Sunday, December 28, 2008

What a lovely Christmas Day

Christmas has come and Christmas has gone, and we are left with the memories of yet another year spent in the pleasant company of friends, eating, drinking, and making merry.

Turkeys are making their way into the South African consciousness for holiday fare (apparently gammon…ham…is the traditional Christmas dinner centrepiece here) and for the first time in five years I was able to score a turkey of respectable size (15 lbs) for our feast. I saw a bin of frozen turkeys at the market and instantly recognized the brand from its distinctive wrappings: Jennie-O. American turkey in a South African supermarket? Yay!! I grabbed the biggest one I could find and buggered off before anyone could take it away from me!

Finding cranberry sauce was a task and a half! The markets that normally carry this rare delicacy were sold out and it was only by dint of diligence that my husband found some jars of a South African version of the stuff displayed in a refrigerated case in the meat department. So, armed with a big American turkey and a couple of little jars of cranberry jam, I began my preparations.

Thandiswe is on holiday in the Transkei, visiting her family, so my dear friend Linda organized some household help for me. The day before Christmas Linda’s aunt, Cynthia, came in to clean and help with the prep for the Big Dinner. We peeled and chopped and cut and sliced and minced and mashed our way into a fridge full of little plastic containers of ingredients. By Christmas morning, all I had to do was assemble everything and apply heat.

My first Christmas in South Africa was not so easy. I searched for a week for a turkey…not a frozen bird in sight…and eventually settled on a 5kg (11 lb…about half the size I usually prepared in the States) fresh bird from a local market. The neck and back skin had been trimmed away, leaving me no way to stuff the neck cavity and no way to cover the stuffing in the body. The skin was covered with little black pinfeathers that had been been pulled nor singed…I spent hours with tweezers and a barbeque lighter just getting the bird ready to stuff! This year, however, was a snap: I read the labels on the plastic wrapping and came away quite chuffed: this was an American turkey, bred, hatched, reared, butchered and packaged just the way I was familiar with. Ripping open the package I found the wire leg clamps and…wonder of wonders!...a red and white plastic pop-up timer already embedded in the breast! I was ecstatic!

While not as large as the 24 pounders I had so often prepared in the States, this was a respectable sized bird and possessed of all the wiliness common to frozen turkeys. It was slick, slippery, and awkwardly built, and getting it to hold still while I stuffed bread seasoned with herbs, onion and celery up its backside was no small feat. I finally corralled the beast in my lasagne pan and rammed the dressing home, clamping the legs back together to keep it from spilling out. I popped it into the turkey roaster that I had carried all the way from California with me and shoved it into the oven to roast.

When the guests arrived, the bird was already out of the oven and resting, and I had the potatoes on the stove. I am ever amazed and the differences in familiar things here: as I collected the utensils for mashing said potatoes, my friend Sally, a cook in her own right…asked me what on earth I had the hand mixer out for. “Potatoes,” I told her. “I am making mashed potatoes.” She continued to look confused.

Into the bowl I tossed a glop of butter, a small container of smooth cottage cheese (soft cream cheese, for Americans) and on top I poured the hot potatoes. I opened the milk carton and put it next to the bowl, and gave the whole bowl a squash with the hand potato masher. Once each potato piece had been broken up, I turned on the mixer and began to whip the potatoes, adding milk as necessary for consistency, while Sally stood there watching me intently. Until that very moment, I had no idea that South Africans didn’t use a mixer to whip up mashed potatoes!

Eventually the meal went on the table, with Sally’s deft hand making the gravy. I demonstrated the use of cranberry sauce with the turkey meat, and passed around the mashed potatoes. The look on Sally’s face was priceless when she took the first bite and she polished off her serving pronouncing them the best she had ever eaten. I haven’t yet told her how much better they are with some roasted garlic added!

We ate at about four and it was after ten by the time we had our house back. Sally and I and her step mother spent a couple of hours in the kitchen washing up, but we ended up leaving a pile for poor Cynthia, who had promised to come back on Friday to help me clean up. It was the kind of day you look back on fondly, thinking about the wonderful food, the looks on the faces of the guests when they beheld their first golden roasted turkey and appreciatively tucked into the succulent flesh. It was the kind of day that stays in mind, lively conversation, fascinating stories, the house ringing with laughter and good cheer.

It was a terrific day, shared with wonderful friends, that left us pleasantly tired and ready to toddle off to bed, our tummies and hearts full.

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