Fire Chicken

This November we had our first Thanksgiving here in Shanghai.  I would love to tell you that it was a lovely experience filled with heartwarming memories, but it was not exactly the warmest or fuzziest holiday we have ever celebrated.  Let me start by confessing that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I love all the cooking and the preparations for the big meal.  I can’t think of anything better than planning Thanksgiving dinner and then getting to share it with people I love.  In the United States, Thanksgiving is also the holiday where my side of the family gets together.  The past few years my brothers and my sister and I have all made an effort to spend Thanksgiving together, bringing our spouses and children.  And not just Thanksgiving Day, we spend a long weekend or the entire week hanging out together.  The cousins fight to the death and my parents have to endure hours of revelations about what actually happened when we were all teenagers.  I am sure they appreciate that.  The past few years have seen the addition of a few friends to the mix and I always look forward to Thanksgiving week.

Of course, when you live in China you can’t really just head home for Thanksgiving.  Henry didn’t even have one day off from school.  Lucas and Ava were given Friday so that they had a long weekend, but it still did not compare to the week of Thanksgiving festivities that I have decided is necessary.  The whole holiday got off to a rocky start when Mark announced that he wanted to have Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday since that was the actual holiday.  He wouldn’t hear of moving dinner to Friday or Saturday even when I argued that in France and Australia we had always celebrated on the weekend.  The kids had school!  He had to work!  He upped the ante by then declaring that he would like to invite his entire staff over so that they could experience American Thanksgiving.  And how many people is that, you ask?  Oh, 60 or so.  Sixty people eating Thanksgiving dinner in our townhouse with one unpredictable oven and my dorm size refrigerator?!  Oh, how I laughed.  This only made things worse because, apparently, he was serious.

Normally I make Thanksgiving dinner for about thirty people.  It isn’t that difficult when you have multiple refrigerators, a giant freezer, two ovens, and an arsenal of American grocery stores.  China is not like that.  Finding ingredients is time consuming and expensive and my kitchen is far from efficient or comfortable.  Could I organize dinner for sixty in the United States?  Sure.  I know where to get things.  I could plan ahead and even get some of it catered.  Here in China I couldn’t fit sixty people in my house comfortably even if by some miracle I could get the necessary food purchased and then cooked.  And catering?  Oh, that is possible.  But for sixty people the cost would have been outrageous.  Only certain people in China find themselves in need of Thanksgiving dinner.  I think you can guess which people I am talking about.  The Chinese are not stupid.  They know an opportunity when they see one.

After I shot down the staff Thanksgiving idea, Mark was less than helpful with the preparations.  He was also unaware of the actual date for the Thanksgiving holiday this year and as a result spent precious time goading me.  He basically squandered a week on teasing.  I don’t think he really regrets this.  Like a busy little squirrel, I had planned ahead and brought some of the ingredients for our dinner from the US when we were home for the summer.  I brought things I had trouble finding or that were exceptionally expensive.  My list included:  cornmeal, Karo syrup, jellied cranberry sauce in the can, dried sage, brining stuff for the turkey, and Crisco.  Next year I will need to add plain canned pumpkin to that because I was too lazy to cook an actual pumpkin after spending so much time on the other things.  Even with some things in the pantry, I spent a few days shopping.  Which brings me to Thanksgiving Day.

I found frozen turkeys in a few places and took a chance that one might fit in our oven.   I wanted a small one since it was only the five of us, but guess what?  In China you don’t get a choice!  You buy what you find and turkeys are all one size and imported from the United States.  And they cost around $70 because ladies like me need to buy them.  My ayi was shocked when I brought home the giant bird because the Chinese don’t eat “fire chicken.”  This is the actual translation for turkey in Mandarin.  But she didn’t use the word.  She chose to make loud turkey noises instead.  You know, so I would really understand her.  The bird didn’t fit in the fridge, of course, so I had to order take out to get bags of ice delivered and put it in the kitchen sink.  This also meant I had to buy a “half frozen” bird and wait until the day before dinner to rush to pick it up.  Organizing this meant a lengthy discussion with the woman at the butcher shop and turning a local taxi into a salmonella factory as I hauled the dripping thing home.

I started cooking dinner as soon as all the kids were at school.  The oven was on all day.  I took a break to attend Ava’s concert at school and then came right back to the kitchen.  When it was time to put the turkey in, I had to put the oven rack as low as it would possibly go.  Even then the bird almost touched the top of the oven.  But it fit.  By the time Mark came home from work everything was almost ready.  He was disappointed that I had only made cornbread dressing (my side of the family) but hadn’t made stuffing (his side of the family) so we waited while he made this from scratch.  Add a box of Stove Top to next year’s list, I guess.

