Thanksgiving in Morocco, Peace Corps style
“But, but… Welican, l’rajl mn bed tkellm…” (But the gentleman last evening said…)
I couldn’t believe it. I had arranged this. More importantly, I had my tutor arrange this in the Berber language the day before so there would be no misunderstanding. With my language skills, who knows, but Idris did this. I was there.
“Welican…” (but), I say in Arabic.
Perplexed, I stand at the bakers counter with my beautifully prepared bird, waiting for it to be put it in the public oven.
“La,” said the baker.
My bird, sitting pretty in its shiny new pan, is being denied its Thanksgiving purpose.
I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, living in Morocco; my training group of 64 and I have been here for 15 months, we have one more year to go. The year before, we spent out first Thanksgiving away from our friends and families as a group, in Fez. Last year, Morocco was still new, the adventure exciting, and the pleasure of seeing everyone again plus the ceremony of officially swearing in as Volunteers made the emptiness of being away from our loved ones bearable. This year is the first, and only year we will spend Thanksgiving in our sites, our new communities, our homes. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, a holiday without marketing influences, and the focus is a lovely meal amongst close friends and family. It is hard not to be melancholy when for the second time in as many years I am away from those closest to me so I arrange to host the volunteers in my region and we are going to have a big, family Thanksgiving. Everyone is excited. We divvy up the food responsibilities and everyone makes their arrangements. We make some accommodations: Thanksgiving will be on Saturday, but that is what Peace Corps is all about, making it work.
My responsibility is the bird. Two days earlier I had gone to the edge of town to purchase my fare. I chose him from a nice congregation of happy white birds frolicking in the pen. Little did they know an American was near and it was the end of November. The man asked me if I wanted a big one or a small; I said in between. Combining Americans and Moroccans for Thanksgiving, I was expecting 18 for dinner. He showed me a bibi (turkey in Arabic) and thinking the feathers make the bird look bigger, I thought he a good selection. I asked him if he would be our dinner. The bird agreed. He was placed on the guys moped, I in my friend’s car, and we went to his hanut (shop) where the bird was prepared. As they plucked the feathers from our soon to be Thanksgiving pride, the bird wasn’t getting any smaller. Completed and done, they put my beast on the scale. 11 kilo’s! Nearly 25 pounds! He was a joyful bird, and a big one!
Turkey is a food that is enjoyed in Morocco however, from what I have seen, the food is generally prepared traditionally, either in tagine or couscous. A tagine is a one-dish meal of meat, fish or poultry that is slowly cooked on a fire in a covered terracotta pot. Couscous is flour rolled into tiny balls and steamed in a pot over cooking vegetables. The traditional eating method is with your right hand, so, in the case where meat is a part of the meal, the meat has been cut into smaller bits so that the meat can be broken up with your fingers while eating. Therefore, the concept of putting a whole 25lb bird into an oven is rather alien. In fact, like most people in my town, I didn’t have an oven that would hold a 5 lb bird mush less a 25lb one. My oven, which is the common purchase in my town, looks like a toaster over. Many people use the public ovens, daily, because they don’t own an oven at all. So, the day after I purchased this beast, a beast where I needed to take a rack out of my refrigerator so that it would fit, I accosted Idris, my language tutor, and dragged him to the nearest public oven, a fascinating large wood fueled mud dome where the bread is cooked next to the fire, and had Idris discuss the cooking needs of this creature with the manager. The manager listened and agreed to my request to have the bird cooked there; I was to return in the morning.
I now stand at that same counter, my bird proud in it’s pan, and the manager we spoke with the evening before is nowhere to be seen.
“La,” the morning manager says. He tells me there would be no room for the neighbor’s bread if my bird was in the oven. He does have a point, but now my bibi, lathered in butter and stuffed with bread bits, has nowhere to go. My Thanksgiving is threatened.
