with a delicate rainbow of colors on her plate.

I can empathize. As a kid, for three consecutive years, I wanted my special birthday meal to be baked potatoes with canned chili on top. Domino’s Pizza was Italian dining. And in the college years, it was a mound of greasy, MSG-laden chow mein noodles delivered to my dorm room door. Even when I started taking a sincere interest in preparing my own meals, there was something terrifying, mysterious, and utterly alien about the Eastern repertoire.

Part of the problem is the foreign equipment and ingredients. The language barrier. And the expense – it’s often cheaper to order take-out than to make your own. Plus, no one wants to be the white girl behind the wok, pretending to know what she’s doing. I’m reminded of my husband’s favorite Mexican hole-in-the-wall in San Diego, how it provided cheap and delicious sustenance to him and his friends through high school, and how sorely disappointed he was to return home from college to find they had hired white people to work in the kitchen. It just wasn’t the same and he never went back.

But here in the comfort and privacy of my own home, I feel strangely bold enough to be that girl behind the wok. Dodging any recipes that require special equipment, I have all the ingredients I need at my fingertips (well, all except that one). There is a responsibility to keep things cheap, as cash is tight these days. So I steer clear of those recipes calling for ingredients that will clutter my pantry shelves after just one use.

At the start, I tip-toe tentatively into my obsession with a batch of pork and cabbage potstickers, slippery as fish until I fry them in oil and serve them alongside a sweetened soy sauce. My husband is pleasantly taken aback by them, and announces his willingness to be the official guinea pig in this experiment. The next week it’s rice noodles and wilted greens. Then potato samosas and vindaloo. I wake up in the middle of the night considering the benefits of fish sauce, despite my aversion to seafood. I am going pleasurably, deliciously insane on a wave of coconut milk and wasabi.

mung-bean-sprouts

After only three weeks in New Zealand, however, I feel my heart’s first turn homeward. “Our first Thanksgiving away from family is coming up,” I announce to Jake one night before bed. “What are we going to do?” The lines of confusion wriggle across his face until he remembers that, unlike Christmas and Easter, Thanksgiving is just for us Americans. “I haven’t seen turkeys for sale anywhere.”

“I don’t know, sweetie,” he says without looking up from his book. “We’re dealing with opposite seasons down here.” It’s evident that celebrating Thanksgiving in a foreign country isn’t at the top of his to-do list, but he registers gloom and looks over into my frowning face. “Remember the Fourth of July in Venice? We went to an American bar to celebrate.”

“No,” I correct him, “we only looked for an American bar and never found one.” He scratches his head and acquiesces. “Well, maybe we can invite a couple Kiwis over to help us celebrate. What do you think?”

I nod and say that sounds fine. It is unsaid but understood that I will begin restlessly researching the menu, although I know Jake would be perfectly content to eat tortilla chips and guacamole alongside a 6-pack of Murphy’s. Although he appreciates the constant cooking, the experimenting and tasting, the hunt for fruitier olive oil or tastier fleur du sel, he is also slightly baffled by it.

The next day, with uncharacteristic lack of interest, I peruse cookbooks in the local library for traditional Thanksgiving recipes. This one calls for an oven, of course. This one calls for a 12-hour brine. And this one calls for a trust fund to finance the white truffle stuffing. The standard accompaniments of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie also fail to ignite my interest, and I uncover a latent dislike for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, it is the devotion of an entire day to giving thanks for the harvest that pulls my heartstrings. It doesn’t matter what the food is, so long as it’s fresh, abundant, delicious, and shared with friends. And here is where the seed is planted.

