Thanksgiving may be over, but I’m still thankful.
We admit it – we are the worst bloggers. Many wrote their Thanksgiving posts a week or two before turkey day while others prepared something to publish on the day itself.
Then there’s us.
We intended – we really did – to publish a reflection yesterday, but life took over and filled our day with a raft of experiences and emotions.
As we engineered our Thanksgiving dinner in an under-equipped Bolivian kitchen, we reflected on the kindness of people like the chicken rotisserie guy who came to our rescue with a smile…and a bottle of chicken drippings. And as we longingly recalled Thanksgivings past and the family and friends we spent them with, we reminded ourselves once again of what we are thankful for.
Ingredients for a Bolivian Thanksgiving
Oh, how thankful we would have been for the American supermarket perhaps just this once. Though the concept of cobbling together a Thanksgiving dinner out of a string of visits to various stalls at the fresh market may sound romantic to some of you, we would have been especially thankful for the ease of cruising an American supermarket, what with its bags of cranberries and cans of pumpkin.
But alas, that wasn’t an option. We walked up and down the mildly chaotic stalls of the central market in Sucre, Bolivia with our shopping list. Here’s what we found in the way of ingredients to make a Bolivian Thanksgiving feast:
We strolled up to the first bread stand we encountered. The wheat loaf in the middle of the table looked decent. “Is it sweet?” we asked. Unfortunately, so much bread in Latin America is sweetened and it’s virtually impossible to tell based on appearance.
“No, it’s not sweet,” the grandmotherly vendor replied as she made haste to stuff the loaf into a black bag. Before she could get her hands on it, we turned the loaf over to reveal an unbeatable science experiment of lustrous green fuzz.
She wasn’t happy with us, but the bread ladies further down the aisle were; they made a point to show us the freshness of their loaves.
For our sake, we ask that you never again take celery for granted. We remember the good ol' days in the Czech Republic when celery (no, not celery root!) — like something exotic — was impossible to find, save for the spendy, little French market. The Vietnamese rescued the day by bringing celery to the masses. But that’s another story.
Here in Sucre, acquiring celery was much easier than expected. It wasn’t abundant, but more than one vegetable lady was selling it.
Bolivian celery stalks are puny, however. Think pinky-sized, stunted in growth. When the veg woman packed five bunches (no, not stalks) into a bag, we hesitated at the quantity. But, at $0.75 we decided to take it all. Good thing, as we used every last bit.
In lieu of the Provencal spice and olive oil we prefer, we opted to toast our bread cubes with a bit of melted butter, fresh parsley, and dried oregano and basil. The end result was so good it made us weep for home. Kidding, kidding. It was terrific, though.
And that funky Bolivian celery? A taste knockout.
It continues to amaze us that the most potato-endowed part of the world cannot find more clever ways to prepare its potatoes. Travel the Andes – from Ecuador to Bolivia – and you’ll go green from fried potatoes, potato chips and the dreaded (over) boiled potato.
Where are the mashed potatoes, people?!?!
But we digress.
Upon entering the potato courtyard at the Sucre central market, we were overwhelmed by choice (Bolivia and Peru boast something like 2,000 varieties of potatoes!).
“Which potatoes are best for potato puree?” we inquired at the edge of the potato courtyard. Instantly, our potato lady of choice pointed, said something like “good with butter,” and started bagging.
Later, when we ran our papas (potatoes) under water, they revealed a fascinating shade of purple. The inside was still a boring white, but the skins certainly looked exotic.
So you have no potato masher, you say? We can attest that even the starchiest potatoes can be lovingly mashed with a giant soup ladle. The results were pretty good, but a masher would have been nice, just to get them a little smoother. And you people with a Kitchen Aid: we don’t want to hear about it!
We quickly abandoned our search for turkey, opting instead to go to one of the many rotisserie chicken places near the market.
When we entered the shop, Audrey gave our pitch in her best Spanish: “Today is a big American holiday. Usually we eat turkey but there are no turkeys here so we would like to eat one of your chickens instead. We also make this special sauce to go with the chicken. Can you give us some ‘chicken oil' so we can prepare our holiday meal?” (Random language lesson of the day: chicken drippings in Spanish are called aceite de pollo.)
How thrilled this man was to help us complete our meal. He was all smiles – and so proud that we had chosen his shop.
And his chicken: truly immaculate. And a steal at $3 for a giant half-bird. The chicken juice – given free – was lean and beautiful, too — possibly one of the most lump-resistant stocks ever known to gravy-making man.
During our brief time here in Bolivia, we’ve done our fair share of sampling various bottles of Bolivian wine. Eminently and imminently drinkable, the 2007 Aranjuez Tannat-Merlot blend has become our favorite. At $3.50 a bottle, it also fits our budget nicely.
Now we know we’re going to hear about “no red wine with white meat” from the cheap seats, but we choose to follow the advice from Dan's “Wines and Spirits” class (yes, he had one of those) from long ago at university. As one of the visiting sommeliers from Windows on the World (once atop the World Trade Center) once advised: drink what you like, when you like it, with what you like.
Attempting calabasas (the local squash pumpkin) pie would have proven a day-long exercise by itself. Given the instability of the hotel stove, it would likely have proven a disaster as well.
As an alternative, we considered these rainbow-colored jello cups from the market.
We thought better of it, however, and opted for some very tasty chocolate covered almonds from a local chocolatier.
As it turns out, we were so full that dessert was an impossibility anyway.
Final Outcome: Our Thanksgiving Feast
An achievement, given the circumstances. From our standpoint, comfort food at its finest.
A Little Homesick
Bouts of homesickness come and go, and occasionally come again. To fend these off over the long-term, we usually make it a point to be with family and friends – or at least some other Americans – at Thanksgiving time. We managed this last year.
However, due to our travel plans this year, we found ourselves tucked deep in eastern Bolivia –- feeling a bit untethered in a nostalgic yet unpleasant way. We really longed to be with family, and our Thanksgiving Day began almost ruefully because of this.
It’s hard to say how we emerged from this homesick funk. Perhaps it was the parsley and goat cheese vendor and how she laughed when Audrey asked how many goats she owned. Or maybe it was the chicken man's generosity and kindness.
Maybe it was the simple pleasure of cooking this meal – still one of our favorites in the world – that helped put us in a frame of mind to appreciate what we have. Or perhaps it was the communication with family and friends that placed it all in perspective.
Regardless, we are thankful for the opportunities we have. At times we grouse about things (don’t we all?), but we know that it’s crucial to reel ourselves back in and realize how fortunate we have been to see and experience all that we have in our lives — good, bad or indifferent.
And to our friends and family, it’s to you that our thoughts run often, but especially during these holidays. We are grateful for all those Thanksgivings past with you — in the U.S., France, Germany, Czech Republic, China and a few places in between that we’ve certainly forgotten.
If our travels have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is permanent. So we are thankful for it all and for as long as we have it.
*MacGyver – a U.S. television show character who became an icon by fashioning grand solutions out of the simplest bits available to him. We have vague, unsubstantiated memories of him breaking free from a prison by using only a stick of bubble gum.