Talk about bad. If the Pilgrims had shown up to the first Thanksgiving dinner we cooked, they would have taken the first ship back to the Old Country. They would have swum, if necessary, and we native Americans could have kept the whole continent to ourselves.It was 1972. My then-boyfriend, now-husband and I were living in an apartment complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. The place had all the charm of a 1950s Soviet-bloc tenement. We weren’t very popular. All the other residents were at least 105 and they suspected us of 1) being hippies and 2) being unmarried, both of which were true.
The apartment’s managers, a seethingly hostile couple in their later years, especially disliked us. They suspected that we were behind the posted note in the elevator that read: “Are you fat? Do you live on the second floor? If so, you may be ineligible to ride this elevator! Please see me immediately.” Then we’d signed the apartment manager’s name.
It was a harmless prank, we figured. Something we’d all get together and laugh about — except for the small problem that the apartment manager wasn’t speaking to us, as usual. This, we suspected, was because he had just posted a new rule on the trash chute outside our fourth-floor apartment. “Don’t put glass bottles in this chute!”
When we were bored, when we were feeling rebellious (which happened rather frequently), we occasionally left one of our gallon-size Cribari jugs dangling on a string secured by the trash chute’s door. The next person who opened the chute unloosed the bottle and it hurtled four floors downward, landing with a splintering, satisfying crash a few seconds later.
But, anyway, that’s just background. It was Thanksgiving and we were far away from our families and we weren’t very popular in our Soviet-bloc neighborhood. If we were going to cook a proper meal, we needed to rustle up some guests.
We found them on the second floor, a young Japanese couple who spoke almost no English. They’d never heard of Thanksgiving before, but they were elated to be invited anywhere for dinner. They said they could come.
So, we went into action. We bought a turkey. We bought packaged dressing. We bought canned green beans and a pre-made pie and a gallon jug of Cribari.
By the time our guests arrived, we’d already shoved our still-frozen turkey into the oven (with the little package of gizzards still intact in the interior). Being charitable, it might have smelled good, but who could tell? The Japanese couple turned out to be complete nicotine junkies who sat and chain-smoked the entire time. They also repeatedly tried out what appeared to be their entire English vocabulary on us: “Smoke like a chimney!”
Which was just as well, I suppose. They sat and smoked and we began to panic, prodding a turkey that still had crystals of frost on it. We managed to successfully heat the green beans and deplete the Cribari bottle, growing more and more panicked as the hours began to pass and beginning to snipe at each other.
“I thought you knew how to cook Thanksgiving dinner!”
“You know I can’t cook!”
“Smoke like a chimney!”
Finally, we hauled the turkey out of the oven. It was barely warm. We managed to peel off a few not-entirely-raw pieces and cover them liberally with a brown runny substance we called gravy. In fact, we covered as many things as possible with the “gravy.”
When we served them their plates, the Japanese couple stared with a combination of horror and extreme politeness. “This is a traditional American meal,” we told them — one of the biggest lies and most unadulterated slanders I’ve ever uttered in my life.
They put out their cigarettes and somehow managed to eat everything we’d served them, which is more than I could say of my boyfriend and me. (I seem to recall we slipped out for a hamburger after the meal was over.)
At any rate, owing to our guests’ enormous tact and diplomacy, we avoided an international incident that day. We toasted a lot with the Cribari, planning to leave the bottle hanging by a string if we managed to finish it off. The Japanese couple smoked even more — presumably to clear their palates — and drunkenly screamed, “Smoke like a chimeny!” every chance they could get.
If they got salmonella or food poisoning, they never let us know.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)