It was our first Thanksgiving as an engaged couple, nearly 13 years ago. My husband’s family was organizing who would bring what to their massive feast. His family is huge with lots of siblings, nieces, and nephews.
Of course being the newest bride-to-be, I wanted to impress them. The pressure was on.
At the time, I was teaching in the US in an inner-city high school. I had built a decent rapport with my students (probably helped I was barely older than them!), so as I was thinking of what dish to take, I shared some ideas with them. I should share an important side note: my husband is African American, as were most of my students. Not overseas, but still two different cultures mixing!
Growing up at our Thanksgiving table, there were a few staples: Great Grandma’s sweet potatoes that were dripping in butter and brown sugar, green bean casserole topped with those famous French fried onions, and the jellied, straight-from-the-can cranberry sauce. What I didn’t think through was what I grew up eating may not be the same as what they were used to!
I couldn’t cook so well at the time, being only 22, so I thought green bean casserole might be the easiest while still showing more effort than dumping a gelatinous blob on a plate and slicing it. When I mentioned the casserole to my students, they first had no idea what I was talking about. As I described it, they started hysterically laughing. They let me know they had never eaten such a thing and it would be sorely made fun of at my soon-to-be family’s dinner. They didn’t let me live that down the rest of the year.
Now what was I going to make? I can’t remember who came up with the idea, but somehow I landed on macaroni and cheese. Thankfully I was aware enough to know Kraft wouldn’t cut it, but I probably didn’t quite grasp that some people put the mac and cheese above the turkey on the list of importance. I decided to do a practice run at my family’s Thanksgiving, and good thing I did. The shredding of multiple pounds of cheese takes a long time! In the end, it was a hit, and then-fiancé approved.
I made a second batch for his family’s meal and it was just as good. As people filled their plates, they asked who made the creamy goodness. Imagine the shock on their faces when they learned the iconic dish was made by the only Caucasian girl at the table. It was a proud food moment for me. Cultural expectations were different, but thankfully I learned just in time what would be more appropriate to fit in. Knowing my husband’s family now, I’m oh so thankful I didn’t choose the green bean casserole. They would’ve made fun of me each Thanksgiving thereafter. Instead, they praise the mac and cheese…except they often get it wrong who made it. There’s now another Caucasian wife, and more than once, people have praised her for her amazing cooking skills. Proud food moment immediately humbled!
So yes, this happens to be a food win, but believe me, I’ve had plenty of fails! The important thing I learned was to think about who I’m serving the food to. Are they used to such ingredients? Of course I love to share pieces of our culture with them, but some foods are just too weird for them to enjoy. I’m the same, right? I don’t enjoy pig blood soup or fermented liver or live silkworms. (Nor do most of the locals where I live, but why do they always bring out the “special” things for their guests?!) So, I’ve learned to cut back on the dairy and meat, serve lots of veggies, and always have a staple like bread or rice for them to fall back on.
We all know cooking traditional meals overseas can be quite the challenge. You have to gather ingredients from far, spend extra money getting those ingredients, and spend countless hours in the kitchen to try to produce some semblance of what you would have in your passport country. The past several years, we usually have holiday meals with our team and other expats. We all share what favorites we’d like to see on the menu, then each family makes a few of the dishes to share.
Somehow, the past few years, our family has been volunteered to make the turkey. It stressed me out too much to have the main dish on my shoulders, so I passed it on to my husband. He doesn’t cook much, but he has an amazing palette. He researched a few methods, taking into consideration we had a large toaster oven at the time. His favorite method is to brine the turkey in a giant tub overnight, then when it’s time to bake, get the biggest syringe from the local pharmacy, melt a pound of butter, and inject it into the turkey. While it’s baking, it’s upside down so the juices don’t just fall out. We’ve successfully made several turkeys in our tiny oven. It can be done!
I’ve also made green bean casserole here. Gasp! I know, with such baggage, it’s a wonder I could bring myself to do it. It’s quite a feat to make. Homemade cream of whatever soup, fresh green beans, and homemade fried onions. The fried onions are what make it worth all the effort. So, so delicious! I may or may not eat half the batch while frying them!
If you’re looking for some inspiration on what to cook for the holidays, look back on former food posts. (There’s a button to click at the top of the page under “blog.”)
I didn’t haul tons of cookbooks overseas with me. Instead, I save favorite recipes online and create my own cookbook of recipes we love. Here are some sites I trust and make lots of yummy food from:
Where do you find your trusted recipes? Do you have a funny cross-cultural food story to share? What foods do you avoid serving to locals, knowing they won’t enjoy them?