I announced to my course-mates and my Russian host family that I wanted to cook them a Thanksgiving dinner, and was both surprised and gratified by the enthusiastic response. Everyone had an idea of what to expect, but no one was sure about the particulars, myself included. Cooking in foreign countries is difficult, because the ingredients you take for granted and find yourself unexpectedly without are constantly changing. Even in America different ingredients tend to come and go with the seasons, so right from the start, I was determined to plan my meal around the ingredients I knew to be available.
I decided against cooking a turkey due to several considerations. First, I didn’t know if I could find a turkey. Second, I didn’t know if I could cook a turkey. Third, I don’t like turkey. The deciding factor was that my mom has a fabulous recipe for rosemary chicken, which I had baked before with success, and which I love. I had seen green beans in the freezer section of the grocery store, and planned to cook them with whatever ham-like substance I could find. As luck would have it, I stumbled across bacon. Who knew? I also planned to roast some carrots, onions, and potatoes with the chicken, and I was hopeful of finding parsnips as well. I assumed I could bake a sweet potato casserole, but I wasn’t sure about finding pecans. Two ingredients I was very unsure of, pumpkins and cranberries, and at this point, I turned to my dictionary for assistance.
You can tell a lot about a food’s availability by how it is listed in your dictionary. Some words look completely different, and from that you can reasonably surmise that they are not recent imports to the culture. Others have names which point to where they come from: in America, we call zucchinis by their Italian name, whereas in Britain and Germany they are called “courgettes” by their French name. In Russia, rosemary is called “rosmarin”, indicating to me that it has been brought in from Europe. I was surprised and encouraged, however, to discover that words for both “pumpkin” and “cranberry” were very Russian, as was the word for “parsnip”. To my dismay, there was no listing for either “sweet potato” or “yam”. So I went to speak with Tatiana.
The result of my conversation with Tatiana was this: yes, I could probably find a pumpkin at the market. Cranberries were easy to come by, they were at the store. She had never eaten parsnips, and didn’t know where I could find them, but I could try the market. She had never heard of sweet potatoes – could I just cook potatoes and add sugar? She had never heard of yams either, but she called three of her friends on the phone and asked if any of them knew what a sweet potato or yam was, and where I could find one. The result was discouraging: no such thing was to be had.
This called for a re-arranging of my menu: without sweet potatoes, there could be no sweet potato casserole, so instead I decided on garlic mashed potatoes. This would mean only carrots and onions in the roasting pan, as I had given up on finding parsnips, but I thought that would be all right. Pumpkin pie was in, and I could definitely do something with cranberries, but without muffin tins I wasn’t sure what. I decided to adapt my scone recipe for the purpose. After settling on all this, taking an inventory of the cooking equipment, and assuaging the curiosity of my course-mates regarding our meal, I was feeling pretty confident. I had cooked meals before, and was getting pretty good at it. My goal for this one was fairly modest: make a Thanksgiving meal that would hold up against my mother’s home cooking.
Contending against this were two major anxieties. My reputation was on the line: I had assured everyone I could cook well, and promised them a real American Thanksgiving meal. Also, they all knew I’d spent time in culinary school, which leads to certain expectations. I wanted to live up to all that.
Secondly, I wanted to prove to Tatiana that I wasn’t an airhead inostranka. (Иностранка: foreigner. My course-mates, particularly Cameron, joke about what they call “inostranniitimes”: mistakes you make which highlight how foreign you are, like talking louder than anyone else in a restaurant, or staring blankly at the supermarket cashier who doesn’t want to bother with making you the correct change, and is asking you for another ten kopeks.) My kitchen blunders in the past have included: pouring raw oats on my yogurt thinking they were the quick-cooking variety, and eating them anyway; buying normal rice instead of the microwavable packets; a general aversion to using the microwave; drinking coffee past ten o’clock.
Tatiana gave me an incredulous look when I told her I wanted to use the pumpkin in a sweet pie, and then questioned me the night before about how much time I planned to spend cooking the next day. “You keep saying you’re cooking this, and this and this…” she told me. “Don’t you have class to go to? When are you going to get it all done?” I enjoy Tatiana and her blunt, Russian manners, and none of this bothered me, as she is very good-natured in all her comments. But I wanted to prove that I knew what I was doing, especially where kitchen matters were concerned.
As I said, my reputation was on the line.