I’m away from family, dear friends: scents, sounds, even the colors of Gagauz leaves spark snippets of memory. Holidays do the same. I recently recalled that Thanksgiving, that time I experimented for the “perfect” turkey… we bag them in all-American plastic, for succulence! But my bird wept and wilted, and when placed on the table, the meat slid from the bones to the serving platter. There was no room for the traditional carving that night… oh no, wicked marketing scheme, you did us no good. But here, in Comrat, a different story unfolded: a turkey massacre, a gathering of helpers, an opportunity for exchange, and to learn.
Nadea, my partner, offered up her grandmother’s turkeys as Thanksgiving sacrifice. (And although she has openly admitted an intense loathing for the prehistoric creatures, she demonstrated some sympathy the day of… poor turkeys!)
We joined Nadea’s family at her home for the throw-down. She and her husband ushered us into their home, gave us the short tour, and then led us to the kitchen. And as usual, that Moldovan hospitality: in the kitchen, Nadea’s grandmother and grandfather plied us with food (eat more! Enjoy!! Would you like more? You’re not eating bread??). Nadea’s grandmother showed us her weapons of choice: a cleaver, dull from use, that they sometimes wielded… but the method for the evening would be a glaringly sharp knife only just prepared for the task. We accepted some wine to fortify ourselves before the act as Nadea’s grandmother boiled water for the plucking.
My Peace Corps friends and I skipped outside, followed by the family and Nadea’s dog Lucky, for the sacrifice. We expected one bird and were presented with two young males, a white and a black (yin and yang for a balanced meal!).
Lucky was obviously thrilled by the mess… the bursts of life from the turkey’s necks certainly didn’t dissuade her. She followed the flopping carcasses around the yard, nudged them with her button nose, defied her mistress’s protests.
How to kill a Thanksgiving Turkey:
- Step 1: Assemble the materials (1 very sharp knife, a bucket large enough to hold a turkey or two)
- Step 2: Boil water to prepare for the plucking
- Step 3: Grab the friendly fowl and lead them to their dying-place
- Step 4: Hold the turkeys by their feet, upside-down, for a few moments to calm them. Then place them gently on the ground and pin them down – right foot on both legs, left foot on left wing. Hold the turkey’s neck firmly and then slice, strong and quick with your dominant hand, to separate the head from its resting-place
- Step 5: Let the turkey flop in the yard until (mostly) still
- Step 6: Submerge the turkey in boiling water and wait a few moments. Test the bird by pulling at its wing feathers; when they fall loose, he is ready to pluck. Remove all feathers and pins to the best of your ability (slowly does the trick)
- Step 7: Bring the turkey to a gas oven and crank the flame to a height of 6-8 inches. Sear the bird from gullet to talons to cleanse the remaining feather-pins
- Step 8: Wash the bird thoroughly with a rough sponge, removing as much char as possible
- Step 9: Let a skilled grandmother do the rest…
The process is technical, almost medical – I was beyond impressed with the precision of Nadea’s grandmother, who guided my hand to slice the gobble, plucked the feathers with a slow diligence and removed the innards with the assurance of a surgeon (…but to burn off the feather-pins, we must not forget, is men’s work!). I asked for a go at the searing and attempted to rotate the carcass for a good clean, but Nadea’s grandfather chuckled at my awkward manhandling of the bird and took over.
After the cleaning, we sat down and – you guessed it – resumed our meal. We bundled Nadea’s cat in Winter Woolens while her grandfather spoke of cars and kolkhoz and Stalin. He mentioned the Leader and, with a grin, presented an oval picture tinted in the old style. It had graced one wall of his truck when he still transported goods in Soviet times.
The night ended with a quick viewing of the old man’s Soviet car, and an invitation: “Come back as guests another time!”
The Thanksgiving process was nearly week-long with a guest list of 20 friends, and what would have been an overwhelming feat without their help. There was a feeling of cahoots for a time as we bantered and planned: all Comrat PCVs (Danny, Ray and Yours Truly) raring to celebrate.
