Saturday, November 27, 2010

Top Five Thanksgivings

At least in China, that is.

I probably have fondest memories of a family gathering I attended in Philadelphia many years ago, hosted by my old Oxford drinking buddy, The British Cowboy..... which ended with us attempting to 'walk off' the humongous meal (The Cowboy, fearing that perhaps turkey alone would not be able to sate the huge throng of in-laws he had invited, knocked up a vat of boeuf bourgignon as well!) by staggering 150 yards down the road to his 'local', the incomparable Hogan's.  I'd enjoyed a couple of rather more improvisatory ones with American friends in Oxford prior to that, and another rather more low-key one in America a little later, but... it was only when I moved to China that I found myself assuming the role of a Thanksgiving planner.

It hasn't happened quite every year.  In 2004, I had just started dating an American girl, but... she'd gone back home for Thanksgiving (and to go through a round of grad school applications) within a week of my meeting her.  I ended up having a low-key dinner with a couple of American friends (and their Chinese girlfriends), and just one or two other hangers-on.  It didn't take much organising, and I can't now remember if it even fell to me to make the reservation that year.  I suspect not - since we ended up going to the Silk Street branch of Steak and Eggs, a venue I would have lobbied vigorously against.  It serves up decent enough American comfort food through the year, but it's cramped, and the grungy diner decor doesn't conjure the ambience you want for a slightly more formal meal.  Also, I've never much liked the owner, a rather neurotic Canadian with a propensity to harangue his staff in public, and generally to whinge about everything.  (Shortly before this Thanksgiving experience, I'd had to endure a long monologue from him about how much he hated Thanksgiving, how much he hated cooking turkeys, and how much he hated all the extra work the holiday entailed for him.  You would have got the impression he even hated all the extra money he earned!  After listening to this rant, I was even more disinclined to hazard a Thanksgiving there, but... my two American chums seemed set on it.  And, back in those days, there weren't many other options.)  The food, as I recall, was OK, but unremarkable.  (The Weeble has reported that a year or two later he suffered one of the worst meals of his life there on Thanksgiving!)  The meal, in general, was pretty subdued (the Chinese girls didn't want to eat much, didn't want to stick around afterwards for drinks).  The evening was salvaged by the fact there was a visiting Irish-Aussie folk band playing at the nearby John Bull Pub. (After several more beers, I became embroiled in a joke-telling contest with the lead singer...)

In '06, I had to go down to Shanghai for work on the big day.  And in '07, strangely, all of my American buddies seemed to have made plans to do something at the weekend, and could not be persuaded to sign up for anything on the Thursday itself.  And then, of course, this year I hit rock bottom - attempting and failing to set something up, very late in the day, for a party that ballooned to 20+.  I wound up hating most of the venues I'd talked to about it, and most of the people that were supposed to have been coming (or the ones that never could quite make up their minds).  NEVER AGAIN!  Even my modest 'consolation plan' of getting in some turkey sandwiches for myself and the young American barman I was likely to be drowning my sorrows with all evening foundered (the sandwich shop had moved, and I couldn't find its new location!).  Oiveh!

However, in each of the other five years I've been here, there was a major Thanksgiving party.  Here's how it breaks down....

My Top Five Thanksgivings in China

5)  The John Bull Pub
I'm just going in chronological order here, not in order of fun or quality of food or anything of that sort.  In my first year here, I was working at quite a large private college that had several American teachers. My innocent suggestion to one or two people about doing something for Thanksgiving rapidly snowballed into an event involving just about the entire foreign staff, and a few other friends and hangers-on too.... getting on for 30 people.  The food was pretty good, I thought.  At least until we got to the pumpkin pie, which was stodgy and tasteless, but... temptingly missile.  My younger, more irresponsible colleagues initiated an enormous food fight with it, which I struggled to restrain.  Other than that, a pretty good night.

4)  The Kempinski Hotel
Very nearly the worst of the lot - but at least I wasn't involved in the organisation this time; I just tagged along with some American colleagues from the university where I was working that year.  The company was varied and quite fun.  There was a very cute young American Mandarin student I was sharking a little at the time, which was a pleasant diversion.  However, (as I'd anticipated beforehand; but I'd been powerless to change the plans) the food was severely average, and rather expensive.  Buffet service just doesn't create the right atmosphere for a banquet meal.  And the availability of so many non-holiday-fare items rather undermined the sense of Thanksgiving, I felt.  Worst of all, there was no mashed potato!!!  And, for a major foreign hotel, the service was pretty weak, too.  A major disappointment.  (And I never got anywhere with the Mandarin student either.)

3)  Return to the John Bull
Probably the best ever.  After lame experiences at The Kempinski and Steak and Eggs in the two previous years, I managed (for once, without too much grief and vexation!) to put together a slightly smaller and much  better behaved party for another Thanksgiving at the dear old John Bull (sadly demised now).  Good food, varied company (I think we had Canadians, Australians, Austrians, Chinese, and one or two other nationalities in the mix!); and even The Poet, notoriously anti-social and unreliable, deigned to turn out for it.

2)  Sequoia/Culinary Capers
The John Bull was for a while reinvented as the Sequoia cafe/sandwich bar, and it continued to put on a good spread for Christmas lunch.  Unfortunately, the following year they teamed up with an event catering company to lay on the food for Thanksgiving.... and it was an unmitigated disasterThe worst Thanksgiving I've ever had; and one of the worst meals, period.  We had to hit up a neighbourhood Xinjiang restaurant a little while later to quench our unsatisfied appetites!!

1)  Grandma's Kitchen
The service was all over the place, and the food a bit variable (horrible gravy and stuffing!); but the portions were appropriately huge, and the booze was agreeably cheap too.  The major advantage of this venue (the one lurking in a hutong behind the Beixinqiao subway station) is that it's a walkable distance from where I (and most of my friends) live, and a walkable distance from most of the bars we like to hang out in.  The disadvantage is that it's fairly tiny.  Last year they had promised us a private room for our party of around 20, but in fact they only had two small rooms with a connecting archway (bizarrely decorated rooms at that!), so we were in effect split into two smaller groups.  This year, those rooms are allegedly no longer available to the restaurant, having been taken over by the guesthouse side of the operation; and the headless chickens they have working there have no idea how they might rearrange their tables and chairs a little to try to accommodate a large party in their conservatory area.  I'd had hopes of getting something going there again this year, but the discussions proved fruitless.  I try to focus on their gravy to console myself.

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