When Thanksgiving Comes to Afghanistan

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Aryn Baker for TIME

A Thanksgiving dinner in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Our three turkeys arrived today, shrink-wrapped in red, white and blue plastic. Our Afghan staff handled the packages gingerly, unsure what to make of our enthusiasm for frozen food. When they buy turkey from the local market, it usually comes body-temperature, fresh from slaughter. Also in the goody-bag was a ham, contraband in this Muslim nation, but for me a Thanksgiving staple. It was crying out to be scored, studded with cloves, slathered with honey and mustard and slowly roasted. A friend with connections to the American military food supply business had been good to us this year. I am already looking forward to the leftovers — if there are any.

For the past four years, my friends and I have made it a tradition to host a typical Thanksgiving feast at our home in Kabul. As a former chef, I often look at the world through a lens of food. With friends it's how I communicate love and affection. With strangers, it's how I find common ground. To me, grocery shopping in a foreign country has always been the best way to learn about a place, and putting on a feast for friends has been a great excuse to comb the markets. What started as a modest affair has grown in size: two years ago we served 70 and covered our front lawn with a tent usually reserved for Afghan weddings. The Kabul expatriate community is a close one, and most of us have been here for years. You can't turn family away at Thanksgiving, no matter how big the guest list.

Each year, too, we try to outdo ourselves with ever more ambitious offerings. Last year we produced a turducken — a southern classic consisting of a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken stuffed with oysters. We couldn't find oysters so we substituted frozen shrimp miraculously procured from the local fishmonger. Two years ago we encased one of the turkeys in clay and roasted it over coals for several hours. The result was extraordinary — fall-off-the-bone tender, but with a crispy skin. This year, Turkey a la Istalif, so named after the pottery village where the clay comes from, will be making a comeback.

Over time, we have become inventive foragers. Local wild mushrooms are a good substitute for porcinis in our cornbread stuffing. Market pumpkins roasted, peeled and pureed taste better than anything out of a can, and when mixed with maple syrup make an excellent pie. The syrup, in single serve packs, can be found at the "Bush Bazaar," named for the former President, an open-air market on the edge of town that specializes in goods pilfered from trucks heading to the U.S. military bases. It's a good place to pick up military ration packs as well — the vegetarian menus number 12 and 19 come with sachets of dried cranberries that can be rehydrated with orange juice and chopped with local walnuts to make a tasty relish. We also plan ahead. This morning a co-chef arrived from Germany with a suitcase stuffed with slabs of bacon and cheese; another friend brought chorizo from a European vacation; and on a recent trip back from the states I was charged overweight baggage for pecans and bottles of real vanilla extract.

But this year is likely to be the last of a tradition that has sustained us, far from family, for many holidays. Already the guest list has come down in size as old friends leave Afghanistan, not because of the security situation but because of an overwhelming frustration with how development and reform has been so poorly conducted by both the Afghan government and its international partners. U.S. President Barack Obama's frequently leaked deliberations over his new Afghan strategy indicate to us here in Kabul that an exit strategy is being prioritized over a sustainable solution for a peaceful, stable future in Afghanistan. Those that haven't already left plan to do so in the coming months. These are people who came to Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, lured not by money but a determination to do well by this country that had been so long neglected. They started businesses, only to see them fail because of the endemic corruption. They launched NGOs, only to see funding dry up because of apathy back home. They came with hope, but leave with despair. With them they take years of knowledge and experience that can never be replaced. Few of us can look to the future of this country with an expectation that things will improve before they get worse.

For many, last month's attack on a U.N. guesthouse was the final straw. Not because suddenly, as foreigners, we felt ourselves to be targets. No, it was the decision to pull all U.N. staff out of their private guesthouses and force them to live in massive walled-off compounds far from the city center. Overnight, 93 guesthouses were closed down, meaning 93 families suddenly deprived of rental income, and thousands of employees — cooks, cleaners, drivers and guards — without a salary.

For years the expatriates in Kabul considered themselves above their contemporaries in Baghdad. We shopped in the markets and mixed with Afghan friends. We drove freely through the city and flew kites on Friday afternoons. Yes, there were the occasional kidnappings or rocket attacks, but never did we feel antipathy from our Afghan hosts. The new expatriates moving in, usually as part of big contracting firms, are increasingly being funneled into isolated compounds surrounded by razor wire and concrete blast walls. They shop at PXs, not local markets. They go out in armored convoys that cause traffic jams. And the only Afghans they meet are hand selected. Of course there are security reasons for doing this. The Taliban insurgency has grown stronger. But this new isolationism will only make things worse. With limited interaction between expatriates and Afghans, misunderstandings will increase. If foreigners are not part of the local economy, they are more likely to be considered occupiers. They will become the equivalent of my imported turkeys — shrink wrapped, frozen and alien to the people they came here to help.

So this Thursday, when our friends gather around our laden table, one essential ingredient will be missing from our Kabul Thanksgiving tradition: feverish debate on what it will take to make things better in Afghanistan. Many of the debaters have left; others have simply given up trying.