Monday, December 5, 2011

How to Host an American style Thanksgiving Dinner in Paraguay on a PC Volunteer’s Budget

Appetizers for lunch... so many dips.
With the holiday season in full swing, some of us have started to feel the sting that comes from living in a different hemisphere than our friends and family.  4th of July and Labor Day BBQs- even our own birthdays- have passed without too much notice.  But Thanksgiving, something about Thanksgiving snuck up and made some of us realize just how far away we now live.  In an effort to combat the distance, Kevin and I met up with a handful of other volunteers to share Thanksgiving dinner.

Meal planning for an American dinner gets complicated in a country without American products- or an American palate.  Intent on making our meal as homey as possible, we hunted for some ingredients and substituted others.  Artichoke dip featured hearts of palm.  We switched out molasses for dark honey.  The iconic turkey dinner turned into a stuffed chicken.  In a pinch for a traditional dessert, another volunteer’s parents generously shipped down Karo syrup, pecans, and pumpkin puree.  We only had one rule: in the true Paraguayan style, we wanted a relaxed Thanksgiving.  Side dish gets burnt?  No big deal.  Pie doesn’t set?  We’ll eat it anyway.  Intense tranquiloness or nothing.

Although we brought most of our our ingredients up with us from Asuncion, a few items we needed to procure in town- including our chicken.  A few glasses of wine and coke (in Paraguay we treat wine a little differently) helped us determine that rather than buy a bird ready to go, we would kill one ourselves.  Somehow, this made our Peace Corps Thanksgiving feel more legitimate.  The following morning, certain flaws in our plan emerged as the alcohol wore off.  None of us had ever killed or cleaned any animal for consumption.  Ultimately we decided to leave these steps to the professionals and ordered our prepared chickens for delivery.  During siesta, the chicken man arrived with the birds- wings flapping and hearts beating.  Evidently, the fates liked our drunken plan better than our sober one.  In over our heads, we reached out to a neighbor to guide us through this endeavor.

Knowing when to say when...
While some prefer the faster (and potentially more humane) machete method, our teacher opted to use her bare hands- and expected us to do so as well.  Believe me, this is way more challenging than it sounds.  A spirited chicken does not become dinner without a fight.  In the end, our coach took care of two of the three birds.  She did the dirty work and left us to clean the carcasses (also dirty work).

What do you mean you've never done this before?
A community effort... who's a good sport?
After a bit of hullabaloo (including the intendente’s entire family popping in as we set the table, sending us scrambling for more plates and forks), the roasted stuffed chickens eventually wound up center stage on our citronella candle light spread, in between the mashed potatoes and the mayor’s wife’s Sopa Paraguaya.

Peace Corps service requires patience, flexibility, and often a little ingenuity.  Whether finding funding for a project, walking teenagers through a SWOT analysis, or furnishing our homes, a small dose of creativity goes a long way.  The same holds true for celebrating American holidays.  Miles from home and emerged in another culture, certain traditions mean even more when we can’t celebrate them with those most dear to us.

We may have celebrated Día Acción de Gracias instead of Thanksgiving, but concocting something similar to my father’s stuffing helped bridge the gap.  I suppose we call it comfort food for a reason.  Thanks, friends, for a lovely weekend.

Tools of the trade... Gerber does not currently advertise the versatility of their popular multi-tool in pie making, but maybe they should consider it.


  1. The stuffing secret is coming out of the bag.
    I learned to cook from James Beard "Great American Cookery".
    The perfectionist streak in me didn't allow modifications, exempified by two hundred and twelve spice jars.
    The recipe does not call for fluid, just artery lubricating 3 to 4 pounds generally worked out well.
    The holsteins securely smiled when that book came out.
    Remember when you prefered it to popcorn.
    (I can make a vegan version now).

  2. The vegetarian version was pretty tasty, too. I'm looking forward to trying any incarnations you come up with.