For the record, Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday. Growing up, I did enjoy the food, but once I became a vegetarian surrounded by omnivores, I lost interest, mainly because of my family’s insistence on the turkey-centered meal. More recently, after my parents died, my brother started coming to our house for Thanksgiving, so I had to start making turkey breast for the first time in my life. At least not a whole turkey, but for someone who’s never cooked meat, it’s still pretty gross. I retaliated by making more delicious vegetarian dishes, like an autumn millet bake with cranberries and butternut squash, or futari, an east African dish with pumpkin, coconut milk, cinnamon, and cloves. Now my daughter has become a vegetarian, too, as of about a year ago, but she still loves turkey, so she has what she calls her “holiday exception”for Thanksgiving and Christmas. When we are in California for Christmas this year, I am going to teach her how to cook the turkey breast so that she is responsible for her own meat consumption (and my brother’s), and I don’t have to deal with it. (There is also the whole political side of the holiday, commemorating the beginning of Native American genocide by the white settlers, which I refuse to celebrate. Like I said, Thanksgiving is not my favorite.)
This Thanksgiving, though, we were in Mongolia. My university had a fall break scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend, coinciding with the Mongolian national holiday Republic Day on Monday, November 26. Republic Day commemorates Mongolian independence from China. Mongolia had been ruled by the Qing dynasty, which fell in 2011. Mongolia declared independence but was invaded by the new Chinese republic in 1919. With the help of the Soviets,Mongolia was able to push the Chinese out, so the country went quickly from domination by the Chinese to becoming a Soviet satellite with Communist rule, which lasted until the second multi-party elections, which ousted the ruling party in 1996. (The Communist party won the first elections held in 1990.)
So, I have a five-day weekend for Thanksgiving, which was sorely needed. My teaching schedule has been grueling. Emma, however, only has a three-day weekend with Monday off, so she went to school as usual on Thanksgiving.But we did receive an invitation to a potluck dinner in the university dorm where we live, organized by the dorm’s faculty advisor, who is American. The dorm includes faculty apartments as well as housing for 200 students. Many of the residents traveled or went home for the long weekend, but the students who remained in the dorm, as well as a few of the faculty, gathered in the dorm’s basement kitchen for the potluck.
I expected there would be a lot of meat dishes, so I was planning something vegetarian for us. Thanksgiving morning, there was a meeting at Emma’s school with the Board of Trustees (required by the Mongolian government for the school to operate as a non-profit organization), so I planned to attend that and then stop off at Good Price Market, a Whole Foods lookalike store about a kilometer’s walk from her school. It was cold that morning—my phone said 4°F when I left the school—but walking briskly helped. I don’t have any long underwear yet, to my legs got very cold. I passed a couple of guys sweeping the roadside with brooms (that’s how street cleaning is done here as in many parts of the world), and they not only were not wearing heavy coats (probably because of the physical exertion), but they also didn’t have the pollution mask that most expats and some Mongolians start wearing this time of year, nothing even to protect them from the dust that they were raising.
At Good Price Market (which I call Whole Foods in my head, or the Mac and Cheese Store when I’m talking to Emma because it carries Annie’s organic mac and cheese, her favorite kind), I couldn’t find the kidney beans I was hoping for to make chili, but I found a bag of black beans in their extensive Bob’s Red Mill section. I also stocked up on soy milk, which this time was from the German company Edeka (last time it was Korean Vegemil, and before that, soy milk from Costco’s own Kirkland’s brand; someone studying supply chains would have a field day here.) Then I caught a taxi home.
I decided to cook the black beans, instead of going across the street to get canned red kidney beans from China (which is the other option here) and found a Cuban black bean recipe online. Beans are not well known here, it seems, because they are not very easy to find; the Bob’s Red Mill beans have been the only dried beans I’ve seen here in Mongolia so far. I did a vegetarian chili cooking demonstration for the Hospitality students at MIU a couple of weeks ago, and some of the students were more enthusiastic than others. A few of them found it too spicy, even though I made the mild safe-for-Emma version; Mongolian food is very mild. So I also made the black beans mild, adding only garlic, onions, bell peppers, canned corn, cumin, paprika, oregano, black pepper, and salt, with a dash of apple cider vinegar at the end.
The dinner itself was fun. It was in the student kitchen in the basement of the dorm. The kitchen and laundry room were put in this year; they were adding them when we arrived in August. The basement has a small car park, and it’s also where we put our garbage, but on one side there is a glassed-in area that has large stainless steel tables for food prep, as well as a couple of tables and stools for sitting, a couple of sinks, and some cooking facilities. One of the big complaints from students who lived in the dorm last year was that they weren’t able to cook their own food, so at least the administration rectified that.
There were quite a few students there, and several of the faculty as well, including two other professors from my department who also live in the dorm. Professor Won, the founder of the department and the university’s vice president, lives up on the 7th floor, and Victor bagsh (bagsh means “teacher” and is how we are called) is staying here too, for the one month he is visiting from his home in Malaysia (he teaches the rest of his course online). As expected, there were a variety of meat dishes and quite a lot of rice. Some of my black beans got eaten, and one student complimented me on them. One of my Korean students brought mashed potatoes and a kind of corn bread/casserole (baked corn kernels in some dough) that was delicious.There was also a large bowl of mandarin oranges.
The highlight for Emma was some Oreo pancakes that a couple of students made. They mixed crushed Oreo cookies (without the filling, I think) into pancake mix, and served the results with chocolate sauce. They were delicious! Someone said they thought it was a Russian thing. One of the things I love about being here is the international food influences, and this was a great example. (Emma asked for Oreo pancakes this morning when I was making our usual Sunday morning pancakes, so I will have to try making them eventually.)
It was nice to talk with people in a more social setting, too. I am not a very social person, and gatherings like this one often exhaust me, but I enjoyed the chance to see people that I often run into in the elevator or hallway. After an hour or so, suddenly the group started thinning out, and dinner was pretty much over. So, that was our Thanksgiving in Mongolia. It was a hard one for me, because it followed soon after my friend Nancy’s death, but I was glad to have the camaraderie of my fellow dorm residents, and my daughter’s cheerful company as well. Plus, four more days of rest to look forward to.