As I prepare the menu for the Thanksgiving holiday, I am reminded that last year at this time I was in Afghanistan. This was the first time I had ever been in that country. I had mentally prepared myself to just “suffer through” it. I imagined that as an American, I would not be very popular. I imagined that as a woman, I would be treated “less than.” However, after being in Afghanistan for almost a month spending time at the capital in Kabul, in the west at Herat and in the north at Mazar, I can honestly say that none of my fears were founded. By dressing more conservatively than was required, learning a handful of words in Farsi, showing interest in learning about the culture, and always being respectful I was treated so warmly that it really touched me. Both the locals and ex-pats treated me as an honored guest. I have never experienced such a level of hospitality as that which was bestowed upon me there. The people were so kind; it was truly amazing. I think what touched me the most was going into the villages and meeting with people that had very little food to eat who would ask you to come into their homes and offer you half of everything they had. Their kindness and generosity was something that I will never forget.
As a Native American, we have a different perspective on the American holiday of Thanksgiving than the general population. Many Natives do not even celebrate the holiday because we consider it a time of mourning. Others do not celebrate in protest to what occurred generations ago, what our people have endured for hundreds of years, and even how the holiday is portrayed to youngsters in schools today. However, in my family we made the conscious choice to celebrate the giving of thanks. We choose to spend the day sharing a special meal with loved ones and being thankful for what we have in our lives. My grandfather would have all of us at the table go around and say what we were thankful for. That tradition has been kept alive today and is shared with his great-great grandchildren.
Being in Afghanistan during the holiday meant that I was far away from my family and our special tradition passed down to us by my grandfather. I had spent some time thinking about how grateful I was for my experience in their country and how wonderfully they had treated me. So, I decided I would bring our version of the Thanksgiving holiday to Kabul. The Afghanistan CEO was kind enough to let me use the kitchen in her guest house to prepare the special meal. She took me to Butcher Street the day before and we bought what we needed. I found everything I needed except for the herb Sage. How can you cook cornbread stuffing (dressing) without Sage? She assured me that there was no Sage anywhere to be found in all of Kabul. Well, being a good (okay, maybe great) investigator, I finally found the all elusive Sage. (Shopping on Butcher Street was an adventure unto itself; perhaps a chapter for another book about my adventures.)
I arrived early that Thursday morning and began the process of preparing the meal for that evening. I spent the entire day cooking. If you have ever cooked in someone else’s kitchen, then you know there can be some challenges. Now imagine cooking in someone else’s kitchen in Afghanistan. I had to do things a little differently than I normally would. For instance, when I asked where the food processor was they openly laughed at me, said “This is Afghanistan. We don’t have that here,” and handed me the mortar and pestal. It took a lot longer, but I managed to get the nuts ground. There were no fancy gadgets. It was back to the basics for me.
I was starting to get the hang of it when I needed to preheat the oven for the cornbread (step one for making the stuffing from scratch). There were no degrees on the oven just high, medium and low. After a short moment of confusion, I made an executive decision that I would go with the “medium” setting and I put the cornbread into the oven. About twenty minutes had passed when I (and the rest of the house) began to smell smoke… I opened the oven and thick, black smoke poured out. My poor cornbread was a crisp, black blob of a mess. I guess “medium” was a bad call. That didn’t work out so well.
You can’t make stuffing without cornbread… so, I decided to see how burnt it really was. I was in luck! The middle was perfect. Another executive decision, we cut off the charred part and salvaged the center. It didn’t need to be pretty, just taste good. Lesson learned. Upon closer inspection, the oven had settings of high, medium and low on BOTH the top and bottom. Who knew? I was thankful I learned about the settings with the cornbread and not the turkey. The turkey was safe… or so I thought.
I had another unique challenge with cooking the turkey. About half way into the turkey-cooking-time, the oven shut off. Afghanistan has rolling brown-outs several times a day sometimes as often as every hour. At first I thought it was a power outage, but the lights were still on. That wasn’t it. I looked around and could not figure out what the problem was. It just stopped working. I called for reinforcements and finally someone identified the issue. We were out of propane. Seriously? I said, “Okay, I can live without a food processor and with no can opener. I can open a can with a knife. I can figure out how to cook with unique oven settings, but there is no way I can cook a turkey without gas. Unless you want me to build a fire, we are going to have to get some gas for the oven.” Everybody laughed and we sent someone to get a small propane tank while I worked on the rest of the dishes.
By the time everything was just about done, the guests started to arrive. We had invited locals and ex-pats to partake in the festivities. Only two of us were Americans and one other had lived in the United States for a time. The rest of the people were from many different countries and cultures. Thanksgiving was not a holiday they typically celebrated because it is unique to the Americans. I explained the holiday from the Native’s perspective and told them that I wanted to thank each of them for being so wonderful to me during my time in Afghanistan. I wanted to acknowledge their kindness and let them know how much it meant to me.
Then as was our tradition in my family, as the turkey was being carved, we each went around the table and said what we were thankful for during the past year. While I was thankful for so many blessings, I was most definitely thankful for my experience in Afghanistan and for the ex-pats and local Afghans who welcomed me into their country. I will be forever thankful for their vulnerability, authenticity, openness and kindness.