I return home where my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, Anny, Megan, Mahri and Matthew are busy preparing our feast. I tell my tale and I leave the bird behind to search out a new public oven. I go to ask my favorite bread seller. The opening of his oven is too small but he knows one that is bigger. I go to another, and another and everyone advises me to go to this same place. I return to retrieve the bird and Matthew, bless his heart, comes with me, carrying our prize. We navigate through the maze of cobblestoned streets asking people where this baker is. ‘It’s close, it’s close’, everyone says however it may be close when carrying a loaf of bread but not while carrying 25 pounds of turkey dinner. Matthew, a darling, 5’6” slight young man of 24 with the slim body of a dancer yet strong as the son of a Minnesota fireman would be, is taking baby baby steps, arms stiff with strain as we round the bend. Matthew’s arms disintegrate as we reach the counter of our destination and bird meets the counter with rather large bang. “Salam Alikum,” I say in the traditional greeting, trying to act like I do this everyday. “Walikum salam,” this new baker replies with skeptism. We speak, he inspects the bird, “La,” he says, shaking his head. His oven doors are too small.
I call a Moroccan friend, Abderrahmane, who suggests we go to his mothers. Matthew looks at me in panic at the thought of carrying this thing any further so I rush home to retrieve my bike. Megan returns with me and placing the bird on the bike, Megan and I cross-town while Matthew goes home to prepare his grandmother’s potato salad. We continue through the twists and turns of the old town, I, on one side wearing my now signature straw hat, a familiar site in the community, holding the bird and a bike handle and Megan, with her bright red curly Irish hair, holding the bird from the other side. Even in Morocco, a fully dressed fully exposed bird on a bike is unusual so everyone we encounter stops to ask what we are doing. We tell them about Thanksgiving, we tell them about our quandary, and, of course, everyone recommends the same public oven, the last oven we had just visited that was too small.
We arrive at Abderrahmane’s mother’s house and as is anywhere in the world, mother’s in Morocco are great… Hadisha opens the door and greets us as though people come to her house every day with fully dressed birds on their bike to place in her oven. As Mother’s are the same world wide, so are sons. Abderrahmane did not tell his mother we were coming. We discuss our plight, she laughs and giggles and agrees to help. We inspect the oven, it may work. She opens the doors, and, drum roll please, it fits! Humdullah! (Glory be to God). We tell her we will return every 20 minutes or so to baste the creature and relieved that we will have our meal, leave to finish our last minute errands.
As we complete our shopping, Matthew calls to tell me my neighbor, Latifa has also come up with a solution. Latifa, a remarkable literate woman of around 40 who married in her late 20’s for love has somehow carried her big, 5’ x 2 ½’ very archaic heavy metal propane gas oven, essentially a 2½’ x 2’ box with a shelf on the bottom for the gas container, no temperature control, just fire, an article that resembled something the French left behind many years before, into my garden. Everyone thinks it will work. The thought of having to bring a hot, fully cooked bird back on parade led Megan and I to a quick decision: retrieve the bird and bring him back home. Abderrahmane’s mother is shocked and somewhat disappointed she will not be a part of the day’s entertainment and tries to convince us that her oven is the best alternative but when we open the door to baste the turkey, we find the bird on fire! It is too close to the flame.
I react immediately and use Hadisha’s lovely clean white dishtowel that happens to be in my hand to beat the flames (and bird!) till they are out. I place our wayward feast back on the bike, and hand Hadisha her now charred and filthy dishtowel. “Thank you,” I say as I struggle desperately to keep the small shred of dignity I have remaining.
Megan and I resume the bird’s tour of Tiznit, going home a different route so we do not run into people we have already passed. Having to explain this second chapter in the turkey saga would be just too much to handle. We get home with only a few interruptions, open Latifa’s oven that resembles Abderrahmane’s mother perfectly and, the bird does not fit! It is maybe a half an inch too tall.
“We can bring it back to Hadisha’s,” Mahri says. I love Mahri. She is the most insightful, level headed, 28 year old woman I’ve ever met, a wonderful 2nd generation Peace Corps Volunteer who grew up in Japan and is fast becoming my best friend in Peace Corps. I am very lucky to have her as a neighbor, 100 k away, however do not want to take this bird on yet another tour of town…
“We can cut it down and roast it in bits,” says Anny, an amazingly bright and multi talented Eli who I suspect we will see much of throughout the years. This may be Morocco but it is still Thanksgiving, and I am the first to admit: there is too much of my mother in me to allow the Thanksgiving bird look anything less than perfect, even if it is not. Anny is from the South, she understands. We study the bird…
“Let’s try something else…” I say.
