I didn’t know what I was going to do for my first Thanksgiving in Okinawa. One of the chaplains and his wife invited all the single people he knew to join them for dinner if they didn’t have plans. It was nice, but the only people I knew were the chaplain and his wife. After that I volunteered to pull duty for all the big holidays so that those with families stationed with them could spend the day with their loved ones.
When my second Thanksgiving rolled around I was no longer single, but no one knew it. I was living off base with my boyfriend. Officially of course, I was still single. My boss in the ER assumed I’d still be willing to work that day. I wanted to be at home with Neighbor but couldn’t tell her why, so I said, “sure, no problem.” That night I broke the news to N. He worked at the hospital, too, in L&D, but was off for Thanksgiving. He wasn’t as disappointed as I was. In fact, he was excited.
“Perfect!” He said. “You always cook. Now you don’t have to.” The reason I always cook is because he couldn’t. His attempts at gravy were more like meat flavored Jell-O. Rodney Dangerfield once quipped that his wife was such a bad cook, that when he left some dental floss out on the counter, three roaches hanged themselves. Any roaches we might have had, starved to death long ago, because Neighbor insisted on cooking once a week. He said, “Promise you won’t eat at work. I want to cook Thanksgiving dinner.”
“That’s not necessary,” I said. “I don’t mind cooking when I get home. Or we can go to the NCO Club on Kadena.”
“Tut tut,” he tutted. “I have Mama’s recipe for beer can chicken and I promise to follow it religiously. No improvising. And we’re going to have Granny’s famous pole beans. She finally sent me her secret recipe but only if I promised to follow it to the letter. You’re going to love it!”
For months I’d been hearing about the culinary skills of his mother and grandmother, and the wonders of down-home Louisiana cooking. I couldn’t resist the pleading in his eyes. I grinned. “I can’t wait,” I told him, hoping he meant it when he said he wouldn’t deviate from the recipes.
He shooed me out of the house Thanksgiving morning, telling me he’d see me in twelve hours. Throughout the day, coworkers who were off, and felt sorry for us, brought us food. Not just leftovers; they’d gone out of their way to roast extra turkeys, extra bowls of mashed potatoes, platters of deviled eggs, pecan pies, hams, green bean casseroles. The aromas drove me mad, but I’d promised Neighbor I wouldn’t eat at work that day. It took every ounce of will power I had, plus some I had to borrow, but I resisted temptation.
By the time I got back to our apartment I was famished. “Feed me!” I roared, slamming the door shut. I smelled the chicken roasting in the oven, but couldn’t see anything else. Neighbor sat at the table, looking miserable. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The pole beans. When I asked Granny for the recipe I said I wouldn’t change anything.”
“Well, they don’t have pole beans here. So I asked her to send me some. You know you’re not allowed to mail produce here. She lied on the customs form.” I pictured N’s grandmother rotting in a prison somewhere. “I’ve been planning this since last summer. Those beans came from her own garden. The best beans in Louisiana!” he added defensively. “They got here in September. I opened the box this morning.” I noticed for the first time the carboard box on the table in front of him. He tilted the box so that I could see the half liquified beans inside, covered in fuzzy mold. “I’m sorry, Friend! I’ve ruined Thanksgiving!”
I thought of all the side dishes I hadn’t sampled throughout the day. My empty stomach grumbled. “Not at all,” I assured him. “So, we don’t have beans. The rest of dinner will be great. I could smell the chicken when I was halfway up the stairs.”
The chicken exploded.
The explosion was so violent that the oven door was blown off one of its hinges. For as long as we lived in that apartment it never did close properly again. We both hit the deck, not sure where the attack was coming from, but when the initial blast wasn’t followed by another, we peeped over the island that separated the kitchen from the dining/living room to see what had happened. The chicken was gone. The interior of the oven, including the door that now hung by only one hinge, was covered by a foaming mixture of chicken, bone and beer.
“Neighbor,” I said.
“Are you sure you followed the recipe one hundred percent?”
“Yes, Friend.” He dug the handwritten recipe out of his pocket. I looked over his shoulder and we read it together.
“When you shoved the can of beer up the chicken’s ass, did you open the can, first?”
“Was I supposed to?” To be fair, the recipe didn’t say to open the beer, so he did follow the recipe exactly. He said, “NCO Club?”
“Oh, hell no. You promised to cook me Thanksgiving dinner, and by god, you’re going to cook me Thanksgiving dinner.”
And he did. Thanksgiving, 1995, Okinawa, Japan: Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Oreo cookies for dessert. Best holiday meal ever. The cleanup afterward, though . . .