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Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Fall Re-Runs: Thanksgiving in Baku

The alligators are snapping their jaws uncomfortably close to my ass, so I am going to resort to pre-blog re-runs. Sorry for those of you who read this email last Thanksgiving, but I thought it was worth posting. Little of it has changed. However, I may be thankful for different things after next week.

Thanksgiving in Baku: A Drama in Several Acts.

Act I: Assemble guest list

Among all the local roughnecks, roustabouts and snaggle-tooth rig monkeys who haven’t the means or will to go home, we were faced with the difficult task of whom to invite to Thanksgiving dinner. In general, all newcomers to Baku are accepted or rejected by the rest of us based on their ability to amuse. Our dinner party invitations are usually extended using the same criteria. Perhaps out of a sense of generosity brought about by the season or, more likely, boredom with the usual suspects, we pretty much opened the event up to anyone who is breathing. This is how we ended up with a guest list of 16 people.

Act II: Make contingency plans

There’s no evidence our oven works properly, and the margin for error with a turkey is pretty narrow. Not only did I return from Tbilisi, Georgia with 7 bottles of Georgian wine and grapeskin vodka, I also bought a bottle of duty-free gin at the airport. Enough of all that, and no one will notice if we have to slip out and run down to the corner rotisserie chicken stand.

Act III: Begin hoarding, I mean, accumulating traditional ingredients

Since the overwhelming majority of expats here are British oil workers, most of the foreign supermarkets cater to their rather coarse British palates. In other words, if you need a can of beans for your toast or some mash for your bangers, you’re in luck, but if you want Coolwhip or a can of Libby’s pumpkin pie mix, you’d better start shopping early, think creatively and save your money. At $10 a kilo, I’ve had to reconsider whether celery is really vital for a quality stuffing. A friend got me a dented can of cranberries from the embassy store. The peeling label shows its jellied contents, complete with the can marks.

I also go to the local version of Costco, also known as the Teze Bazaar (New Bazaar). It’s the largest bazaar in the city and if it’s not there, it doesn’t exist. There are no cranberries and no sweet potatoes. Lots of turnips, though, and more sheep’s heads than I need this week.

Act IV: Inventory kitchen utensils

Turkey pan? Nope. Potato peeler? No. Meat thermometer? Ha. Spatula? No. Gravy boat? Nada. Turkey baster? Nyet. Casseroles? Nein. Adequate serving and glassware? No way. From where all this equipment is going to come is not yet clear. Williams Sonoma hasn’t yet opened its Baku branch. I have been to five stores and two bazaars and have managed to find only the potato peeler and the spatula.

Act V: Investigate local alternatives to traditional dishes

We don’t have cranberries, but I bet pomegranates would be just as good. No sweet potatoes, either, but our cleaning lady's cabbage and beet salads could be a suitable replacement. An Azeri-style plate of palate-cleansing fresh herbs – miniature scallions, basil, parsley and fennel shoots – is a great idea. And what could be more Thanksgiving-y than beluga caviar from an endangered Caspian sturgeon poached by the government-owned fish processing operation?

Act VI: Get the Turkey

Azerbaijan is lousy with wiry hens and toms that travel in large herds and occasionally block traffic. In fact, one of my local staff who has enjoyed a real American thanksgiving dinner in the States helpfully suggested that, while we were out in the regions for work, we buy a live country turkey -- which everyone knows are measurably better than their city-raised cousins -- and transport it back to Baku the trunk of our white Volga. Once home, she explained, I could keep it on our balcony until Thanksgiving.

I suggested that where to keep the turkey for a week was actually not the biggest logistical problem associated with her otherwise very good idea.

“I don’t know what you’re so concerned about,” my American co-worker contributed. “You know you could walk out your back door and anyone on the street would kill and clean it for you for a Shirvan. ($2)”

As tempting as those ideas were, I decided to take a more traditional approach: enlist the services of my very resourceful driver, Rashid.

Rashid is the kind of guy that every expat needs to have around. His skills far exceed his ability to watch his dashboard DVD player and drive at the same time. In his 30’s, with a broad smile of gold teeth, he comes from a long line of native Bakuvians and brags about his knowledge of the city. He is THE source for the best caviar (“Sevruga, never!”) and can get kegs of Azerbaijan’s unpasteurized, déclassé NZS beer, which, even though it is the only drinkable local brew, is only sold draft in male-only, basement pivesis. Whatever you need, Rashid can get it.

Rashid and I headed out to the Teze Bazaar. “Are you going to clean it yourself?” Rashid asked. I had to explain that turkeys where I come from are tightly wrapped in dense plastic, have their guts neatly bagged and stuffed in the neck hole and have red pop-out timers to indicate their doneness. Whoever sells us the bird, I emphasized, would be responsible not only for snuffing out its life force, but for removing its inedible bits as well.

We took a look at the pen of live turkeys. These lanky birds spent their lives not in cages, but running free and wild, pecking at rocks, grass and sheep poops. But where were their breasts? Meaty legs? Fortunately, we found a woman with a bright green floral headscarf peddling slightly larger birds that were already dead and freshly plucked. “Killed just two hours ago! Smell!” she said, pushing the turkey’s neck cavity into my face. I had prepared myself to play turkey executioner, and was somewhat relieved to find one with whom I had not yet established a personal relationship.

I bought two. At five and eight pounds, they’re not big enough -- not even close -- for 16 people. Someone is going to have to go to the rotisserie chicken stand. Maybe no one will notice.

Final Act: Be Thankful

I am thankful we are not in the mountains of Ethiopia, eating bread and yoghurt for dinner, like last year. I am thankful that the US is probably not going to invade Azerbaijan right away. I am thankful we do not live in Minsk or Tashkent. I am thankful we have 16 people coming over for dinner, instead of no one. I am thankful that I do not pay US taxes. I am thankful every time I ride in a car here without getting in an accident. I am thankful that I can smell the bad smell coming from the bathroom drain only in the morning. I am thankful that shameless consumerism enters my life only when I need it. I am thankful that I was mistaken for a common prostitute only once this week. I am thankful that karaoke is not that popular here.

You should be thankful too.

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