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Thanksgiving in Gabon

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  • bobutne
    TEREZ ROSE http://www.dailynews.com/theiropinion/ci_4686489 THANKSGIVING, when you get down to it, is all about tradition. Year after year, we seek out (or
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 19, 2006
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      TEREZ ROSE http://www.dailynews.com/theiropinion/ci_4686489

      THANKSGIVING, when you get down to it, is all about tradition. Year
      after year, we seek out (or avoid) family and familiar recipes, pull
      out Grandma s china, and strive to create the same meal we ve had
      every year. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and
      pumpkin pie — overeating, too, is part of the tradition.

      The variables quickly change, however, when you re 6,000 miles from
      family, unable to return home for the holidays. Then, homesickness is
      what cramps your stomach. But perhaps this, too, is part of the
      tradition.

      Consider the band of 50 survivors in Plymouth of 1621, who gathered
      to celebrate their harvest with their newfound Native American
      friends. The Pilgrims-to-be had left extended family and a familiar
      world behind, and in the course of a year, had lost an alarming 50
      percent of their compatriots to sickness.

      Now that s a recipe for homesickness.

      My first taste of a foreign Thanksgiving came in 1985, when I left my
      native Kansas for the Peace Corps in Gabon, Central Africa. The early
      months, amid Gabon s heat, staggering humidity and unfamiliarity,
      were the hardest. At my provincial post where I taught high-school
      English, my white skin stuck out like a beacon. Whispers and stares
      accompanied me everywhere I went. I persevered with a grim
      determination, teaching, dressing and acting like the American I was.

      November brought with it dreams of the upcoming holiday. Back home on
      the Big Day, Mom would set the table early with linens, her delicate
      china and fine silverware. The rich smell of slow-roasting turkey
      would pervade the air as family members congregated throughout the
      day. Laughter would fill the dining room later as ravenous eaters
      stuffed themselves into a stupor.

      Home. So very far away.

      The only way to combat the homesickness, I decided, was to host my
      own traditional Thanksgiving dinner. My announcement to the other
      Peace Corps volunteers, however, was met with skepticism.

      Good luck finding the ingredients, one said.

      Last year, we just drank beer, another offered. Trust me — it s the
      safest bet.

      Perusing the local store brought only further discouragement. No
      whole turkeys, only the wings (the good parts went to the U.S.). No
      fresh vegetables and no potatoes, only local tubers like manioc, taro
      and plantains. Not a chance of pumpkin. Forget it, then, I snapped at
      my friends. No Thanksgiving dinner this year then.

      But why does it have to be a traditional dinner? a Gabonese friend
      asked.

      Well, that s the point, to do it the way it's always been done, with
      the turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

      Maybe if you compromised, you'd have better luck, he said.

      Compromise. That action, so difficult for us to consider —
      politically, socially and personally. Why do we resist compromise?
      Maybe the Pilgrims would have fared better early on had they
      compromised in myriad ways. Maybe I, too, would fare better in this
      foreign country if I tried embracing the culture instead of peddling
      my own.

      The Thanksgiving feast I ended up serving was unlike any I'd had
      before. It included turkey wings, stuffing, mashed taro root and
      canned French peas. Flour biscuits became dinner rolls. For pumpkin
      pie, I boiled green papayas from the market, spiced them up with
      cinnamon and nutmeg, then proceeded with the traditional recipe. The
      guests, both American and Gabonese, were delighted.

      I've never had turkey wings baked this way before, said one Gabonese
      man. Another reveled in the concept of biscuits with dinner. I
      thought back to the first Thanksgiving dinner, where the Pilgrims
      cooked unfamiliar food with familiar recipes. Maybe a Native American
      invited to the feast tasted a dish and said, Hey, I never thought of
      doing that with corn before.

      When I served the green papaya pie, I watched the other Americans
      expression as they took the first bite, trepidation changing to
      amazement. This tastes just like my Mom's pumpkin pie! one exclaimed.
      How did you do it?

      Tears stung my eyes and at that moment I felt happier than I'd ever
      felt in Africa, more fulfilled by Thanksgiving dinner. For the first
      time, I truly gave thanks: for friends, for bounty, for opportunity.
      And for my newest lesson: the art of compromise. Not a bad addition
      to a traditional American celebration.

      Terez Rose lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Write to her by e-mail
      at terez.writer@....
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