The Commissary: A Thanksgiving Blessing

This weekend we celebrated our first Thanksgiving in Casablanca. Having invited our friends the Chbany family to join us for their first Thanksgiving ever, we wanted to give them a good, down-home, traditional American Thanksgiving experience. But how to do that in Morocco? Lots of planning, good research, a bit of luck, and membership at THE COMMISSARY!

When we first arrived in Casablanca last summer, we heard from veterans at our school about “The Commissary” as a if it were a wonderland of delicacies. Images of a Moroccan Wonkaland, where every fantasy about food you miss from back in the States comes true, began to form in our heads.

[Cue Gene Wilder: Hold your breath / Make a wish / Count to three / Come with me / And you’ll be / In a world of / Pure imagination / Take a look / And you’ll see / Into your imagination…]

Because our school is one of five in Morocco affiliated with the U.S. Department of State, U.S. employees have the opportunity to join The Commissary connected to the U.S. Embassy in Rabat. Just an hour’s drive north from Casablanca, we envisioned a Costco-like membership that would let us wheel a pallet through warehouse aisles and get industrial-sized containers of all our American hearts could desire that we cannot otherwise find in our daily Moroccan life. While at the residence of Casablanca’s U.S. Consul General in August for an American school mixer, after Brian lamented to the CG – who hails from New Orleans – that he would miss making gumbo with Tasso and andouille sausage, she told him she can special order them through The Commissary when she makes jambalaya. Hope, hope. Drool, drool.

But then we started getting a more realistic scoop that dashed our culinary dreams. One administrator told us, “Yeah, The Commissary is good to have, but it is really not Sam’s Club or Costco…more like an over-glorified 7-Eleven.”

Hmmm, should we join? Is it worth it? Driving all the way to Rabat just for 7-Eleven?

Ultimately, we decided to give it a try for a year and then decide whether to renew. If nothing else, we thought, at least we might be able to get Thanksgiving supplies.

And so began our wait. We submitted our application back in September and were told we would get our membership card in a few weeks. September went, October followed, and we had no card. October went, November followed, and still we had no card. With Thanksgiving approaching quickly, we asked the person in charge of sending our application to The Commissary when we might finally get to start using our membership. In early-November we went to Rabat for Charlotte’s MASAC (Morocco American Schools Athletic Conference) volleyball tournament – which her team won, becoming national champs! – and had no membership card to get us into The Commissary while we were in town.

Like so many things in Morocco, like getting a bank account and obtaining residency papers, this was a test of patience. As Thanksgiving drew nearer on the calendar, we were able to build our menu. We ordered a hefty 8.5 kilo turkey through the school kitchen (to be picked up fresh the day before Thanksgiving). Of all unlikelihoods, we found Rome apples (that Brian likes to use for pies) with Zwil, the proprietor of our favorite Souk in the CIL. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, fresh bread from Amoud Patisserie, all no problem. But Audrey had to search for some way to mimic Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and French’s Onions for the Green Bean Casserole that Charlotte demanded, we had no idea how we would roast our huge turkey, and staples like stuffing and cranberry sauce did not seem likely to make it to the table. We had plans to make Thanksgiving happen, just not as completely as we would have liked.

Then, finally, a week before Thanksgiving, we got word that our membership card was ready for us to pick up in Rabat. The timing could not have been better, as we were abandoning Charlotte on her “Sweet 16” birthday weekend to attend the U.S. Embassy’s 241st Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

If only it were that easy.

Asking at school for The Commissary’s address, we were told folks did not have the actual address, but they could show us where it was on a Google map. So it was, and we starred the spot for easy location once we got a to Rabat. Sure enough, despite having a spot starred on a Google map, it was impossible to find. Buildings all around, and nothing looking like a commissary, a Costco, or even a 7-Eleven. About to give up, and figuring the star had been misplaced on the map, we made a final desperation call to the friend who had marked our map. She walked us around by phone until we found the unmarked gate, and she told us what to tell the guard to gain entry. Going through the gate with a burst of excitement, sounds of Gene Wilder floated through the air again while walking across the compound toward the entrance.

[We’ll begin / With a spin / Traveling in / The world of my creation / What we’ll see / Will defy / Explanation]

And then, going through the door, at long last, with no Oompa-Loompas, THERE IT WAS…an über 7-Eleven. A 7-Eleven to beat all 7-Elevens. Not merely because it had a few more aisles than a regular 7-Eleven would have, but because the stocking selection was almost exactly what we were looking for. Coasting with a shopping cart easily, not hurriedly, through the aisles allowed for genuine discernment over what would have the most positive impact on our limited budget, limited car space to transport back to Casablanca, and limited storage space in our apartment once we got back home.

We picked up some staples we cannot find in Casablanca’s stores (brown sugar, 409 cleaner, Log Cabin syrup, black beans, Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce, and NyQuil tabs); some general splurgee things (Rold Gold pretzel sticks, maraschino cherries, Pop Secret microwave popcorn, Tostitos, and CHEESE CRACK – aka Tostitos Salsa con Queso); and some Charlotte splurgee things as supplemental birthday presents for her (several four-box packs of Kraft Mac&Cheese, Hot Cheetos, Fritos, various Classico pasta sauces, and more) since we were returning home on her actual 16th birthday.

But the real jackpot was the seasonal supply of Thanksgiving items. On one end cap there were cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. Down the next aisle was a stack of French’s Onions canisters. Next to that, boxes of Stovetop Stuffing. On another end cap, Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce. Further on, a large disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan and more baking pans perfect for Green Bean Casserole and sweet potatoes. They even had Crisco sticks for Brian’s pie crust so that he did not have to substitute butter for it in the traditional family pie crust recipe. After a 2500 MAD ($250) shopping spree, in Moroccan style a clerk wheeled our cart out to the car and loaded up our bounty. It was a good day.

That good day then helped make possible another good day as we celebrated Thanksgiving with our friends. The Chbanys have adopted us into their family, hosting us for the wonderful cultural experience of a traditional Moroccan dinner a couple times and inviting us to attend a Moroccan wedding with them. We were happy to reciprocate with a traditional American Thanksgiving to return the cultural exchange favor. Welcoming them into our apartment, we explained our extended family tradition of laying out the food and having everyone fix their own plates buffet style. We told them how we had considered serving them at the table as honored guests, but instead opted for the more informal style befitting family, and they were touched. Before eating, Brian gave a brief telling of how the first Thanksgiving came to be. Then we kept another family tradition of going around the table so that everyone could share something about which he or she is thankful, with Brian noting that though we brought two different branches of religion to our table, our prayers went to the same God. The Commissary was a Thanksgiving blessing, but one that paled in comparison to the blessing of sharing our first Thanksgiving in Morocco with good friends.

On your mark…get set…here we go!