If I could use only one word to describe my life in the field, it would be ‘routine.’ I get up at the same time each day and go through the same activities with the same people. Sure, there are small changes. Some days we watch ring-tailed lemurs and others we watch sifakas. Some days we have red beans and some days we eat white beans (and occasionally we even splurge with lentils). Some would call this life monotonous and they wouldn’t be wrong. The trick to surviving a long field season with this simple, yet endlessly repeating schedule is to stay sane by focusing on little changes that can break up the monotony.
As the end of November approached, we had been repeated the same daily schedule for two full months. We were due for one of these routine-busters. The upcoming holiday of Thanksgiving provided the perfect opportunity for something new, but how could I celebrate this food-centric holiday when I was so far from all of its iconic tastes? Where would I get the ingredients for my beloved cranberry sauce, for the marshmallow-topped mashed yams, and for the irreplaceable pumpkin pie?
On one of my more successful trips to the phone hill (meaning I didn’t get lost this time), I spotted a pair of large turkeys as I passed through the village of Antevamena. Light bulb! If there are turkeys here then I should be able to find enough kinds of food to throw together a modest Thanksgiving feast.
I began planning for the celebration, coming up with a menu and a guest list. A few days before the meal, I started spreading the word and invited all of the Malagasy staff at Beza to attend the party. As Thursday morning arrived, I sent Lala off to the market with a shopping list and a wad of cash to pick up supplies for the feast. While Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the U.S. and everyone gets a day or two of vacation, it was just another work day at Beza. After watching Lala depart for the market in Beavoha, Vola, Joach, and I headed into the forest as usual, looking for the sifaka group Vavy. Despite the break from routine coming up at dinnertime, we still had the same work to do until then.
When we returned to camp at the end of the day, Lala was already back. The spoils from Lala’s trip were arrayed on the dining room table. There were 100 kupokes of rice (28 kilos or 62 lbs, but not all for the party), a mountain of bageda (a local species of sweet potato), a bucket full of bageda leaves, some tomatoes, a few bunches of bananas, a liter of toaka gasy (the Malagasy moonshine), and two beautiful live turkeys. Okay, so they weren’t beautiful and they weren’t as large or majestic as the birds I had spied in Antevamena, but they were still turkeys and would make for a delicious centerpiece to the meal.
I had originally Asked for one turkey, but they only had small ones at the market, so Lala bought two. I had planned to name my turkey, but now that i had a pair of avians, the name wouldn’t fit. I had to come up with a set of names for these female birds. Inexplicably, the names Mary-Kate and Ashley jumped into my head and before I could come up with any other candidates, those names stuck. Maybe the names fit because both the Olsens and my turkeys were skinny birds.
The traditional way to cook a turkey for an American Thanksgiving feast is to roast the bird whole. Typically this involves buying a plucked and gutted frozen bird, thawing it for a day or two, and then slow roasting it in the oven for hours and hours, cooking the bird throughout without drying out the meat. Now we didn’t have hours and hours to cook the turkeys and we certainly didn’t have an oven (just pots perched above an open wood flame), so the turkey was prepared in a similar manner to how they cook chicken here. The birds were plucked and cleaned, coarsely chopped into meaty bits, and then pan fried in their own fat and some vegetable oil. While this cooking method meant we would miss out on the presentation of a giant browned turkey on the table and my favorite ritual of carving the turkey, it did mean we would get turkey in our bellies that night.
As Lala and our new cook Sambesoa began preparing the meal, I returned to my routine of showering off the grime and sweat of the day and then heading to the lab to process the day’s plant and fecal samples. Dinner would be later than normal today, so I would have time to finish all of my work before the party.
Everyone gradually drifter towards the dining room as the dishes began appearing on the table. There were thirteen of us in total: the cooks (Lala and Sambesoa), the local Madagascar National Parks staff (Radada, Tsiliva, and Veloko), the local University of Antananarivo Department of Forestry and Agronomy staff (Mianditsoa and Edouard), some Madagascar National Park staff in from Tulear for an audit of the Beza finances, my team (Vola and Joach), and myself. Aside from the visiting MNP staff, around me were the familiar faces of my friends and neighbors these last two months at Beza.
Before we sat down to eat, I gave a little speech to explain the meal and what we were celebrating. I started by telling a highly abridged version of the Pilgrims and Indians story, explaining how the Indians gave the hungry Pilgrims food to get them through the winter and how the Pilgrims and Indians all sat down to a feast to celebrate their friendship and to give thanks for the life-saving gift of food. I explained that, in a similar way, I wanted to thank all of the people of Beza Mahafaly reserve for welcoming me and my team into their community and for all of the help and kindness they have offered since we arrived in September. This meal was my way of giving thanks.
Since most of the staff don’t speak English, Vola did a rough translation of my speech into Malagasy and everyone clapped when I reached the end. With the formalities out of the way, it was time to dig in! We all took out seats around the long table filled with dishes of pan-fried turkey, roasted sweet potato, sautéed sweet potato leaves with garlic, and of course giant bowls of rice. We cooked thirteen kupokes of rice, or about one kupoke per person. Also arranged down the middle of the table were several large bottles of Malagasy Three Horses Beer and an ominously unlabeled bottle of toaka gasy. The table grew very silent as the dishes were passed around, our plates were piled high, and everyone’s mouth was occupied with savoring the bounty before us. Slowly, the capacity for speech returned and the conversations started up. I had hoped to take a group photo, but by the time it occurred to me, my hands were covered in delicious, warm turkey juices that I would bring nowhere near my camera. Instead I am left with only photos of the table before and after the culinary carnage.
Late into the meal, Radada made a short speech (in Malagasy) thanking me for the meal and welcoming my team into the community. We all clapped and toasted his speech and I felt that this night was truly a success. As people finished eating, some folks thanked me for the meal and slipped off to bed. In the end, it was just Joach, Vola, Tsiliva, Sambesoa, and me left at the table with nothing left but some cold rice and half the bottle of toaka gasy. We passed the bottle around and were willing to tempt a mild hangover the next day in order to finish our communal celebration and drain the bottle.
With the alcohol finally gone, we stacked up the dishes, cleared off the table, and headed off to bed. That night, as I lay in bed counting turkeys to fall asleep, I thought about how lucky I was to have my Malagasy domicile be in such a friendly and inviting community and once more before drifting off to sleep, I gave thanks.
Post Script: To answer the question in this post’s title, in Malagasy, the sound a turkey makes is ‘Gooloo Gooloo.’ Happy Thanksgiving!