Monday, December 28, 2015

Thanksgiving Done Bulgarian Style

With all the lovely weather outside, it's hard to get in the mood for Christmas, but it's high time I started writing about the holiday season.  Cooking for Thanksgiving has been a tradition I've done in for quite a long time.  It is a tradition I take very seriously, and try to make my grandmother proud when I cook and honor her tradition of cooking for many people every year.

There are many legends involved with Thanksgiving, but Sarah and Owen feel this is the best Thanksgiving dinner they've had.  Owen will go so far to say his mom can't beat my cooking, while my mom will tell you the food is better than sex.  Sarah's mom told me she doesn't ever worry about Sarah, because she knows she is eating here with me.  So, read and find out all about the great food made, and how I got to be the Thanksgiving expert.

Background on How I Became the Expert Thanksgiving Cook:

Long, long ago, in a farmland far away, my grandmother made me her kitchen slave (aka assistant) to help her make Thanksgiving dinner when I was about 12 or 13.  Back in the day, Thanksgiving dinner consisted of grandma making her homemade stuffing, mincemeat pies(which no one really ate), mashed potatoes, a 10-11 kilo turkey(22 pounds minimum), and squash.  There were also pumpkin pies with canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, and the famous turkey giblet gravy, which I never really ate.  

My grandmother was very precise on how things should be done, and demanded perfection when we made something.  Therefore, I learned quickly to be a good cook, and gained some colorful language while cooking, as it never turned out well unless there was cursing involved.  Over the years as my grandmother got older, I ended up being the person to take control over Thanksgiving and large dinners for cooking.  This usually meant there were lots of arguments, swearing, and lies.  The most famous was the fights over the squash, as my grandmother insisted there be a stick of butter to be used with the squash.  People really didn't want a stick of butter in there during the 90s when there was more healthy eating on the rise, so the arguments went something like this:

My Grandmother in the dining room:  Did you put a stick of butter in the squash?

Me in the kitchen:  I put two tablespoons in.  There's no way the squash needs a whole stick of butter.

My Grandmother in the dining room:  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you better put a stick of butter in there, you god damn no good garage bastard!  

Me in the kitchen:  Fine, god damn it! Have it your way!  I'll put the damn stick of butter in the squash! (I then proceeded to get the stick of butter out of the fridge and pretend to put it on top of the squash, but never actually did).  

Hours later when eating Thanksgiving dinner and talking about the squash:

My Grandmother:  Hmm, that squash is delicious.  See, I told you it needed a stick of butter.

Me: Yeah, you were right.

There were many conversations like this,and I miss them a lot.  The Thanksgiving after my grandmother died, I cried hysterically because I had no one to fight with over how the food was going to be made.  And over 15 years later, I still don't for Thanksgiving.  She made me the creative cook that I am, and for that I am super thankful. 

Thanksgiving During the Peace Corps

In Bulgaria during the Peace Corps, it was hard to find a turkey in a small town in the Peace Corps, so you usually had to convince a local farmer to kill and dress one of their turkeys for you.  The first Thanksgiving in 2000 was probably the coolest one.  I cooked Thanksgiving dinner as a potluck for my colleagues in Balchik.  They somehow got a turkey, I made pies and stuffing, and had about 30 people at my school eating and drinking at a potluck Thanksgiving, Bulgarian style.  

Then, it got even more legendary that weekend in Dryanovo with Jimmy and Seth, when they invited all their colleagues, and then went drinking in the bar and playing internet war games at an internet cafe.  They invited all these people, and the local cooking staff asked me and Catie Banks what to do, because they were afraid there was going to be no food for about 50+ people.  Jimmy and Seth had no idea how to cook, and gave these poor ladies no directions on what to do.  

So instead of playing video games and hanging out at the kruchma, Catie and I just helped out, along with a few other PCV friends who had knowledge of cooking.    We told them about turkeys with stuffing, and a few turkeys had stuffing and a few got stuffed with saurerkraut. Dinner was served with the guests not really having a clue, and the four ladies got paid 10 leva each by Jimmy and Seth for cooking and working all day on Saturday.  At the end, I was so tired from cooking, I just slept on the kitchen floor of what I think was Jimmy's apartment in my sleeping bag, and then slept the four hours from Dryanovo to Varna on the train.  