Once the turkey was carved, we all sat down at the table.  I had spread out one of our handprint tablecloths from a few Thanksgivings ago.  Every year the gaggle of kids all put their handprints on a new tablecloth and then we use them to decorate the tables every year.  I have a collection of them now, and the tiny handprints get bigger and bigger on each one.  But there isn’t one from last year or this year, now.  So the tablecloth made me happy and sad at the same time.  The kids were a little solemn as well and Lucas finally announced that we were “missing a few people.”  And he was right.  We were missing quite a few people.  Really missing them.

How Not to Buy a Blender

The blender in question

Oh, more tales of woe from the Shanghai kitchen!  I mentioned in my post about the crockpot that I was having difficulty finding small kitchen appliances here in China.  Either things are cheaply made, or crazy expensive, or just not available.  And yes, it is not lost on me that all of the things at my old local Target were actually made in China.  My recent trip home reinforced the irony of living in the country of origin for so many cheap products but being unable to find them here in Shanghai.  Hilarious, I know.  I am trying to be judicious in my selections when it come to the kitchen.  There isn’t much room in the tiny Shanghai kitchen and I don’t have much storage space in the form of closets here either.  The things I buy need to be worth the space they take up on the kitchen counter.

I had been burned before, so when I decided to purchase a blender, I was determined not to make the same mistake.  I would buy the name brand thing this time—no crazy Chinese company for me!—and I would be sure I was buying something that would get the job done.  This time I was even contemplating making a move to the expensive store with the imported appliances.  One of the other students in my Chinese cooking class had told me about a store that was a short cab ride away where they had insanely overpriced name brand small appliances.  He had suffered with a shoddy food processor, and had decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to spend the time and energy staking out all the local Chinese stores for miracles.  He confessed to having been knowingly robbed by the shopkeeper, but claimed the prices were worth it to eliminate the aggravation factor alone.  I was set on going that route myself when fate intervened.

Poor Ava decided she could no longer live without breakfast smoothies and she was begging for a blender to help remedy the situation.  Mark needed to go to the hardware store so Ava and I tagged along.  This hardware store isn’t like most of the places in Shanghai where Mark prefers to shop. He was planning on going to the equivalent of Home Depot.  A Chinese big box store, if you will, instead of his usual hole in the wall specialty places where they only sell wheels, or rubber tubing, or specific sizes of screws.  On top of this massive hardware store there is an equally massive store selling appliances.  Mark assured me they had blenders–he claimed to have even seen a food processor–and, since I only needed this blender to make smoothies, I figured it was worth a shot.  We browsed the aisles accompanied by an eager Chinese saleswoman.  She and her colleagues were keen to talk to Ava and to tell me how pretty she was.  They were happy to show us the blenders and to make recommendations about quality and style.  At least that is what I thought they were doing since we were all trying to make ourselves understood in Mandarin.  I could have been completely off base.  They certainly seemed to be discussing the different blenders.  We all agreed on which blender would be the best.  One was most certainly the highest quality—a name brand number with a glass container.  I indicated that I wanted to buy the blender and that’s when things got confusing.

Buy it?  The salesladies were sorry, but I couldn’t buy that blender.  After all that discussion it turned out that there were only two blenders available for purchase.  Two out of at least twenty on display!  They were made by some random Chinese company, and, while they looked sturdy enough, I had my doubts.  So now the choice was only between the glass container or the plastic.  Which one would I prefer?  The instruction manual was completely in Chinese as were the indicators—only three speeds, mind you—on the dial.  The saleswoman pointed me toward the one with the glass container.  It was “very good”.  The plastic one?  Only “so so”.  I reluctantly bought the glass one.  I only needed it for smoothies, surely this thing could handle a few frozen banana slices, right?

This could say anything, really

Wrong.  When I went to make Ava a smoothie the next morning, the blender was incapable of grinding up even the smallest morsel of frozen anything.  Even paper thin frozen banana slices proved to be too much.  I tried the other settings.  I violently shook the container.  I stirred in between each futile whir of the blades.  The entire kitchen shook with the force of the blender’s motor, but every attempt produced the same result—yogurt with fruit chunks.  Any dreams of making pina coladas with this blender died as I tried and tried again.  There was no way this thing could handle ice cubes.  And there was a curious smell–burning plastic, maybe?—accompanying every flick of the dial.

This may very well say “Not an actual blender”

Chinese blender?  Epic fail.  Sigh.