BEIJING — Crisco. I couldn’t find Crisco. But that wasn’t the only challenge in trying to put together a Thanksgiving feast in Beijing.
Expat Thanksgiving feels like both a patriotic duty and a stave against homesickness, and I’ve always risen to the occasion on this most American of holidays. When we were expats in Brussels, you had to know a guy who sold turkeys out of the back of his dry-cleaning shop. Looking back, that Belgian celebration seems like a piece of gateau.
And now we approach our third Thanksgiving in China. At this point, we know not to take anything for granted.
Let’s start with shopping for produce. How do you know which vegetables are not coated in pesticides? Even choosing “organic” produce is not exactly a guarantee of safety, since we’ve seen reports that organic farms in China have also used pesticides and human waste. But the good news is that the Chinese love their fruits and vegetables, so there’s never any trouble finding Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, green beans and apples, adulterated or not.
And turkey: The ever-resourceful Chinese have figured out that they can make a heap of money off Americans looking to snag a Thanksgiving turkey, so in the weeks before the end of November, boulders of rock-hard frozen imported birds appear on the counters of the meat shops in Sanyuanli, a covered market popular with expats. When I went to the market to buy my turkey, I asked for one from the back freezer, not the one that had been sitting on the counter and was starting to feel squishy to the touch. I paid a shocking 331 yuan, or $54, for a turkey that barely reached 14 pounds. That’s far more than what American shoppers are paying. But this bird, which hailed from Moroni, Utah, (by way of a company called Norbest) had made quite a journey to thaw inside my Beijing refrigerator.
Besides outrageous prices for imported items, shoppers at Sanyuanli also have to be comfortable with a certain aroma. Some might even call it a stench of meat that, while not actually decaying, has been ripening on the unrefrigerated counters of the market since the early morning. (For the record, I’ve had probably more than a dozen dinner parties in the Middle Kingdom so far, and my record is perfect: no poisoned guests.)
I’ll admit I came close to an incident this past summer when I boiled a dozen eggs that either had rotted or were fake, since some Chinese entrepreneurs have figured out a way to make money by selling fake eggs. These food forgers actually made eggs out of wax, gypsum powder, and calcium carbonate for the shell, and resin, starch, and pigments for the white and yolk. I’m fairly certain the stench of those eggs is gone from the apartment by now.
Safety issues aside, not everything is available, even in the grocery stores that cater to Westerners. There, you can find butter imported from New Zealand and France, all-purpose flour and canned pumpkin from the United States, and ground cinnamon from Australia. But there are gaps. This week I read a plaintive cry on an e-mail listserv called Beijing Mamas that said, “Has anyone seen French’s fried onions around? It’s one of those unique ingredients that I only need around Thanksgiving for a green bean casserole.” The only answer this poor woman got was that she should have brought some from the United States or made her own.
I found canned cranberries (Ocean Spray, 19.90 RMB, or $3.27), Brussels sprouts, heavy cream, butter, green beans, thyme, parsley, rosemary, and marjoram, most of which is now dangerously crammed inside my small refrigerator, alongside a defrosting turkey and the stock I made for the gravy. A single enthusiastic tug on the fridge door could turn into an ugly mess.
There are other kitchen-related issues that make preparing a meal for 15 or so a challenge. My stove has three finicky gas burners that don’t seem to understand the concept of “simmer.” My counter space is about the size of a legal pad. The “dishwasher” is a patient cleaning lady who comes in twice a week to clean up our messes and rearrange drawers and cabinets so that nothing is where I left it.
As for the Crisco for the pie crust, I’ve spent the better part of the past three days traipsing around to three fancy markets and a half-dozen stalls in Sanyuanli, usually so reliable. As I wandered around, I kept showing storekeepers what I thought was the right translation for shortening: “su you,” defined as “shortening (type of fat used in cooking food).”
“Bu zhidao,” most of them said to me. Or “mei you.” I don’t understand, and I don’t have it.
Finally I encountered a man who spoke English. “Shortening?” I said. I showed him my translation.
“Oh,” he said. “Crisco!”
“Yes!” I said.
“We don’t have it.”
So I took the advice of a friend and bought “margarine de caisson,” French cooking margarine, instead. On this Thanksgiving, there will be pie.
Bruno is a freelance writer based in Beijing.