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Giving thanks in Galilee

IT was early October, and nights in the Galilee were still warm and dry when I began thinking about turkeys and Thanksgiving. There were 40 of us Yankees on the kibbutz, and we'd clearly need two very large or three medium-sized birds. My friend David was assistant to the supplies manager in the kitchen, who knew a farmer near Nazareth who raised fowl and would sell us what we needed. The manager also agreed to special-order mushrooms and squash, raisins, yams, and sweet cream for us. But we had to find the nuts and cranberries ourselves. The nuts were no problem. I had an appointment to cut Stephen's hair on Wednesday. He usually paid me in olive oil, a dear commodity he procured during his monthly visits to Haifa. This time I'd ask him for a pound of walnuts instead.

The cranberries were more difficult. David had heard that a kibbutz in the north raised them, but I was skeptical. Israel went to a lot of trouble to drain the swamps that cranberries cherish.

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What about canned berries? I once found a jar of peanut butter in a dusty market in a small village in the interior of a Greek island off the Turkish coast. Who knows what unusual bounty had washed up on the local Mediterranean shores. David volunteered to scour the grocery stores of Haifa.

I had no trouble recruiting a cooking crew. The lure was a holiday afternoon in the kitchen, enveloped by smells of roasting turkey; time spent peeling vegetables and playing with dough en famille. And what a kitchen! The kibbutz feeds over 1,200 people three times a day. Stripped bare, that kitchen would have easily held a Bedouin wedding party or the 99th Congress. But it was never empty.

There were rows of stainless steel vats used to simmer sauces and boil rice, each mounted on two thick legs bolted to the concrete floor. With a crank, each vat could be tilted on its side to spill its load into an oversize colander, or to have its residue hosed into a drain cut into the floor beneath.

There were a half-dozen huge rectangular frying pans, 2 feet by 3 and 10 inches deep, filled with oil by pumping like a milkmaid from a large oil drum on a dolly. The ovens were stacked in tiers of three. And instead of refrigerators, there were two refrigerated rooms for butter and cheese, meat, and salads.

One wall of the kitchen was lined with sinks where young volunteers from Holland and Denmark scrubbed the pots and pans that couldn't go through the immense conveyor belt dishwasher, which occupied a room all its own.

Giant size in every way, the kibbutz kitchen was still homey. It was the cherished turf of two dozen elderly Polish women and their commandant, a tall, bald man named Moishe who had served in the Polish cavalry unit that attacked Nazi tanks in World War II.

After lunch on Thanksgiving Thursday, Moishe and his crew reluctantly surrendered their stools at the wide tables set between rows of sinks and ovens, and I put my people to work. Some of them chopped potatoes into steel bowls that sat on dollies for easy wheeling to pots of boiling water. Others minced mountains of garlic and parsley and scallions for the stuffing. Some rolled pastry dough into thin sheets for pumpkin pies and apple turnovers. Others made sure the rest of us had a steady supply of clean bowls, sharp knives, and hot coffee.

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I mothered a great crackling pan of fried mushrooms, buttered croutons, celery, onions, raisins, and nuts. David - who'd kept an all-night vigil with the turkeys, cooking them by the slow roast method - slumped in a chair nearby, and we dickered over the ratio of sage to thyme.

All afternoon curious kibbutzniks wandered into the kitchen to offer advice on the pies, sample my stuffing, and fight with David, who democratically refused each and every one a peek at the turkeys for fear that drafts would dry them out.

By 4 p.m., the white potatoes were mashed in a quart of cream, the gravy was bubbling in a vat, and every oven was full. We scrubbed the sinks so that the regular dinner cooks could begin the evening meal. As they reheated dumplings from lunch, we carried our golden birds off to the music room, where another team had set a long table with flowers and candles and baskets of peaches, pears, and dates picked from the kibbutz orchards.

We said a prayer in English and one in Hebrew, and wished blessings on our families who were just greeting the day on the other side of the world. We raised our glasses and David deftly slipped a carving knife into our Thanksgiving turkey. Nobody missed the cranberries.

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