We collected victuals piece-meal, brined the turkey days before, rustled up baking pans and planned our menu over tea at Ray’s kitchen table. We listed the obligatory: that famed Thanksgiving Turkey (with gravy!), the mashed potatoes, succulent stuffing (by Ray), Southern fried apples, a cherry-cranberry sauce, Daniel’s Autumn Salad, cornbread…. For dessert, (you guessed it!) pumpkin pie (the splatters from the batter still accent my host mother’s kitchen wall, even with the extra layer of paint) and a mixed-berry cobbler.
(Here, I must insert a HUGE thank-you for all of the people who came the night before and the day of Thanksgiving to help with preparations! Nadea and Zhenya, Cosma and Rachel, Ray, Danny, Anna, Ovidiu and Natasha and OF COURSE my host mother, Ana Nikolaevna)
The traditional fare was accompanied by mountains of fruit brought by my partner Anna, an Olivia salad by my host mother, canned pickled peppers stored in the cellar months before, plates of salami, brinza and tomato, bowls of a spicy tomato garnish and a beautiful Brittany Plum Cake, courtesy of my French roommate Rachel. (And shall I mention the wine? The Coca-Cola made an appearance too, but I admit, in response to the battle-cry of my host mother ((chemicals!!)) we always throw the soda in the bathroom the day after a gathering – it’s only good enough to clean toilets.)
Four nationalities (Moldovan, American, French and Romanian) joined the festivities, including host families, PCVs, local friends and partners. When dinner started, we introduced foods, talked of American fare and invited guests to name something they were thankful for.
Two young girls (Danny’s host sisters) occupied themselves on the floor of the living room with watercolors and chess. Danny’s 12-year-old host sister is a champion in these parts, even traveling to other countries to play. Both adult men who she bested that night commented on her ruthlessness, her swiftness, and her lack of attention! One moment she had captured a Knight, then next (as her opponent contemplated his next move) she drew flowers and dabbed them with watercolor paints, as though absent from her surroundings.
As guests slowly left, we wound down with some music: spins, stomps, swirls and fancy footwork to good-old America tunes.
I admit, the star of the show was not the pumpkin pie. Many Moldovans don’t have a great appreciation for spice… but for you pie-lovers out there, I’ll finish this post with our new-and-improved, Moldovan-style Pumpkin Pie Recipe.
Natasha’s Pumpkin Pie (From Scratch!)
- 1 large spring-form pie pan
- 1 immersion blender
- 1 deep pan, approximately 9 x 13 inches
Ingredients for Pie Crust:
- 2 cups flour
- 1 cup butter, cut into small pieces
- 3 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons ice water (or more if necessary)
Ingredients for Pumpkin Filling:
- 1 medium pumpkin (sweet)
- 2 (12 fluid ounces) cans evaporated milk
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup raw sugar (or brown sugar)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)
- ½ teaspoon salt
To make the pie crust:
- Combine flour, sugar and salt in large bowl; mix well. Add butter to dry ingredients and combine with fingers until mixture has the texture of corn meal. If the mixture is too greasy, add flour until dry with the correct texture.
- Add egg and ice water. Knead dough until smooth and slightly elastic; add more water if dough is too dry.
- Shape dough into a large ball and place in the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll into a large circle on a lightly floured surface. Transfer the dough to the spring-form pan, molding it to the shape of the pan and curling the edges of the dough over the upper edges of the spring-form pan to hold it in place. Poke holes in dough with a fork; let rest until ready to fill.
To make the filling:
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Peel and gut the fresh pumpkin, and then cut into cubes (approximately 3 x 3 inches). Place the cubes in the 9 x 13 pan and then fill the pan with water. Bake in the oven until the pumpkin is soft, approximately 30 minutes.
- Remove pumpkin from oven, strain and let cool. When pumpkin is cool enough to handle, place the cubes into a large pot and blend with an immersion blender.
- Take 3 cups of the blended pumpkin and add to a large bowl. Add the evaporated milk, heavy whipping cream, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom and salt. Blend with the immersion blender until smooth.
Cooking the pie:
- Pour the pumpkin mixture into the crust until nearly full (there may be some extra mixture, depending on the size of your spring-form pan. You can cook the excess like a custard). Bake the pie for 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the middle of the pie comes out clean