Though I know he couldn’t care less, I ask Jake if a pan-Asian themed Thanksgiving is okay with him. “Of course, love. You know I don’t like those war-horse Thanksgiving blow-outs, anyway. But what are you going to make?” Unfolding our car insurance policy, I read from the back a menu written with the authority of a Michelin-starred chef:

Vegetable Spring Rolls with Chili Soy Sauce
Yellow Curry with New Potatoes
Cranberry Chutney
Hot and Sweet Turkey
Cucumber Salad with Sweet Rice Vinegar Dressing
Garlic Bok Choy
Sticky Rice

Flaky Banana Turnovers with Vanilla Ice Cream
Kiwi Coconut Mess

I look up from my pride and joy to gauge Jake’s reaction. “Wow,” he murmurs, and I detect both awe and fear. He bites a fingernail. “Do we have enough pots and pans?”

The following two weeks, I am utterly absorbed. Unhindered by a day-job, I have the time to thrust my energies into experimenting with recipes in advance, rather than adhering to my typical M.O. of attempting everything for the first time on the day-of-show, often with disastrous results. (See: Beef Wellington, New Year’s Eve, 2006.) I try the yellow curry for dinner one night. It lacks flavor, so I make it again with more chili and turmeric. Check. I mix up a batch of rice vinegar dressing for the cucumber salad, and its tang is a perfect marriage of sweet and savory. Check. The cranberry chutney whips up in a flash, it’s acidity balancing the curry’s creamy coconut milk base. Check, and check.

I try three different banana dessert recipes. The first is called “Baked Bananas” and is taken from a Reader’s Digest cook book called “Good Food 4 Less.” The bananas are cut lengthwise and baked under a layer of orange juice, butter, and brown sugar. I place the finished product in front of Jake and he asks why the bananas are grey and why they taste mysteriously of oranges. My second attempt is inspired by a recipe from a health resort in Tuscon, Arizona, packing a traditional Bananas Foster preparation into baked pyllo pockets. It’s a step in the right direction, though the use of vegetable oil instead of butter leaves the pockets dry and mealy. (What did I expect from a health resort recipe?) I try the turnovers again, this time adding more butter and brown sugar than should be legally ingested by the human body. Perfect.

shiitake

There are, of course, complications. The rice paper wraps for the spring rolls are nearly impossible to work with, either sticking to themselves like plastic wrap, or tearing. Furthermore, I assume that the bean vermicelli really is the magical secret ingredient because the spring rolls are green, bland, and ugly; nothing like the gorgeous, delicate, lacey spring rolls from our local Thai restaurant to which I aspire. I am seriously tempted to buy frozen spring rolls and say that I made them with Martha-like insouciance.

The turkey thighs I had hoped to find locally do not appear to exist. A sign outside a butchery announces “Christmas turkeys coming soon – order yours today!” and I go inside to investigate. “Yeeah, we moight be able to git yuh turkey thoighs, but it’ll cost ya,” drawls the woman behind the counter. “They’re comin’ ool the waiy from Ozzie.” For all my usual evangelizing about fresh and local ingredients, I consider buying frozen turkey from Australia, just to keep the Thanksgiving theme alive. But I decide against it and opt for the readily-available chicken thighs instead. A test run of the hot and sweet “turkey” goes beautifully, and I decide not to change a thing on the big day.

Jake’s one assignment is to buy the beverages and find us some friends to share the meal. The wine and beer bottles lay in our closet, awaiting showtime, but guests have yet to be identified. I worry. “We’ve only been here a month, Jaims,” he consoles. “Just be patient.”

One evening after work, Jake comes home with a big smile on his face. I can tell he has been waiting to tell me something all day. “I have good news and bad news,” he announces, dropping himself into the couch. “The good news first: we have guests for our 2008 Pan-Asian Thanksgiving Feast.” I woo-hoo and then ask who they are. “Well, here’s the bad news,” he squirms. “They aren’t New Zealanders.”

“Not Kiwis?” I ask, and think who else it could be. I panic that Jake has invited an actual Asian person to our meal. “Ohmygosh, Jake, you didn’t, did you?”

Seeing my stricken face, he gives up the game and tells me that our dear friends from the States, the Whitacres, have e-mailed to say that they are coming to New Zealand, and would it be okay if they spent Thanksgiving with us, far from home?