I do the only thing I can think of. I retrieve my leatherman, an updated Swiss army knife, and pull out the saw blade I used two days previously to prune the fig tree in my garden. I flip the bird over, hold it down as best I can with my left hand and I crush, crack then cut the vertebrae from the spine of the bird with my right. I lean in to stabilize the bird as it slips and slides in the pan and I struggle not to detach my finger in the process. A spine-ectomy is the only solution.
I dislodge the spine, flip it back over, re-stuff the dressing that has left the cavity of the beast, and not so gently compress the bird into the pan. I maneuver it a bit more as I place it into the oven and, it works. The bird fits, with a little room to spare. I think we have it.
The cooking marathon continues; everybody making the dishes they are missing most from the meal they would be having at home with their families. Anny is now making pumpkin pie having made rolls and rolls of croissants earlier. Matthew has finished his grandmother’s potato salad and is now working on mashed. We baste the bird in between cutting and dicing and everyone is busy; Mahri is the decorations committee, setting the table, putting candles out in the garden, moving furniture. We are all buzzing, focusing on our tasks yet everyone stops every time I go to baste the bird, is it working?
Manuela and Lahcen are the first to arrive. Manuela is amazing. A Canadian expat who met Lahcen, her Moroccan husband on Skype and now lives in Mirleft, a small village on the coast near by. She has that ability to just live from her heart, and someone whom appears to be my lifeline to sanity. It is so nice to have a friend that lives here who is not related to Peace Corps but still understands the madness we go through to fit into this culture. Idris, my tutor and Said, another friend come and the music begins. Idris, Said and Lahcen have been playing music together for years and the friendships between men here are refreshing, very warm and unrestrictive. Being a conservative culture, men and women do not have friendships as we do in the states so men form bonds with each other that we are unaccustomed to. Idris, Said and Lahcen love spending time with us so they can be friends without the restrictions of their culture that lies outside my door. Said told me recently, I was the first foreigner he had ever become friends with. Latifa, wonderful Latifa somehow understand and lets me be. As far as I know, she tells no one of the parties I have had here, although, this is the fist one I have invited Moroccans, and Moroccan men in particular. I am rather nervous about this but this is Thanksgiving and this is my family.
The new Health PCV’s come, four, and bring more goodies. Meredith especially is a wonderful cook and she’s conquering the obstacles we all face trying to cook with equipment and ingredients we are not familiar with. Maggie, an American child of the 60’s who lived it hard landing in my town 5 years prior and now sells jewelry on Ebay comes and everyone is congregated in the living room, happy. I slip away… it is the moment of truth. Time to check the bird…
Mahri sees me and slips out to help. We open the oven doors; it looks beautiful. A perfect golden brown, juices flowing, visually, it is done. We do not have the benefit of a turkey thermometer so I take it out and we carry it to the kitchen. The leg joints are soft, the meat is moist and tender, we look at each other. I take a little piece and try it, and smile. Mahri does the same, we are in agreement. It is amazing! I put some foil over the bird and let it repose as we get ready for the feast.
This is not what Peace Corps is supposed to be: a gourmet extravaganza of mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, croissants, grandma’s potato salad… and turkey. A bird whom I met personally, agreed to be our dinner, has been paraded around town, cooked for about an hour, charred on top, reposed for 30 minutes or more in travel. It has been flipped on to it’s belly, stuffing flying everywhere as a saw broke it’s spine and cooked with only our senses to decide if it is ready. I don’t know what did it, or if it is the combination of all but this beast is the juiciest, most tender, best turkey any of us has ever eaten. It is perfect, the evening is perfect, and although we are all missing our loved ones at home, we are not missing them nearly as much as we thought we would, this menagerie of people, my Moroccan Family.