When I arrived in Australia, 30 years ago, I wanted to continue the practice of gratitude and Thanksgiving in my new home. That was an ambition much easier dreamed, than done.
We lived in Darwin, a small, tropical city, population about eighty thousand in those days. I wanted to make as many of the foods that my Mother made for our family Thanksgiving dinners as I could, but I had never done the entire meal on my own! So, naturally, I invited 8 other people to witness my crash and burn publicly.
Getting a turkey was the first hurdle. They were not that easy to come by, and I had to find someone who would order one sent up from ‘down south’. Mostly, turkeys were saved for Christmas here, and getting one a full month ahead was not easy. And for that matter, sweet potatoes were not even common in Darwin back then! Some years, butternut pumpkin (‘squash’ as it is called in America) had to be substituted. Adding to the challenge, I had only been in the country four months at this stage. I was still learning the metric system, converting recipes, and learning where to shop and what things were called.
On the actual day, which of course is not a holiday here, and is always on a Thursday, my husband and all the guests were at work. I rose early and began the preparations. First I made the pies. Not a particularly easy task at the best of times, but trying to roll out pie crust in a hot and humid climate (no air conditioning) was a challenge. As Don will tell you, more than one batch of pie dough got thrown into the bin, often followed by tears and expletives. The pumpkin filling could not be bought in cans, as it is in America, so the day before I had baked the raw pumpkin and scooped out the flesh for my pies. I learned from experience the best way to do this, and the best pumpkin to use, but I got lucky that first year, it was still passable. (spices mask a multitude of sins, you know, just ask the Venetians from the Middle ages)
After the pies there were green beans to prepare, sweet potatoes and even homemade bread rolls to bake, and it all had to be done in sequence because I had a very small oven (American ovens are huge compared to a standard Australian one). And the kitchen was sweltering. The building site a couple of blocks away was in full swing and the rumbling from it broke through my haze of perspiration every now and then.
Along about 2pm that afternoon, I was making what my Mother’s family called ‘dressing’. It is what others call ‘stuffing’ but because we didn’t stuff the bird with it, we called it dressing. It is a savoury bread pudding, really, especially prized in our family for it’s buttery, crusty edges. I was at the sink, looking out the open louvers, enjoying the leafy branches (our government flat was on the first floor – see Before, After and the Journey for a photo of the kitchen). As I was literally elbow-deep using my hands to mix the large bowl of bread, herbs, onion, eggs and milk together, the distant rumble of the building site seemed to have taken on a deeper tone. Instinctively I looked around into the living room in case the noise, now accompanied by some kind of extra sensory experience, was other than the building site. Oh my, it WAS something else! The ceiling fan was wobbling crazily from side to side, and then I realised the building was feeling unstable as well.
I quickly wiped my hands and ran into the living room looking out either side’s banks of louvers and wondering what was happening… and perhaps more importantly what I should do about it! Getting out of the building seemed like the thing to do so I raced down the stairs to the ground level and glanced around. The Hills Hoist clothesline was wobbling wildly in the ground, and our Toyota Landcruiser truck in the parking lot was bouncing excitedly.
“I wonder if this is an earthquake?” I thought, having never experienced one before. And then it stopped. The whole scenario lasted less than two minutes, but minutes that are forever etched into my memory.
There was hardly anyone around in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday. Eventually I decided it was safe to go back into the flat. All the power had been knocked out, and there was an eerie quiet. Thankfully the phone was still working. (no mobile phones in 1983!) In a little while it rang! Such relief to hear my husband’s voice! He confirmed that the big shake was indeed an earthquake, out in the Timor Sea. He told me they’d had to evacuate the school and once things were under control there, he’d be home to help me. Meanwhile, I had a meal to cook for 10 people… and no electricity.
My new friend, Ivy, worked at the same school as Don. She and I were soul-mates when it came to our love of food and she immediately wondered if I had a means by which to finish cooking the meal (to which she and her husband were invited that evening). So another phone call came to tell me Ivy was on her way. She would take the turkey to their house, only five minutes away, and cook it in her gas oven. Bless. At least we would have turkey and pie that evening.
Fortunately within a couple of hours the power was returned and I could finish cooking the meal. We ate around 8pm, and my recollection is that it was well received and successful, especially considering the circumstances. It was certainly a day to be grateful if ever there was one!
I have this one precious photo of that first Thanksgiving, and the rest of the memories are but flawed pictures in my mind.
(In case you are wondering, there was a bit of damage to some buildings in Darwin, but not much considering the quake was about 5 on the Richter scale. There was some doubt about the strength of the tremor in Darwin, due to the fact that the monitoring equipment is set for very low levels of movement. The buildings are constructed to a very high cyclone code since virtually all of Darwin was destroyed in 1974 by Cyclone Tracy, and that is why there was relatively little damage.)