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Celebrating Thanksgiving From Haiti: A Comedy of American Error

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Flickr: mallydally
Flickr: mallydally

When my partner Sara and I moved to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake leveled most of Port-au-Prince, we faced some serious challenges. Sara directed recovery efforts for a major international housing NGO. I accompanied her in a non-official capacity.

A number of months into our stay, when Thanksgiving rolled around and we attempted to host a holiday dinner for some of Sara's expat staff, my arrogant expectations as a spoiled American manifested themselves with embarrassing and, frankly, unexpected clarity. It's that sense of entitlement and the lessons learned since then that I'm reflecting on this Thanksgiving, two years later.

You see, I tried to model our Thanksgiving feast in Haiti on the one any American Grandma, back home, might have catered, but I faced multiple obstacles to a meal preparation that would have been so much simpler in a place like Pittsburgh or Baltimore. And though these complications seemed slap-stick ridiculous at first, I ultimately realized the morally complicated mess in which I found myself, attempting to host a feast of any sort in the poorest and, arguably, most hungry country in the western hemisphere.

Below is the story of how I eventually made do without the conveniences that would have been available back home -- made do only to host a feast that forced me to question the ethics of celebrating this American holiday at all, at least from earthquake ravaged Port-au-Prince. Thanksgiving, after all, celebrates gluttony in a way most Haitians could never imagine.

I recognize now my own well-fed place of privilege, but I came to that realization only by seeing in action my own arrogant obsession with things like pumpkin pie and a functioning oven. I ultimately realized my own ridiculousness but only after facing each obstacle to feast preparation with flippant expectations of comfort and convenience.

Here's how it all happened.

When we were looking for a house in Haiti, I told Sara I had only one request: I wanted an oven. We moved to Port-au-Prince from Vietnam, where we had lived for a year with only a cook top in our kitchen. This inconvenience ate me. I had wanted to bake.

So Sara did what any cake-loving partner would do. She found us a home in Haiti that that featured an oven -- a real, honest-to-goodness gas oven -- minus the thermostat.

"Are you serious?" I said to Sara at the time, realizing there was no way to set any specific temperature on our less-than-perfect-by-American-standards home appliance, any temperature, either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

"Oh, that's not that important. You'll figure that out," Sara insisted, when I pointed out the problem.

I moaned to myself over the coming months, especially when twelve attempts and twelve burnt batches of cookies later, I was still figuring.

But for Thanksgiving I needed an oven, a temperature-controlled oven, I whined in my own mind, and sometimes to Sara.

As an American I couldn't imagine celebrating Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. After all, it's the Macy's Parade of Thanksgiving desserts -- even when celebrating from Port-au-Prince, a far-away, cholera-sickened, earthquake-toppled corner of the Caribbean, one that was feeling less and less like home.

A pumpkin pie likes to bake for the first 15 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit and the final 45 at 350, temperatures too precise to register on the oven thermometer I'd brought back from the U.S., hoping to resolve this issue. That thermometer only got me in the ballpark of a particular temperature, give or take 100 degrees -- not exactly the degree of precision I was wanting.

And my attitude didn't improve when Sara herself expressed concern about the turkey she planned to roast in that same oven and struggled to duplicate the thermostatic requirements of the Butterball we'd managed to find.

"Oh, that's not that important. You'll figure that out."

(I realize now, my sarcasm made me sound like the real turkey.)

However, shopping challenges also threatened our Haitian Thanksgiving and gave me further opportunity to see my attitude of entitlement in action.

Wisely, Sara and I had anticipated that some Thanksgiving comfort foods might be difficult to find and brought back from the U.S. several items we worried wouldn't be available even in the expat-oriented grocery stores in Petion-ville, the upscale Port-au-Prince suburb where we lived.

One of these was canned pumpkin.

As it turned out, there wasn't an ounce of Libby's to be had on the entire island, or so it seemed to me -- cherry pie filling, yes -- canned yams, yes -- canned pumpkin in time for Thanksgiving pie-baking -- no sir, none of it -- anywhere. And believe me, I looked.

I didn't have a thermostatically controlled oven to bake the pie in, but I did have a full, 29-ounce can of "America's Favorite Pumpkin" to put in it.

Thank God, at least for that, I thought, rolling my eyes.

However, I had a seemingly "serious" scare two days before Thanksgiving trying to track down celery.

Standing in Giant Market unable to find this vegetable, almost as essential to stuffing as sage itself, I came close to a celery-induced panic attack. I profanely found myself wondering, "What would Jesus do?" What would the son of God himself (assuming he were a turkey-stuffing kind of carpenter) use in his stuffing were celery not available? If he turned water into wine, could he turn carrots into celery? Could we?

(I hadn't sounded exactly Christ-like, I recognize in retrospect.)

However, it was Sara herself who performed a miracle in the end, finally finding a celery-looking substance in the store near her office. Catastrophe averted. We were that much closer to stuffing the bird we hoped to roast -- at a temperature that was not yet determined.

(My attitude was still in evidence.)

Then the day before Thanksgiving Sara sent me to the super market for chicken broth.

Actually, Giant carried the item in both the Swanson and Campbell's varieties -- the Campbell's canned with MSG, the Swanson's, in a carton and without. But being a health-conscious, not-wanting-to-consume-excessive-amounts-of-sodium American, I selected the latter. In fact, I tried to check out with three cartons of the stuff, since Thanksgiving dinner calls for broth in both the gravy and as a moistening agent in any celery-rich stuffing.

There was one hitch, however. Though the store stocked the Swanson's (over-stocked it, in fact) -- they wouldn't sell it to me. And, if sheer quantity were any indication, wouldn't sell to anybody, for that matter. They couldn't decide on a price. So, when, after thirty minutes of trying to determine one, no member of the sales or management staff could still settle on an amount to make me pay, I suggested they charge me anything.

"Over-charge me," I arrogantly offered -- a concept they seemed not to grasp.

But undeterred and unwilling to waste any more of my time-is-money American minutes, I gave up, bought the cans of Campbell's, and headed home, risking ill-health along the way.

As it turned out, the MSG didn't matter in the end.

Celery, perhaps, the most frivolous of vegetables, didn't make or break our stuffing. The turkey roasted perfectly, even without a thermostat. The pies baked beautifully. Our dinner was delicious.

Yet the lovely meal we ultimately served our expat friends also ate at me, if you will.

And still two years later I ponder the moral implications of hosting a feast for folks with plenty to eat in a country where children remain hungry, where they are sent to bed without a drop of dinner and wake in the morning with no substantial breakfast either.

Frankly, I have yet to resolve this -- the fact that famine and feasting both exist in the same world at the same time, sometimes within mere meters of one another.

I don't know that it's necessary for Americans to step away from their own plates this Thanksgiving, but it is important that we step up to the plate in other ways. It's important that we make more of a difference.

I come from a country with an obesity epidemic but lived in one plagued with not enough food, with a population too poor to feed itself. This was, and is, a painful irony to swallow.

So, even as we're warm and cozy in America, enjoying our Thanksgiving dinners this Thursday, I hope we'll remember our neighbors to the south who are hungry.

And Black Friday, as we drink our morning coffee, eat our Raisin Bran and toast, as we stand in line at Circuit City waiting to purchase the newest incarnation of iPhone, I hope we'll ask ourselves this question.

Does Thanksgiving in America mean more meals for Haiti, more aid for other hungry places on our planet?