25 November 2009

Talking Turkey: Family history holiday

What a shock on my weekly supermarket run last week in Tel Aviv.

I go to the butcher first as there is always a line. Amid the turkey legs, necks, skinless breasts, there was a gorgeous showpiece of a whole turkey with its skin. These are a rarity in Israel, where whole turkeys are often hard to find, and even whole breasts are skinless.

Unfortunately, it was too early for me to bring home a fresh whole turkey. Freezing it would kill the taste. In any case, there was no way to shoehorn it into my smallish freezer here. And it would certainly spoil kept in the frig for a week. Instead I ordered another just like it for this week.

I love Thanksgiving. No matter where we have lived, we have always celebrated the holiday. Even when we lived in Teheran in the 1970s. So it is time once again for my Teheran Turkey story.

Teheran was also one of those places where whole turkeys were exceedingly rare. Turkeys in general were hard to find and were usually available in parts of the whole.

I went off to a big supermarket for my first holiday turkey, and told the affable manager that I needed a big, whole turkey, with the skin, cleaned thoroughly (in my mind, that means all the feathers and insides). No problem, he said. At that point in time, I still thought that "no problem" really meant no problem. Ha!

Mr. Turkey, he said, would be available fresh when I requested it on Wednesday morning and they would deliver it. Wonderful!, I replied and went off to our favorite little store that stocked such "black-market" items as cranberry sauce, Libbys Pumpkin Puree, canned candied sweet potatoes (yams/sweet potatoes were also on the rare list), and, of course, a big jar of Miracle Whip for leftover sandwiches.

Home again, I got cracking with the stuffing, the side dishes, pies and cakes.

Wednesday morning I waited for the doorbell announcing the arrival of Mr. Turkey. Silence. I called Mr. Manager who said it would be there by noon. Noon came and went. Another call. 4pm came and went. Another call. No doorbell. Finally, a call from Mr. Manager who said it would be there bright and early Thursday morning. What could I do (except get more and more nervous)?

Early Thursday morning, the doorbell rang and I was handed a huge package wrapped in brown paper. It seemed warm but I dismissed that thought quickly. Opening the wrapping, I was stunned to see the complete bird - I mean COMPLETE - with feathers, feet, neck, beak, beady little eyes and, yes, it was definitely WARM.

The only thing missing was the gobble. Of course, I might have missed that amid all the screaming. At least it was very fresh, having met its demise only an hour earlier.

To say I freaked out was an understatement. The scream must have woken everyone in the building and the entire street. Are you sure you didn't hear it? My husband got out of bed, took one look and began laughing hysterically. That didn't help much, as I have always reminded him.

What was this Brooklyn girl going to do with a very complete bird?

In my world, turkeys came totally clean, inside and out, with no anatomical realities.

My husband called his mother, who it seemed also was caught up in the mutual laughter. He drove over to my in-laws' home, and brought back their servant, who proceeded to make quick work of the outside and inside of Mr. Turkey, as she sat there giggling over the thought of a foreign daughter-in-law who couldn't handle this ordinary job. Several times a week, she had to clean a pile of kosher chickens, and this guy was only a bit bigger.

Mind you, this was already Thursday at 10am, and people were coming for dinner. I finally got the turkey seasoned and stuffed. Dinner was only a bit late. Mr. Turkey was beautiful and delicious. Everyone ooh'd and ahh'd, which somewhat made up for the earlier traumatic experience - the main discussion topic during dinner.

We always tell the story of Mr. Turkey - that's our family tradition.

And later as people are digging into dessert and fruit, including bananas, we tell the story of my great-grandmother's arrival at Ellis Island with Leib, 2, and Chayeh Feige, 5 months. They wound up in the hospital for some reason, and she was told to give Leib bananas. In Mogilev, Belarus, this was an unknown fruit. She had never seen one and had no idea of what to do with it. How could a toddler eat that thick peel? Eventually, she saw another woman peeling one and knew what to do. If we saw a banana for the first time, we'd likely be just as puzzled as she was.

Every holiday is family history day. Every occasion that encourages families to get together is perfect for generational genealogy.

Begin with the food. Each of us has a traditional family recipe or two. Who first made it? How has it changed? Where did the first person to make it come from ... and when?

Growing up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, we had the good old American standards: Turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and other standard American goodies.

In Teheran, our Thanksgivings were just as celebrated - with American friends - we called it eid-e-bugalamu (Festival of Turkey). There were twists and turns in the menus. One year there was cranberry sauce, one year there wasn't. One year we had Libbys Pumpkin Puree, one year we didn't. We tended to hoard these precious cans until we could replace them, and when they were available, we bought enough for two years!

That's when I began making polo albalu, long-grain aged Basmati rice mixed with sour cherries. It is great with turkey and the pink of the sauce and the cherries, mixed with the white rice and some golden (mixed with saffron) makes it an amazingly beautiful dish for company.

When a dinner guest once asked how I got the grains colored white, pink and golden. I said I had hand painted them individually!

Another great Persian rice dish is a slightly sweet rice mixed with thin strips of carrots and candied tangerine peel, pistachio nuts and other delicacies, which is also great with the big bird. In Los Angeles, one can buy the prepared tangerine peel. In Tel Aviv, I save our tangerine peels, I slice them in extremely thin strips and dry them completely. Stored in jars, they sit in my closet until I make this special rice and simmer the peel in a sugar syrup. I save both orange and green tangerine peels, and the two colors are interesting together.

On my menu is also fesenjan, a thick walnut-and-pomegranate stew with chicken that is a classic of Persian cooking. It is a great fall dish also.

So along with my challah stuffing with chestnuts and pecans, the candied sweet potatoes, roast potatoes instead of mashed, several Persian rices and stews, and the standard pumpkin pies, blueberry crumble and brownies, our celebration combines several traditions.

I know that Latinos add their traditional favorite foods to their Thanksgiving menu, as do Asians. And why not? Every ethnic group has its favorite foods, so why not enjoy them at the most American holiday of them all?

The food is only one part of the day. It is a great time for asking questions about traditions, for transmitting family stories and sharing what you've learned since last Thanksgiving.

If you're having a large crowd, have some family sheets available for updates. You might get new information that way.

Informal is best, your dinner is not a conference, and there's always that football game to contend with. However, not everyone wants to watch football. Really. Even though it feels a bit sacrilegious to say that! Gather the non-sports people in another room to talk anything that isn't football.

You can even pull out the family photos and ask guests if they recognize any of your orphan photos - you know, the ones with no labeling on the back. Maybe someone will have the same photo and theirs will be labeled!

It is a great occasion to catch up with relatives and share what you've learned, while perhaps discovering more from your guests.

The Family Tree Magazine blog, Genealogy Insider, has an informative post with suggestions and related articles. Do take a look here and perhaps you'll find more tips and ideas on working genealogy into your gathering. Related articles include questions for interviewing relatives, tips for oral history interviews, using photos, and other information.

Click here to see the Genealogy Insider post by Diane Haddad.


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story - not just of the turkey but also the family foods, customs and celebrations.

    I can see my mother and grandmother reacting the way you did, but I know that my great-grandmothers had to do the cleaning of their birds in their time.

    Did your turkey arrive on time this year?

  2. Thanks for this story! In a similar situation I can picture my sister or any of my three girls reacting just as you did.