In honor of Thanksgiving this week, please enjoy this excerpt from Red Goddess Rising, about my experience trying to make Thanksgiving/Greg’s birthday dinner for 16 Egyptians plus Greg and me, in the middle of Cairo, where I had some unexpected surprises!

It’s 4pm on Thanksgiving and I am a little concerned.  The early part of the morning went well—I brought Greg coffee in bed, “birthday coffee”—and he opened his presents: a small silk rug exquisitely woven with an image of the God Thoth, and a set of antique camel bone beads highly polished by diligent fingers praying over them for many years.  Then Shakky picked Greg up and whisked him off to play in the back streets of Cairo for the day.  I stayed home to cook, to be joined by Rhonnda, Doaa (an excellent new female guide who we had just met) and Mohamed, who I expected at 1pm.  Greg smiled when I told him to be home by then, but I knew Shakky.  He would have Greg out until the last possible minute.  Now here it is after four o’clock and I am still alone.  Momo had told me earlier he would be there when his work was finished; I laughed and said, “See you in a couple years,” but I hadn’t meant that he should stay away all day.

The cooking went better than I could have hoped.  In an unfamiliar kitchen, using an oven that had never been turned on before—not until the pies a day earlier—with a single oven rack, a dial only marked every ten degrees (in Celsius), and no meat thermometer, clearly Anubis and Bastet were still smiling on me.  Having come out of its wrapping looking fresher and more beautifully trussed than any American grocery store bird, the turkey had only an hour left to cook.
On the stove, zucchini casseroles and a pan of mushroom, fennel and sage stuffing sit side by side with the mashed potatoes.  These are yummy but sadly lumpy, as I have neither potato masher nor sieve.  Everything is staying warm until it can go in the oven for a final reheat once the turkey comes out.The herbed butter I rubbed under its skin had basted the bird all day, enhanced by occasional spoonfuls of pan juices I spooned up and poured over the turkey whenever I had swapped the side dishes out.  Apparently, a turkey baster is an optional kitchen tool, though I would have sworn by it up until now.   Under the bird, the mirepoix of carrots, celery, garlic and onions has practically melted into the dripping fats, assuring at least a moist—and hopefully flavorful—finished dish.

The only real hitch in the whole process took place in the morning, when I was cleaning the turkey.  I removed the package of glossy giblets, reassured that this bird ate more healthfully than I do.  Then I felt inside the cavity for the neck.  it seemed—well, a bit long.  But I kept pulling, and it came all the way out and I found myself face to face with the bald head, his eyes now narrow slits that stared at me balefully as if to say, “You did this to me.  I was just scratching at some seed in my yard, minding my own business, and now look at me.”