Thanksgiving Now in Bulgaria:

Since arriving here in 2008, I have held some form of Thanksgiving dinner held every year.  Most years, there are a minimum of 15-20 people there.  Normally, I am a food snob, and refuse to have anyone bring anything, and do all the cooking myself.  This year, I decided to open up the cooking to sides and a turkey, but NO ONE was willing to cook a turkey.  There are too many horror stories and films where cooking the Thanksgiving turkey become a disaster, so my mom stepped up to the plate and made the second one.

2015's edition had about 25-30 people, and food was divided up into the following:

What I made:
Two pans of macaroni and cheese
Cheddar Cheese Biscuits
Three Pumpkin Pies
Two peanut butter pies
Cranberry Sauce
Gravy (which no one ate, lol)

What Other People Made:
Chicken (which no one ate, lol)
Turkey by my mom (which no one ate, lol)
Meaty and Cheesy Bites
Apple Pie
Mashed potatoes
Biscuit Cake
Fish dish
German salad
Lots of wine
A bottle of Jack Daniels (which I told someone not to bring, because we have 4-5 bottles of whisky at the apartment).
Plus, a few vegetarian sides I forgot because I was really sick and heavily medicated.  The best part was everyone cooked something, and NOTHING was bought pre-made at the store.  Bravo, peeps.  Bravo!!

The first pan of macaroni and cheese.  

The turkey which vegetarians avoid for some reason.  

The second pan of macaroni and cheese, as Owen tries to eat a pan just by himself.  I have no idea where he fits it all.  

Getting to see former students is cool, too!

Amelie being, well, Amelie.  I swear this cat is really a dog in disguise.

Amelie loves company, and is not afraid to say hello to people. 

Can You Find Everything You Need For Thanksgiving Dinner in Bulgaria?

Yes, if you pay attention and know where to find things.  You may think that you could not cook Thanksgiving dinner in Bulgaria properly, but actually this is completely false.  There are some things you will have to make homemade rather from a can, but these aren't that hard, and actually better for you.  

Some American Embassy staff will tell you will not be able to find anything in Bulgaria, which is completely and utterly false.  Some expats may tell you they cannot find chocolate chips or maple syrup, and my response is: Get outside your bubble.   Sorry people, but I laugh when people tell me they cannot find chocolate chips, peanut butter, cranberries, and such.  You can get everything you want to make a Thanksgiving dinner here, as long as you're willing to search for these items.

Here is what you can find and where to get it:

chocolate chips:  METRO.  Belgian chocolate in white, milk, and dark varieties.  I refuse to use American chocolate chips now and have become a snob.

maple syrup:  literally any DM, HIT, METRO, Picadilly, bio stores and some pharmacies and BILLAs

cheese for macaroni and cheese:  So many stores have cheddar, you would have to be a noodle head not to find it.  For the pepper jack cheese, a few stores have it, like HIT, Picadilly.

pumpkin:  widely available fresh, and you just bake it for an hour, then puree it when it cools.  100 times better than canned pumpkin.  My pumpkin pie is world famous now. I sometimes make the apple, but this year I gave in and let Sarah make the apple pie, which turned out to be fine.

Pumpkin and Apple Pie:  Hmm, hmm, good if made from fresh pumpkin and cream cheese.

cranberries:  Usually found at METRO or HIT sometime in December or January.  I then put them in the freezer and make fresh cranberry sauce, which is 100 times better than the canned stuff.
Real Cranberry Sauce that is super easy to make

turkey:  Usually frozen from Brazil of all places, they are widely available.  You can order a fresh turkey in Sofia, but it takes some connections.  With my crowd of vegetarians, I find it's all about the sides, and not the meat, so I can get away with one turkey now.

peanut butter for peanut butter pie:  widely available at the big grocery stores, bio stores, and BILLA has a decent version of non-bio peanut butter for baking.

Peanut Butter Pie:  A crowd favorite
Reese's:  can now be found at the Grand Foods Italian Shop (Paradise Mall and by the Sheraton Hotel), most Relay kiosks, and Muy Mucho home stores (Serdika Mall and Paradise Mall)

cheddar cheese biscuits:  Homemade, but the ingredients are widely available at any store.

Carrefour:  Sadly being run down by the Greeks who own the license, and you cannot find ANYTHING there.  It's become a communist store in Bulgaria in 2015.  You cannot even find candy or soda in there.

Now that I've given away all my secrets, you're now ready to make your own Thanksgiving dinner in Sofia.  Be ready, and enjoy.  Write if you have questions on recipes.  :)

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