Five years ago, the country was reeling under demonetisation. There were snaking queues at banks, heated debates about black money and “No Cash” signs on ATMs. And I was running from pillar to post trying to find the cash to buy a turkey.
That year my friend Milena Chilla-Markhoff and I had decided to host an American-style Thanksgiving in Kolkata. I had been put in charge of locating a turkey. She was in charge of finding an oven big enough to roast said turkey. I tracked down a poultry-seller in Kolkata’s 19th century New Market. Palan Laskhar dealt in chickens and ducks but he assured me he could get me a turkey. I put down an advance and told Milena to locate the oven.
Then demonetisation blindsided us. Milena’s stash of ₹500 notes was suddenly worthless. Donald Trump won the US presidential election. The world seemed to have turned upside down. But it was too late to backtrack. Guests had been invited. A pumpkin pie had been booked at the local American-run bakery. Laskhar called to say the turkey was ready. When I landed up with a brand new ₹2,000 note, I was in for a shock.
Laskhar waved merrily at a 6kg white bird with a red wattle which stared at me balefully while nibbling vegetable stalks. He told me proudly he raised turkeys in his own backyard in his village. He had brought it for me on the local train. He seemed surprised that I was less than enthusiastic at the prospect of a living turkey. “Look how healthy it is,” he said peevishly. “It has been raised on rice and grain, not one of your factory-fed birds.”
Eventually, he called a butcher and we set off in a sad little procession, Lashkar, turkey and me, through the congested backstreets behind the market, dodging porters carrying huge baskets on their heads, and rickshaws and motorbikes. Everyone stared at us bemusedly. I felt neither thankful nor very giving.
Ever since I was a student in the US, Thanksgiving had always been my favourite American holiday. There was no anxiety about giving gifts. With autumn in the air, it felt comforting to be inside a warm home while a turkey that had brined all night roasted slowly in the oven. I loved the sight of a Thanksgiving table—the warm homemade pies, the bowls of cranberry chutney glowing a dark ruby red, scalloped potatoes and green bean casseroles, and the turkey sitting fatly in the middle. It wasn’t so much about the individual dishes (and I was no great fan of pumpkin or pecan pies), rather it was about the sense of comfort they added up to.
Late in the afternoon, stuffed with turkey and red wine, I would invariably doze off on the couch, dreaming of turkey sandwiches and turkey soup made with the leftovers the next day. Of course, the history of Thanksgiving, a holiday instituted on the last Thursday of November by Abraham Lincoln, is not as warm and fuzzy as most Americans like to think. The United American Indians of New England called Thanksgiving a national day of mourning, “a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture”. But it is also rooted in a Native American tradition that celebrates not just the autumn harvest but also the idea of giving without expecting something in return.
Our Kolkata Thanksgiving was more of a lark, a challenge we set ourselves. Milena, who split her time between Berlin and Kolkata, and I, who had spent many years in the US, just thought of it as an excuse for a party to kick the post-Diwali blues.
But in the process we all learnt something. In America, Thanksgiving came almost ready-made out of supermarket aisles. In Kolkata, we had to negotiate hurdles neither of us had ever imagined. Flustered by the living turkey, I had forgotten to give specific instructions to the butcher. As I rattled home in one of Kolkata’s doughty yellow Ambassador taxis with the now deceased bird in a large plastic bag, I realised the butcher had not lopped off its clawed feet. They were sticking out accusingly from the bodybag, like a crime scene gone awry.
Milena and I went to my local chicken market with the bird. It was afternoon. The butcher blocks had been wiped clean and the men were taking their siesta. Milena later said: “So you need to chop feet off a turkey. And you wake up five guys sleeping on their chopping slab. They not only help you out and chop it, they first all admire how big and beautiful it is. This is not something I could have done in New York or Berlin.”
Once the legs were chopped, I realised I didn’t own any pots big enough to marinate the bird in. Again, we had to improvise. A large sturdy Hefty American trash bag came in handy as a marination chamber, though it was a little tricky to carry the sloshing bag in an Uber when it came time to stick it into Milena’s friend’s oven. We drank a bottle of wine while the turkey roasted slowly. Then we realised we had not thought about how to transport a freshly roasted hot turkey in an Uber through Kolkata traffic.
The American cooking podcast Milk Street Radio made me recount the story because it was so far removed from the American ritual of going to a supermarket and picking up a frozen Butterball turkey. Initially, it was always about the hilarity of trying to do an American Thanksgiving in India. But with time I think of that Kolkata Thanksgiving as something much more precious than funny. In America, Thanksgiving had been all about the comfort of food. This was about the comfort of well-wishers.
And we had plenty of them. An Indian-American chef in California graciously sent her pomegranate turkey recipe by email because I didn’t have her cookbook with me in India. I had met the person who had raised the turkey, the man who had butchered it and the men who had lopped off its feet. Milena’s friend had provided the oven. Her local Punjabi dhaba had offered their tandoor oven as a backup. Her mother had flown in from New York with frozen fresh cranberries for that authentic American touch. We knew the person who had baked the pumpkin pie. I couldn’t think of a single Thanksgiving where I was connected so personally to the food on the table. There was much to give thanks for and many to give thanks to.
Much has changed in the world since. Milena is back in Berlin, unable to return to Kolkata since the pandemic began. This year she will host a Thanksgiving there. Her European turkey will be free-range and “happy” and cost €19 a kilogram but will not come with the personal connection our Kolkata turkey had. Even a Kolkata turkey is now a simpler proposition. Since that adventure, I have discovered turkey farms around Kolkata that sell cleaned and dressed turkeys during the winter months. Even the state government sells packets of shrink-wrapped curry cut turkey.
In a time of pandemic when friends are scattered, unsure of when our paths will cross again, the memory of that unlikely Thanksgiving meal lingers not as a funny cooking adventure but as a testimonial to the warmth of friends and the kindness of strangers.
“Pull over for a minute,” said Milena on our way back to her house with the roasted turkey. She hopped out of the car and within minutes the cook and waiters of her Punjabi dhaba came trooping out to admire the “big chicken” perched precariously on my lap. And we all grinned at each other in celebration and thanksgiving.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.