Of course I did what every savvy American cook would do when unexpectedly coming into contact with the head of her food—I screamed.  Greg was still home at this point, so I recreated the whole experience on video for him, sans hollering.  The plucked head had been half-decapitated and sort of bobbed up and down as if nodding—I could develop a whole comedy routine were I better at ventriloquism.  And the beak had been chopped off—luckily, from the looks of it, post-mortem, because I can’t imagine how the turkey could have eaten otherwise.  Or breathed.  It reminded me of the head of the desert cat in Denderah, and of how far away we have gotten from our mortality and even being aware that the animals we call food were once living beings, who functioned on their own and didn’t know they had been born simply to sustain us for another day.The doorbell rings.  Finally, a guest!  But when I open it, Greg is standing there, his galabeya muddy, smelling of greasy Cairo, wearing an ear-to-ear grin.  Shakky took him to the antique booksellers, where he bought the “Hymns of Akhenaton” and an Arabic book of translations dating to the 1930s.  He can tell because it’s called “The Dragoman in your Pocket” and Egyptians haven’t been called that since then—it was actually a name for Turks.“Where is everybody?” he wants to know.  I shrug.  It’s Egypt.  Besides, two people from Mohamed’s staff came by an hour ago and blew up over two dozen balloons, which they have left strewn across the apartment floor, so I know we are not forgotten.  I show Greg the multicolored balloons.  Most of them are plain, but a few say things like, “Happy 18th Birthday!”  and “Happy 50th Birthday!”  On closer scrutiny, I also find, “Happy 90th Birthday!”  and “Happy 4th Birthday!”  It’s clear they are covering their bases.The doorbell rings again—it’s Rhonnda, joined by Mohamed, who stops theatrically inside the door, enjoying the Thanksgiving smells.  While Greg goes off to shower, I tour Momo around the kitchen, showing him my three pies, the beautiful turkey, the pans of side dishes.  “I’m also doing sautéed green beans and steamed julienne carrots, and there’s fresh bread and butter,” I tell him proudly, certain of having achieved my foodie goals.  Mohamed nods, smiling, and then gets on the phone, which is standard operating procedure, as he gets a call every five minutes all day long.  I check the turkey one last time and turn to my friend and mentor as he hangs up.“I called Felfela Restaurant,” he says.  Felfela is so close we go out the front door of our building and through their kitchen to eat there, an almost daily affair.  “They are sending up extra forks for dessert.  Do you need anything else?” I tell him I am fine.  “Good,” he responds.  “I also ordered some macaroni.”Excuse me??“Momo,” I inform him, “I cooked all day.  There’s a ton of food.  What do you mean, ‘you ordered macaroni?’“ He gestures dismissively.

“This is not a lot of food for Egyptians.  One person will eat half your turkey.  Have you ever seen the amount of food for Ramadan?”  I have.  It’s a lot.  But still.

“Mohamed,” I say, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice, “I have made Thanksgiving dinner lots of times.  I made plenty of food, people can even have seconds.  NO macaroni!  It’s insulting!”

“I understand!  I get it!”  he responds, his voice rising in excitement to match mine until we are both yelling, “but you have to trust me—I know Egyptians!  They only want to taste the turkey—they won’t eat anything!”  Well, which is it??  They’ll eat too much or they won’t touch the food?

I’m searching for a solution.  “Okay, well, can we leave it here in the kitchen and I’ll only bring it out if we run out of food?”

“Sure!  Let’s do that.”  He is eager to compromise.  It’s five o’clock.  I pull the turkey, wearing its tin foil cloak, out of the oven and slide my big pans in to heat.  I take a quick peek at the roasted turkey, which is a glorious deep golden brown, and pour the pan juices off into a tall saucepan so I can take the final step, the one most likely to trip up the educated cook: the gravy.  The doorbell rings again.

“I’ve got it,” sings Rhonnda, happy to be of use and away from Mohamed’s and my clashing energies.  I turn to see two waiters from Felfela, each laden with a tray full of small metal pans covered in broiled cheese.  Mohamed has ordered that classic Egyptian dish, a huge favorite here: macaroni in béchamel — penne pasta mixed with ground beef and slathered in a thick white cream sauce, then smothered in cheese and baked.   From the looks of it, there is one for each of us, a full meal to itself.
I turn the pan juices down and clang my spoon onto the marble countertop.  “I have to go in the other room now.”  I stomp off into the bedroom, pissed.  Greg waits a polite minute, then follows me in.

“It’s a little like having a kid’s party with grown-up food, and then someone brings cheeseburgers,” he sympathizes.

I groan.  “I know!  It’s bad enough I have to explain all the food to people and try to get them to eat it!  But,” I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself as fast as possible, “I refuse to ruin your birthday over it.”  Still releasing my feelings as quickly as they come up, I return to the kitchen to finish the gravy.

Rhonnda is already there, on bean duty as she snaps the ends off the perfect green legumes.  Her eyes flicker over me as I enter the room, but I smile easily, determined to regain some of my lost grace.  “Mmm, macaroni looks good,” I say to her, my grin only semi-sarcastic.  She laughs, brings the finished beans over, and offers to help with the next task.