In Which I order Two 25 Kilo Turkeys in Cairo, Egypt

We did our shopping on the weekend. The turkey, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, jello (you must have jello) and so much more. As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I  never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin.  I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn.

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Share your story in the comment section! 

16 thoughts on “In Which I order Two 25 Kilo Turkeys in Cairo, Egypt

  1. I have always loved cooking turkeys ever since I started after we were married. Granted, finding turkeys big enough and for a decent price in Japan was always the challenge for me! I have cooked turkey for 60 people much to the delight of our Japanese guests who have never ever seen a whole chicken roasted. But my favorite turkey story is a smuggling story. When I was pregnant with Stephanie, Tom and I flew to Pak to visit mom and dad for Christmas. We decided to take a turkey with us, turkeys being rare in that place. It was frozen, packed in newspaper and styrofoam and all duck taped up! We figured it wouldn’t defrost before we arrived. I was so afraid customs in Islamabad was going to steal my turkey that I was seriously tempted to lie! I think we got away with saying it was meat for our family! Can you imagine what they might have thought if they had opened my box!


  2. My husband and I will be at work on Thanksgiving this year – he works for the Korean government and I teach at a German school – neither of them have holidays on American Thanksgiving – go figure! We will be celebrating on Friday evening with other American expats from our community at a restaurant – none of us here in Seoul has a big enough oven to cook a turkey in!
    Will enjoy myself tomorrow teaching little German kids about our ‘foreign’ American traditions – and show them how to make a turkey by tracing their hands!


    1. I love this – it brought back so many reminders of not having the day off – of business as usual and then a feast after. I had forgotten the hand tracing turkeys that used to adorn our house as Thanksgiving decorations….thanks for that reminder!


  3. As a lover of both mathematics and other cultures, this blog post just made my day! This was such a wonderful reminder that while my time overseas has been short, I have a unique and treasured opportunity to help dear friends here who are trying to navigate through our confusing American world as they walk through their 25 kilo turkey moments. I hope we can be examples of humility and grace as we learn together.


    1. Tina – I have a great idea! When you start teaching again you can have your students do a new math problem. “Mrs. Gardner ordered 2 25 kilo turkeys. How many pounds of turkey are her guests get to eat?” I love that you are a part of the lives of new comers. You and Erik are so gifted at that. Happy Thanksgiving.


  4. I’m so glad I’m not alone…I’ve never cooked a turkey either but I bought one this year… It was on sale for 88 cents a pound…cheap meat! How hard can it be?? But I have to confess…I’m really nervous! And reading this post and these comments isn’t necessarily comforting!!


    1. Be nervous….be very nervous! No really – I found it was so much easier than I made it out to be. For me it works best if you use a roasting bag. Seems to be really tender then. You will live to blog about it, I guarantee. Happy Thanksgiving lovely. I am so grateful for you!


  5. I remember the first year we were in Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, the capitol. Mom went down to the docks and negotiated with a shipper from New Zealand asking that he bring her the biggest turkey he could find for her as we were having 13 people at our table for Thanksgiving. They worked out the details, and as mom was leaving she paused and said, “You know… I want it to be juicy. Better make that a Hen.” The shipper paused and said, “Lady… you just asked me for a turkey. Now you want a hen? One hen won’t feed that many people.”

    Mom went on to explain “Just make sure its not a Tom. A Hen has a larger thicker breast and will taste better.” The shipper just stared. Finally, mom suggested “a female turkey”… to which the shipper said “Madame…how, pray tell, will I know? By its pink booties?”

    Apparently it is only in the States that you can request the gender of the fowl…


    1. I read this earlier and am still chuckling. I’d no idea that you can request the gender of the fowl…..WOW! And my favorite part is the picture you give of the shipper staring in disbelief and the final word on the pink booties. Great story.


  6. Bill went to the market in Krasnodar, Russia with the mission to buy the largest turkey he could find. I was so pleased when he came home with a 17 kilo turkey! It was massive! Since we did not have a butterball I went ahead and stuffed under the skin with huge amounts of butter. I put in all the seasonings and promptly put it in the oven. Well…I did not realize that a 30+ pound turkey could not fit into a tiny Russian oven, until the smoke began pouring out of the crack that I had to leave open because I could not close the door! I poured baking soda on the fire and pulled the turkey out. I cut it in half and cook half a turkey then and the other half while we ate. The turkey had a nice smoky flavor! Great memories.

    Thanks for sharing your story! I love it!


    1. Love this story – large turkey stories must run in the family! I learned how to put an oven fire out with baking soda during those two years that we lived next to you in Winchendon on Hyde Park.


    1. Ha ha to both Janet and Petra – YOU women are the smart ones! Leave it to the pros sounds like a great plan (I say as I just spent 45 minutes getting a bird ready and in the oven) Love to both of you and wish you could share the fun.


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