It Started With That Free Turkey–in Fifth Grade

The phone rang. “Joy, how long do you cook a turkey?” It was eleven-year-old Dzenaela. It was the evening before Thanksgiving several years ago.

“It depends on how much it weighs.” I grabbed a cookbook. Dzenaela’s mother gets a frozen turkey every year from her employer.

“How do I weigh it?”

“Check the bag it came in,” I told her. “It’ll tell how many pounds it is. Is it thawed yet?” 

Dzenaela (pronounced Ja-nella), had arrived in Iowa as a darling, dark-eyed two-year-old with her parents. Samir and Zlatka came to our church in Des Moines with other Bosnian war refugees for English classes.

“Not yet, but I’ve got it in water in the sink. Mom works tomorrow but we’ve just got to have a real Thanksgiving turkey dinner.”

“What else are you having?”

“Stuffing. Gravy. What shall I have Dad get at the store?”

I listed onions, celery, chicken broth, sage and thyme.

“What’s sage and time? Oh, we need pumpkin pie, too. I’ going to eat some even if no one else does. It’s traditional.”

“Why don’t you just have your dad get one at the store? And get Cool Whip, too. Oh, and be sure to put the turkey in the refrigerator overnight to be safe.”

That night I worried about Dzenaela’s turkey getting thawed in time. And whether she could even figure out how long to cook it. So Thanksgiving morning my husband and I headed to their condo to check on things, carrying recipes and sage and thyme.

The turkey had thawed nicely and Dzenaela had located the pop-up thermometer on it. We set to work making a timetable–when to put the turkey in the oven, the stuffing casserole, and how to make gravy.

She got busy chopping celery and onions, making cubes of some of her mother’s chewy homemade Bosnian bread. She suspiciously sniffed the spices. “Oh, this smells like Thanksgiving! Joy, can’t you and Guy stay for my first turkey? Please, please?”

Dzeni’s dad Samir and Guy were visiting in front of the TV. When he learned that our family dinner wouldn’t be until the day after Thanksgiving, he said, “Come, come! Have American Thanksgiving with us.”

So we did.

But we came home first. I rustled up ingredients for mashed potatoes, scalloped corn, and a salad. By the time we arrived with our contributions, their condo smelled wonderful–just like Thanksgiving. Zlatka was home from work, helping her daughter find a bowl for the gravy.

When everything was ready, Dzenaela called everyone to the table. Two younger brothers had to tear themselves away from a video game.

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The fifth grade chef–2007.

“You made this?” kidded her father. “This is good.”

“Yup, my very first turkey.”

“What is this?” He was skeptical about the scalloped corn.

“Corn, crackers, eggs.”

“It’s good. You teach Dzenaela this. Okay? For next year.”

“Don’t forget to save room for pumpkin pie,” Dzenaela reminded us. “It’s traditional.”

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Zlatka (just home from work), Samir, Denis, Guy, Dzenaela, Adis. 2007

She was the only one in her fifth grade who had fixed her family’s Thanksgiving turkey.

Since that first one, she has always roasted the turkey. But in those days she’d planned to go into some kind of medicine, maybe nursing.

But her junior year in high school she took a culinary class. She was hooked.


Throughout her senior year, she took classes at the local community college and worked in a restaurant, especially enjoying the days she was assigned to the kitchen. Zlatka, my sister, and I drove up to the community college a couple of times when Dzenaela’s team planned, cooked, and served the lunch at the Ici Bistro.

DMACC Culinary Class, Ici Bistro. Dzenaela is third from left.
Culinary students. Ici Bistro ties.

She’s graduated from culinary classes and was hired full-time by her former employer. She’s even been hired away by another restaurant, promising her more pay and better working conditions.

Special chefs’ hats for gourmet meals. Culinary classmates at Des Moines Area Community College, 2016.

Last year, for her extended family–aunts, uncles, cousins, even her grandparents–Dzenaela fixed the entire Thanksgiving feast.

Her American specialty since fifth grade.

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Adis, Denis, Dzenaela, Samir, and Zlatka. More relatives and friends also enjoyed this feast. Des Moines, Iowa, 2018.

Eleven-minute story (Our American Stories) includes one about her younger brother Adis when he helped make side dishes a couple of years later.



  1. What a great story about a young lady and her love of cooking. It all started with you explaining to her how to cook a turkey. Great work there cousin.

    • What’s interesting is that I’ve probably cooked two turkeys in my whole life! She went on to get a job to pay for drivers ed, then to buy a car, and now she’s buying a house!

    • After that last dinner, there was leftover pumpkin pie for several days! I got the idea that cinnamon was a little-too-strange spice to them. But it wasn’t long before Denis, the youngest, was having seconds and thirds, with lots of Cool Whip!

    • Dzeni is still a go-getter. She even got me to take her to drama activities before school (junior high here starts at 7:30, so would have been a hour earlier), summer band, school carnivals, etc. She’s a beautiful little gal.

  2. Thanks Joy. This is heart warming, fun, loving and beautiful story about her helping her family embrace Thanksgiving…and finding her heart/passion for her career/life. You’ve talked proudly about them….now I see why. You have been a great gift of love to them; and they have returned it. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

    • Yes, they’ve returned it. Just heard from her mother yesterday, wondering how I’m doing. . . and what she can help me with. Denis is a senior in high school. Wow, they grew up fast.

  3. I love that she was so excited about cooking a TRADITIONAL Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve also known a couple of refugee families that have embraced their new culture and seem to appreciate it more than kids who have always lived here. In fact, tomorrow I’m getting together with a family from Iraq to celebrate that all four of them are American citizens now! They worked and studied so hard, and I am so proud of them. (I’m giving them an American flag as a “congratulations!” gift. 🤫)

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