Here’s how you can tell American Thanksgiving is upon us: in the City Shopper, an expensive western supermarket with branches around Shanghai, a young Indonesian woman approaches you bearing a box of something labeled Starkemehl and politely asks whether this can be used to make cornbread. From past experience in this area, you know that this is a very fine German corn flour, so you shake your head no and lead her over to the organic section of the store, where you know that they now carry Arrowhead Mills’ line of stone ground corn meal. As you suspected, she confirms that she has been invited to an American home for Thanksgiving and is hoping to get her contribution right.
Last year, I recall a similar situation with a sweet German girl, who held up lingonberries and wanted to know whether they could substitute for cranberries. Thinking back to the sauce in IKEA cafeterias from Shanghai to Virginia, I told her she should be okay. But afterward I found Ocean Spray in a can in another aisle and went hunting for her.
Then there were the charming and flirtatious Italian guys in Carrefour who asked me where they could find a pumpkin pie. You’ll have to make it yourself! I joked back. But then they found me again in the vegetable section and dangled a pumpkin in front of me. How many does it take? And how to make the pastry? They were delighted when I steered them to the house brand’s surprisingly good pate brisee in a box. They were pretty sure that they had a friend with an oven — rare in a Shanghai kitchen — so I was hopeful about their pie.
The hardest part is the turkey. The first time that I attempted a Thanksgiving dinner in Shanghai, I boought a large expensive imported Butterball at a Singaporean grocery store and persuaded them to keep it in their freezer until just before I needed it. Fortunately, it was very cool that year, so I was able to thaw the thing outside on the balcony sealed up in a plastic bin safe from marauding cats. (It wouldn’t fit into my fridge.) The alternative to roasting your own is to order a turkey from one of the big western hotels, but then it wouldn’t be stuffed with my own special stuffing… And I’ve heard at least one horror story of a turkey arriving beautifully browned but raw in the middle!
Of course, the other alternative is to go to the buffet at the Hilton, and we have done that, too. The gravy doesn’t taste right — how could it? It’s not my grandmother’s/mother’s recipe — but it’s where, on a Thursday night after a regular workday in Shanghai, you’ll find our fellow citizens — teachers from the Shanghai American School and many other friends and acquaintances from around town. All thinking about what we have to be grateful for in China.