By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Most Asian immigrants call Thanksgiving the Turkey Festival, and they would tell you they hate turkey. I was one of them while raising my American-born children.
When my kids were little, they would implore me to cook turkey on Thanksgiving or at least do so once a year. I would give excuses after excuses—too much work—too much time to cook (especially a big turkey). That darn bird doesn’t taste good. Like many Chinese immigrants, chicken is always my preferred meat for festivals and any kind of celebration. It is a lot of work to make turkeys taste delicious, and it takes hours to bake in an oven because it requires slow heat and its size is gigantic. The bird itself has a rough texture. If overcooked, the meat feels like leather.
I recall cooking turkeys no more than five or six times during the last five decades. Only a couple times was I really happy with the outcome. The reason is, I didn’t have enough experience to do a good job. The taste was great on the meat and skin, including the stuffing made of sticky rice with Chinese sausages and all kinds of goodies. But the skin was not crispy enough and the meat was dry, a little overcooked. Chinese cooking requires the bird to be cooked just right. It should never be overcooked. And I tended to overcook turkeys because the size was too big to judge. Now, you have all kinds of
tools, such as a thermometer to place on the turkey to cook it perfectly.
But the turkey I remember the most was not the one I cooked. It wasn’t the one that I enjoyed, even though it was cooked perfectly with the juices intact inside and the meat texture was okay. The stuffings were typical American stuffing, a mixture of bread crumbs, onion, celery, herbs, and lots of butter.
It was my first turkey in America. My host family invited me to their Thanksgiving dinner. They picked me up the day before so I could stay to spend the weekend with them. I didn’t know what Thanksgiving was about.
Everyone at the party assumed I knew about Thanksgiving, an American tradition that goes as far back as the 16th century.
My host mother had spent the whole day preparing the day before and on Thanksgiving morning. The menu also featured three pies—apple, minced, and pumpkin. Everything was done in an orderly fashion without chaos. It was a 25-pound turkey and she had put the bird in the oven that was over 100º before she went to bed. Before noon the next day, the bird was done. Right before an early dinner (around 4 p.m.), we were ready for the feast. What I observed was, the turkey always looked spectacular from the outside, but once I opened my mouth for the first bite, it was usually a great disappointment. My host father had neatly carved the white meat from the turkey, and arranged them on a beautiful plate. Where was all the dark meat? Where’s the delicious drumstick or the wings? I hope they didn’t throw them away. I don’t eat white meat and never had when my family raised me in Hong Kong. We used all the chicken white meat to make soup.
“Do I eat it or not?” I asked myself.
Sure, I did. I didn’t want to hurt my host family’s feelings. I ended up eating very little turkey. What about the stuffing or gravy? Thanks, but no thanks. But I ate a huge piece of apple pie topped with ice cream to quench my hunger. That’s why when my children asked me to cook turkey at first, I wasn’t that enthusiastic.
Over the years, I couldn’t help but blame myself. Why didn’t I ask for the dark meat of the turkey from my host family? Why didn’t I tell the truth? As a 19-year-old at the time, I wasn’t that assertive. I only knew it’s best not to upset anybody, especially my American host family. I appreciated their good intentions.
I never found out what they did with the dark meat or the bones of the turkey. I should have asked. If they wanted to give them to their dog or throw it away, I should savor some of those. Those would be delicious for lunch or dinner in my dormitory the following week. But I was too timid to ask for what I wanted. The challenge is how to get what you want without offending anyone, or making the other party feel slighted. In hindsight, I should have just turned it into an interesting cultural exchange at the dinner table.
“Just wondering, mom (she made me call her mom), what are you going to do with the dark meat?”
If she said, “Give it to the dog later,” I could have said, “Oh, can I have some? I love dark meat, too.”
If she said, “I will use it for a salad tomorrow,” I could have said, “Can I have some now? I prefer dark meat to white meat.”
And she might say, “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” That would have been the perfect scenario. Sometimes, it’s not that hard to turn things around.
All we have to do is to open our mouths and be frank. Mostly, we didn’t and just let things slide. Speaking up at the right moment, at the right place, and to the right person, requires intuition, courage, and practice. If we don’t do that, we shortchange ourselves by not getting what we want, and simultaneously, building up misunderstandings and ill will. Sad!
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.