My momentary panic turns to sheer joy. Real Americans will be joining us at our table to give thanks for a wonderful year. I squeeze Jake and thank him for his hard “work.” He laughs, and, after a long pause, asks, “Now, do we have enough chopsticks?”

The day before our feast, I have arranged to prep all the vegetables, roll up the spring rolls, stir the sauces together and make the desserts so that I’ll have time to sit and enjoy time with much-missed friends. From 8am to 4pm, I chop, mince, pinch, whip, and refrigerate the raw ingredients. The Whitacres roll into our driveway in their rented camper-van that evening, and after lots of hugging and squealing, we discuss plans for the following day. It is decided that we’ll walk to the local farmers’ market in the morning, hit up a few wineries during the day, and get home by 5pm to start the extravaganza. I figure we’ll sit down to dinner at 7pm and everyone will be sated for that lovely post-Thanksgiving coma by 10pm.

As with everything in life, however, the day does not go exactly according to plan. Despite my strict orders to refrain from belly-filling and to save ample space for dinner, we eat and drink our way through Marlborough with reckless abandon. There are wineries and distilleries and breweries and bakeries and butcheries and none of us can quite control ourselves. It’s as though everyone’s appetite has been in hibernation until this very day. I pull Jake aside.  “If you can’t eat my pan-Asian Thanksgiving feast,” I scold, “let’s just say ‘hell hath no fury.’  Mmm?” He assures me this will not be the case, but later in the car I catch him opening his fly to relieve pressure.  By the time 5pm rolls around, our little crew is stuffed, exhausted, and ready for naps. We agree to take a snooze and regroup at 6pm.

I awake and put on a kettle for the lavender jasmine tea. One by one we emerge and start the peaceful, measured work of preparing a meal. Jill chops, I stir, and the guys set the postage stamp table with almond- and cashew-filled abalone shells. Wine and beer bottles pop open and there are sniffs and swirls.  Kitchen sounds mingle with the easy conversation of old friends to form a sweet, quiet music. It is when the spring rolls are laid on a bed of arugula and presented with dipping sauce that I magically rediscover my appetite. The yellow curry wafts from a simmering pot and is spooned over white rice, each of us forming mini-mountains with toppings of tart cranberry chutney, slivered almonds, chopped scallions, lime wedges and toasted coconut. We discuss what we’re most thankful for this year, and find that there is too much to name. The chicken simmers and fills the room with an earthy, savory perfume until it is served on another lump of sticky rice with cucumber salad and sweet rice vinegar dressing. Bok choy wilts in broth and a whopping eight cloves of garlic. There are alternate moans of pleasure and pain. I suggest in earnest that we skip dessert and am met with fury. “All we need is a walk!” they promise, with half-open eyes.

paua-with-almonds-and-cashews

Arm-in-arm we walk downtown Blenheim, admiring its streets lit with twinkly lights and cursing its impossible Bat-Cave-esque urban layout (”I know I’ve been to that pharmacy before, but how did I get there?”). After a half hour, the gang feels it is ready to battle with dessert, and we meander back to the house. Banana turnovers come out of the toaster oven as flaky and buttery as ever, are eaten accompanied by creamy vanilla ice cream, and followed by the tart and creamy goodness of kiwi coconut mess. The noble chenin blanc is outrageously delicious, and Jake licks the inside of his glass. The strands of discussion on food, life, and travel braid together into a memory of surpassing satisfaction and gratitude.

spring-rolls

That night, as the Whitacres tuck into their camper van and we snuggle down for a long summer’s nap, I ask Jake how it went, if he liked everything, if he considered the meal good enough to be counted among those treasured Thanksgivings of tradition.

“Scrumptious, love.  You have put turkeys and pumpkin pies the world over to shame.”

And with that, Thanksgiving finally feels like something all our own.

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