22 November 2007

Thanksgiving: Persian-style

Wishing all my readers, wherever they are, a Happy Thanksgiving weekend with family and friends.

In the 1970s, when we lived in Teheran, Iran, we always celebrated Thanksgiving, as we do today in Israel. As we lived within the Iranian Jewish community, Jewish holidays were never a problem. Thanksgiving, however, was an unknown quantity, despite the large number of Iranian Jews who had studied in the US and returned home.

Many of our married friends were American wives and Iranian husbands. British, German and South Americans were also in the mix. As part of our busy social lives, we each staged frequent tea parties during which we attempted to outdo each other in the varieties of cakes, pastries and other desserts offered. Each event resembled a Las Vegas dessert buffet. My well-thumbed and lovingly batter-stained copies of Maida Heatter's cookbooks (highly recommended) are evidence of working through the pages!

Thanksgiving, however, was something else. There were certain shops where - for a price - essentials like cranberry sauce and Libby's Pumpkin Pie Puree could be had, as well as Miracle Whip for the after-holiday sandwiches! It took a bit of running around, but we always found what we needed.

Turkeys were available, although generally sold cut up and used in soups and stews or in the marvelous breakfast and life-cycle event dish, haleem (turkey cooked for hours with wheatberries, eaten with sugar and cinnamon, after synagogue services). But a whole turkey? Although many Iranian families we knew had large American stoves, their ovens were rarely used for anything but storage.

The first year we were there, I ordered one to be properly slaughtered, cleaned, left whole and delivered. "Don't worry," said the man who took the order, as I repeated "cleaned and delivered." We all know that "don't worry" sets off the anxiety twinges.

I busied myself with the pumpkin pies, blueberry crumble, roasting potatoes, sweet potato casseroles, sauteed Italian green beans in tomato sauce, little mini-vegetable kugels in cupcake shells, and corn bread for the stuffing. The next day I would make albalu polo (Persian white steamed rice with sour cherries and saffron) to go with the turkey.

Things were going well in the kitchen, except that Mr. Turkey didn't arrive on Wednesday.

After numerous calls, a promise was made to bring it first thing Thursday morning. Finally the bell rang - the gobbler had arrived in a huge brown paper bundle and brought to the kitchen. I thought the package felt warm as I carried it.

It got worse from there.

As I unwrapped the bird, the turkey's neck fell out (still sort of attached to the body), complete with beak and eyes. I didn't faint, although I certainly thought I would. More paper was unpeeled, and the bird was there in all its glory, complete with feathers, feet and everything but the gobble.

Understand that I'm a New York girl and - even in my grandmother's time - chickens and other fowl came de-feathered, de-footed, de-eyed, de-beaked and in nice plastic bags. I had no idea what to do with this still-warm thing in my kitchen and I was becoming a bit hysterical as I realized our guests would be arriving in only a few hours.

My husband thought it was funny, but came up with a solution. He called his mother and tried to explain the situation, although he was laughing so hard she didn't understand him. He went to bring over her housekeeper to come and clean Mr. Turkey, which she did quickly and efficiently.

I didn't watch.

It cooked up very nicely, but there wasn't much left for sandwiches the next day! And each year after, relatives and friends began calling in early November asking when the eid-e-bughelamoon (feast of turkey) was happening.

When we returned to the US in 1978, I added more Persian dishes to the annual feast. I serve all the traditional dishes, but add two exotic rice dishes (the sour cherry dish as well as the shirin polo (steamed rice with candied tangerine shreds, carrot shreds and pistachio nuts), along with stuffed vegetables.

One year, we had 50 people visiting from out of town and had six turkeys! In Israel, the turkeys are smaller to fit in Israel's smaller ovens. When we had a large feast one year, I commandeered my neighbors' kitchens, which of course meant they were also invited (with their chairs!).

Most kitchens here do not have large double wall ovens, and preparing the feast for a crowd is almost impossible with only one small oven. It's a challenge, but we've handled it with creative techniques and guests who bring along their own holiday specialties.

I wish all Tracing the Tribe's American readers a happy Thanksgiving weekend - no matter where they are this year - surrounded by family and friends, with a beautiful golden-brown roasted bird, the traditional trimmings, and each family's special ethnic specialties.


  1. Oh my gosh, Schelly! What a hoot! I can't imagine myself in your situation... opening that bag and pulling out a still-warm, full-feathered fowl. Yeesh!

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. One of the best things about having blogger buddies around the world is learning about life in different cultures. I appreciate what you've shared.

    Warm Thanksgiving wishes to you and yours,


  2. Hi, Jasia,

    Glad you enjoyed it. We tell the story each year.

    Always fun - I guess I have a warped sense of humor - to see the look of total horror on the faces of first-time guests!

    Happy holiday to you and yours as well!


  3. Happy thanksgiving, Schelly! I love the turkey story!