There is always something warm and fuzzy about Thanksgiving. There are cherished notions of the way it was according to the school books that we read in the fourth grade – complete with wonderful illustrations of Pilgrims and happy Indians. I know all that is a myth; but like Christmas, I realize it is an emotional thing. It feels good being with friends and family, and the late autumn harvest festival can't really hurt. Besides, I like turkey, dressing, and all the other "trimmings."
When my wife and I arrived in Hong Kong in August of 1978, by Thanksgiving we had finally gotten settled and were really ready for a real American Thanksgiving. We had rented a huge flat built in the old colonial style (before air conditioning). It had high ceilings with fans slowly laboring against the hot, humid, tropical air; a wide veranda; and wonderful French-style folding doors that could be opened all the way to reveal the entire city and harbor below. I loved it.
The phone rang. Louise Gundersonne, one of the other missionary wives, wanted to discuss Thanksgiving plans. She had been in the Colony for years, and was a wealth of knowledge about everything, including holidays. Having been through years of celebrations in those typical tiny, postage-stamp-sized Hong Kong apartments, she proposed that we all get together at our place since it was three or four times the size of everybody else's. So it was planned. They also mentioned that it was tradition to invite the Canadian missionaries as well, which was great.
We had hired a Chinese amah, a servant in the style of old China – a dying breed even then. Her name was Ah‑Gum, and she was a fabulous cook. Trained by Americans, she knew all about Thanksgiving and how to do a killer turkey. Despite not speaking a word of English – even after all those years of working for foreigners – she seemed to know what to do; so, we just stood back and held our breath.
The guests arrived. It really smelled good. The table was set with care. We all stood around our very long dining room table that we had disassembled and shipped from the States. At the appropriate time Ah‑Gum arrived, beaming, with the turkey. We all clapped. As we started to sit down, she blurted out in Chinese: "Aren't you going to take a picture?" I was informed by Louise that they had taken a picture of the turkey the first year they did one. (After the war, it was not easy to get ahold of a real authentic American turkey). It was a big deal, and Ah‑Gum had gotten it into her head that the picture of the final product was part of the tradition (like the Pilgrims had cameras). Anyway, I dutifully got out my Nikon, and she was satisfied. It was a fabulous meal. A good time was had by all.
A few days later the phone rang again. Sadie Blanchard, a Canadian missionary who had attended the feast was on the line. Rather timidly, she said that the Canadians had been talking about our dinner a few weeks earlier. She had told the other Canadians about the size of our apartment and the party. They had assigned her to call us to see if they could use our flat for their Canadian Thanksgiving the next year. Actually, I didn't even know at the time that the Canadians had a Thanksgiving! "Of course you would be invited," she added quickly. So, the following year – and for many years thereafter – we had two thanksgivings. What a deal!
When we lived in Hong Kong, most products that we take for granted were available; but it never ceased to amaze me at the time that many of our British friends had never really had a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, why would they have? After all, we were just thankful that we were away from England. (That's a joke.) Anyway, we were so often invited to British get‑togethers, and grew so accustomed to their fare, that it became sort of fun to invite a room full of Brits over for a turkey dinner – even in April or July. Pretty much everything from the turkey to the stuffing, cranberries, and all that, are native to North America. But the pumpkin is not. I suppose that the Pilgrims brought pumpkin seeds with them. But pumpkin pie? They thought it sounded dreadful. For dessert? Ever weirder! But when they tried it, they would remark: "Oh, it's rather sweet, isn't it?" Like, if they knew how much brown sugar or maple syrup was dumped into the recipe, they might fall over.
Some years later I was living in Virginia City, Nevada, with a motley collection of roommates – a world away from Asia, in space and time. We were trying to think about putting on a Thanksgiving to‑do ourselves. Where was A‑Gum when we needed her? We were living in my drafty Victorian house on A Street. It had a huge dining room that connected through a set of pocket doors, to an equally large parlor. We could have had a convention in that place!
Although none of us could cook worth a darn, one of my partners, Dale, decided to give it a go. "Like, how hard could it really be?" he mused while thumbing through an ancient Betty Crocker cookbook that had been left in the kitchen when we moved in. "Tell you what – let's do a dry run." So, we got a medium-sized bird, and he faithfully followed Betty's instructions to the letter. He put it in the oven, and we hoped for the best.
It snowed that night. Our pipes froze and burst under the house. Our attentions turned to more serious matters. We had to go down to Reno, and got stranded overnight; so we stayed in my condo in Arlington Towers right on the Truckee River. A few days later we made our way back up the Geiger Grade, and dealt with all manner of things that had come up during our absence. All of a sudden Dale got this horrified look on his face. "The turkey!" he gasped, running downstairs to the kitchen. I followed in disbelief.
It had dried out and shrunk down to skin and bones - totally mummified. "Gawd, it looks like something from King Tutankhamen's tomb!" I exclaimed. Dale was not amused. Later, when we all had a good laugh, we were wondering whether we could put it on exhibit in one of the phony museums in Virginia City and charge tourists to see it next to the mummified man – first invented by Mark Twain when he was living there and writing for the Territorial Enterprise!