Living so far from home can be very difficult at times, especially during the holiday season. It’s at these times that I always feel a bit down and nostalgic…reminiscing over family memories and thinking about how now I’m missing out on the new memories and not being a part of those traditions. That’s why, of the many things I am thankful for this year, one things that shines above others is my friendship with the group of women I work with-who I truly consider my ‘family’ abroad. They helped me through many things, taught me how to do my job successfully, called people and translated messages in Turkish, shared vacations together, and welcomed me with open arms into their homes as a member of their family. We often joke that we are ‘sisters or like aunts and nieces’, and I have to say that these relationships sometimes make those moments when I am feeling so far from ‘home’ seem not so very far after all.
My roommate and I always try to stick to traditions and honor the holidays. Every year we have a big Thanksgiving dinner. Our 1st year we invited nearly everyone we knew and had almost 30 people in our tiny apartment. Through the years as many of our friends left Turkey and in dealing with increasingly busy work schedules, we have cooked less and less. This year, Thanksgiving fell on my roommate’s Fall Break from her school and she booked a trip abroad. I unfortunately did not have a week-long vacation, although I did have Wednesday and Thursday off. It would be my first big holiday without my roommate and best friend in years, and as much as I would miss her, I still wanted to spend the holiday with ‘family’.
So I invited my colleagues and their kids and told them to come over Thursday during the day as that day was doubly important. It was not only Thanksgiving, but it was also Teacher’s Day here in Turkey. In case you haven’t guessed by now, yes…we are teachers! What better way to celebrate than with a group of teachers, all foreigners like me, with their children, and lots of food? Many of my other close friends were out of town or at work but this wonderful group was a perfect match for the day.
As I was running in and out of the kitchen trying to balance what was coming out of the oven next and putting my friend’s oldest daughter to work at making the sweet potato casserole topping, and getting out the crayons and coloring books for the little kids I remember looking around and just feeling very happy. This felt like home. This felt like being at my grandma’s house with all the little cousins…all the chaos… everyone talking at once …everyone hungry and everyone part of a family.
Growing up, my Thanksgiving was usually split every few years between spending it with
my dad’s family in Virginia or driving down to my mom’s family in the deep south. Whether we made the drive down to Mississippi or not, we still always had several of my grandma’s dishes-my mom’s mom (Big Mama to me). Even now-so far away- if I am cooking for Thanksgiving I have to make Big Mama’s cornbread dressing. There’s something so special about it that I almost want to cry when I eat it. With one bite I remember Thanksgiving and Christmas and being with the whole family- staying up late and talking for hours with my mom and Big Mama, my great grandmother Ella, and my aunts. I’m sure the men were there somewhere, but my memories always involve the women of the household…and they are always filled with so much love.
But I should also stop the trip down memory lane and keep it real here y’all… making these traditional southern recipes in a foreign country isn’t exactly a piece of pie. First of all to get a turkey you have to spend a lot of money and pre-order a cooked one. Then, there’s a small issue with any recipe (and there’s a lot of them) involving celery. Celery stalks are not valued here-they are thrown away as only celery root is sold here! Also, pumpkins are not small sugar pumpkins…they are the size of crazed pumpkins that you think must be some form of genetic mutation but they aren’t…they are just giant greenish white meaty pumpkins. You can’t even buy a whole pumpkin. You go to the market and the guy slices it for you and sells it to you in chunks by kilo. There is no cream of mushroom soup or French’s fried onion rings. Oh and there are no sweet potatoes and there are no pecans. There just aren’t. Also my oven is a glorified ‘Easy-Bake’ oven. I’m not exaggerating much. It sits on my counter top and only fits two (barely) casserole dishes in at a time.
How does one make cornbread dressing with no celery and sweet potato casserole with no sweet potatoes? CREATIVITY. Liberties had to be taken with time-honored recipes…but everything SURPRISINGLY turned out perfect and tasted exactly how it was supposed to! For the cornbread dressing, I used leaks instead of celery. I made the green bean casserole 100% from scratch. I made the cream of mushroom soup and fried the onions myself… and it was possibly the best green bean casserole I’ve ever eaten. One of my amazing friends roasted two chickens and made gravy and brought those over. I discovered a revelation…I made sweet potato casserole with PUMPKIN!! I promise you, it was not too sweet, it tasted exactly like sweet potato casserole, and I used walnuts for the crunchy topping.
The scene in my kitchen the day of the big event was total madness. I had written down a schedule to the exact minute of what casserole had to go in first in order for everything to get heated up in my tiny oven and stay warm! Mashed potatoes and green bean casserole were heated on the stove top while simultaneously setting the table and playing host to the guests. Most of my friends had never before eaten any of the items on the table as this was the first ‘Southern Thanksgiving‘ for them and in the true spirit of Thanksgiving, food was devoured and 2nd and 3rd helpings of items were heaped onto plates, resulting in me needing to lay on the sofa for an hour after it was all said and done.
I think the highlight of the evening might have been when my friend’s oldest daughter announced that ‘this really felt like the way real Thanksgiving was supposed to be, like in the movies.’ I couldn’t have agreed with her more, only it didn’t feel like the movies to me, it felt like a little bit of ‘home‘, for which I am forever grateful to these amazing women I call friends and are my ‘family‘ away from home.