The first Thanksgiving I ever celebrated away from home was 40 years ago when my husband and I lived in Bogota, Colombia. We had moved there after Ken won a position as principal trumpeter with the National Symphony Orchestra and I got a job teaching in a private Colombian school. We weren’t the only Americans who were far from home for the holiday, so we decided to host a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the American musicians and teachers from my school.
This was my first solo holiday meal, and I wanted to get everything right. I asked everyone to give me their favorite Thanksgiving recipe—“like Mom used to make”—then I went on a scavenger hunt all over the city for the ingredients. We had to order the turkey from friends of ours who worked in the U.S. Embassy since turkeys weren’t available in Colombia.
The day before Thanksgiving, I was hard at work in our tiny kitchen with our Colombian maid, Cecelia, who was intrigued by this “gigantic chicken.” I decided to remove the giblets and turkey neck from the cavity where the stuffing would go, and I gingerly reached inside as I had seen my grandmother do year after year. But I had a surprise waiting for me inside. I pulled out . . . turkey feet! A pair of them, with gnarly claws, wrinkly skin, and disgusting turkey toes! I did what every shocked, novice cook would do—I let out a scream and dropped the gross-looking things! Cecelia caught them before they even hit the ground.
“They’re…they’re FEET!” I replied. There weren’t enough words in my Spanish vocabulary to convey my horror and revulsion.
“You don’t want them?” she asked—as if I was about to throw away a week’s pay.
“NO! I certainly don’t!”
May I have them?” she asked shyly. I gave them to her with my blessings, and returned to my search for the giblets. This time I pulled out an even bigger surprise—the entire turkey head! It had beady little eyes, and a pointy beak, and that horrible wobbly thing on its head! This time I screamed so loudly that one of our neighbors rushed to our door.
Have you ever seen a turkey up close? They have to be one of the ugliest birds in the world, and believe me the head is even more horrible when it’s severed from the body! Once again, I dropped it. And once again, Cecelia caught it before it hit the ground. She cradled it in awe. Her expression was that of a woman who has just won the lottery.
“Yes! Take it, take it!” I told her. “Just get it out of here!”
“Oh, Senora Lynn, thank you . . . thank you!” As they say, one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. I put the turkey in the refrigerator, too grossed out to look for the giblets.
That wasn’t my only surprise that year. The next morning, Ken got up early with me to help stuff the bird and put it into the oven. (I let him look for the giblets.) We had already learned that food takes longer to cook in Bogota, which sits at an altitude of 8,600 feet, and we wanted to make sure the bird was fully cooked. Now, I had never actually used the oven in our apartment because our building had been without gas ever since we’d moved in a few months earlier. But the gas had recently been turned on and I was excited to be able to expand my cooking repertoire beyond what I could create with a tiny electric toaster oven and a hot plate.
The twenty-two pound turkey was prepped and ready to go, but when I opened the oven door—surprise!—the inside was the size of a shoe box! I had never even thought to look inside since the oven door was normal-sized. I did what any first-time Thanksgiving cook with guests coming in a few hours would do—I sat down on the kitchen floor and cried.
“Maybe we can cut the turkey into chunks,” Ken suggested, “and roast it piece by piece.” I cried even harder. Who ever heard of carving up a raw turkey? Besides, the pumpkin pie had to bake inside that stupid oven, too.
Ken left me in my misery and went next door to use the neighbor’s telephone. (We weren’t lucky enough to have one.) He called our friends who were coming for the meal and said, “Hey, would you mind measuring your oven?” It turned out that theirs was big enough, so Ken wrapped up the bird and loaded it into a taxi (we didn’t have a car, either) and rode across town with it to our friends’ apartment. When the turkey was done roasting several hours later, our friends delivered the steaming hot turkey back across town in another taxi. And it tasted delicious.
Each year, Ken and I have fun recalling that Thanksgiving as we prepare for the holiday. For me, the best part of the meal isn’t the food but the chance to sit down with friends and family and thank God for all of the many blessings He has showered on us. This year, I’m blessed to have all three of my children and their spouses home for Thanksgiving. But ever since that first special dinner in Bogota, it has also been our family tradition to invite guests who are far from home to join us for the holiday.
Oh, and one more tradition—it’s Ken’s job to reach inside the turkey every year.