Happy Thanksgiving from Beirut
Today the United States will celebrate its most beloved and defining holiday—Thanksgiving. The whole world over knows about this festive day, when families in America gather for a home-cooked meal, usually turkey, complete with bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, maybe baked potatoes and yams, and of course, the customary pumpkin pie. Flights will be overbooked and pricey, as everyone rushes to get home in time. At night, many avid shoppers will camp out in front of their favorite stores with hopes of snagging door-busters and the incredible prices that characterize Black Friday. And perhaps most notably, Thanksgiving marks the official advent of the Christmas season.
Turning a blind eye to the commercialized aspect of this holiday, I can’t help but be nostalgic for a day I have grown to cherish with each passing year. And that attachment is only magnified by the distance I find myself separated from my childhood home: a nontrivial 7,000 miles. Dad would secure the turkey at the start of November, storing it in the freezer until just a few days before Thanksgiving Thursday, when it would be transferred to the refrigerator to slowly thaw. Mom would spend hours in the kitchen, slaving away over stuffing the bird—sometimes as big as 8kg—with her signature Lebanese stuffing: long grain rice, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and celery. But that’s where we parted with the traditional American Thanksgiving meal. Gravy and cranberry sauce were nowhere to be seen, and while green beans did make an appearance, they would be in steamed—not baked—form, delicately tossed in garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice. The dishes to accompany the turkey would include a massive round pan of kibbeh (in Lebanon, that’s usually a main dish!), fattouch as a salad, puréed potatoes, and an assortment of Lebanese pasties like sambousik and fatayer. After such a feast, dessert—typically sweet potatoes and Mom’s raisin, date, and chocolate sponge cake—would be deferred to much later in the evening.
Only once were we tempted to line up outside a retail store early Friday morning in anticipation for Black Friday, but it had nothing to do with the historic sales. Mervyn’s (which is sadly no more) was giving away beautifully-crafted wooden Christmas tree ornaments, and Mom and I were bent on having them. That was in the early 90s, when Black Friday queues were far more manageable by today’s standards and the chaos much more contained. We arrived at 7am and happily secured our prizes.
As I grew older and eventually moved far from home to attend graduate school, Thanksgiving resonated even more deeply within me. It’s true, after all, that you don’t quite appreciate something until you’re without it. My first year away, I insisted on coming home for Thanksgiving, flying across the country early Wednesday morning to make it home for an extended weekend. And it was phenomenal. A home-cooked meal never tasted better. The following year, however, my dear friend Mimo invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her Syrian family in Queens, New York. It was my first trip to NYC, and we set out to explore the city, including Central Park, Manhattan, Times Square, you name it. We even made off with some exceptional Black Friday deals, like a black Aldo purse which I still tote today.
One year later, I had settled across the pond, in Paris, where going home wasn’t really an option. My friends and I attended a Thanksgiving-inspired dinner hosted by Cité Universitaire, a village of college dorms on the outskirts of Paris. Sure, there was turkey and cranberry sauce, but the mini tarte à la citrouille was a sad attempt at pumpkin pie. Nevertheless, I cherished every second of it, particularly because my friends, none of whom were American, became my family that night, recreating Thanksgiving for me in a totally foreign country.
This year, I’m in Beirut, and while I know I’m living in a country whose national pastime is food and exquisitely good food at that, I doubt I’ll come across a classic American Thanksgiving table. But that’s okay. You know why? Because before leaving Beirut last month, my wonderfully thoughtful and brilliant mother baked me her specialty stuffed roast chicken, a mini turkey as far as I’m concerned, and tucked it away in the freezer in three separate Tupperware. Just a week ago, she reminded me of it. So this year, I’m extra blessed. I’ll be feasting and celebrating Thanksgiving not once, not twice, but thrice.