Sixty years ago, as a college student, I spent Thanksgiving on the island of Quemoy off Formosa (as Taiwan was still called) eating Taiwanese turkey with Taiwanese generals, William F. Buckley, Jr. and chopsticks.
Present-day college students — or even their parents — may not have heard of Quemoy — or its twin island, Matsu — until now. Or even Buckley, the highly articulate founder of modern conservatism, for that matter.
Xi Jinping has been taking a hard and measured look at President Biden and our Department of State since last March when the Chinese Communist Party had Andrew Blinken and Jake Sullivan all but kowtowing to the CCP’s foreign affairs chief, Yang Jiechi, at a summit in Anchorage, Alaska.
“The United States has miscalculated and only reflects the vulnerability and weakness inside the United States,” Yang told our secretary of state and national security advisor after they chastised China’s new assertiveness in the South China Sea. Biden’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan and border policy have only added to Xi’s perception of our weakness.
In addition to the retaking of Hong Kong, the Hypersonic missiles that the CCP has been testing without our knowledge, now we learn of full-scale models of ships in our naval fleet being used for practicing an invasion of Taiwan. With Biden’s and his administration’s recent sloppy answers about strategic ambiguity vs strategic clarity will the United States honor the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act? Are we about to witness the start of another world war?
Focus now is no longer on the heavily fortified islands of Quemoy and Matsu, 114 miles off Taiwan and eight miles off the mainland — that have played an important part in shaping Chinese-American foreign policy on China for the past seven decades and in keeping communist China at bay — but on the tiny Pratas/Dongsha. One hundred and seventy miles from Hong Kong, this flat atoll with only 500 Taiwanese soldiers defending it, would be easy to subdue and test the extent Washington will go to defend Taiwan.
Since 1949, when the Nationalist army, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled the mainland for Taiwan, after Mao Zedong won the Chinese civil war, both Beijing and Taipei have claimed the islands. Quemoy and Matsu, no longer the bulwark against China’s overt aggression towards Taiwan, are mere tourist attractions.
I’ve been wondering what Buckley would have to say now about the dangerous pickle the United States finds itself in thanks to this feckless, ignorant administration. Would he utter a charmingly, glib, off-the-cuff toast, “To Chinese and American chopstick diplomacy” before sipping Quemoy’s powerful, homegrown eau-de-vie six decades ago?
I was seated across from Buckley at this extraordinary Chinese banquet featuring Taiwanese turkey — not Peking duck — and had picked up the chopsticks instead of a fork. Taiwan was putting it all out for the Americans, who, hopefully, would return to the States, armed with a unique vision of Taipei’s claim of the “legitimate China.”
In 1979, I reminded Buckley from my desk in Lausanne, Switzerland of that Thanksgiving feast and the wink he gave me as I picked up my chopsticks. I was asking him for an interview for the International Herald Tribune for which I was the Swiss features correspondent. Buckley had a chalet in Rougement, near Gstaad, where he spent two months every winter skiing, writing, painting with David Niven and jawing with his many famous friends. John Kenneth Galbraith, James Mason, Charley Chaplin, and Monegasques, Rainier and Grace, among them. What a story that would make.
Quemoy and Matsu were heavily bombarded in 1955 and again in 1958 by the People’s Republic of China in attempts to scare Taipei into submission. The United States and China nearly came to blows over the small islands, as the Eisenhower administration worried that the surrender of any Taiwanese territory would have such a demoralizing effect on the Republic of China that the regime of Chiang Kai-shek would collapse. It hadn’t worked.
Buckley had been the most articulate opposition voice in the 1970s and 1980s to those in Washington who wanted to engage Beijing, in Nixon’s and Kissinger’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy, even if it meant losing Taiwan.
I only knew of his best-seller, God and Man at Yale, published in 1951, just after Buckley graduated from Yale. In it he took his alma mater to task for removing God from the university’s syllabus. Buckley was a fervent Catholic.
I was taking a gap year from college to study in twenty-seven countries around the globe with eighteen other college students.We studied at local universities and stayed with families who had college-aged students. In Taiwan I stayed with Walter and Laura Fei and their daughter, Silvia. Walter was Chiang Kai-shek’s transport minister. The Fei’s had fled mainland China with the nationalists. Walter was a Harvard graduate and Laura went to Wellesley. They were part of the Chiang’s pro- American inner circle. I remained in contact with the Fei’s for many decades.
I had this plum berth because my father had been a war correspondent with the OWI (Office of War Information) in China during World War Two. During my interview at Time, Inc. for a place in this exceptional study abroad, I mentioned that my mother had been a reporter for FYI, Time, Inc.’s house organ. That also helped. Henry Luce, one of Time, Inc’s founders, was raised in China by missionary parents and was a well-known supporter of the Chiangs.
I grew up with a romantic view of China, starting when my father returned from the war with a trunk-full of gifts for me, my sister and my mother. My favorite gift was my father’s delightful, illustrated letters he sent me and my sister while overseas. And ivory chopsticks. By the age of five, I was a deft hand at wielding the ubiquitous utensils when my father made his fabulous Chinese banquets. He had a Cantonese assistant while in China, whose job, other than carrying my father’s equipment, was to teach him how to cook Cantonese.
Usually our study group was given a two-week itinerary before flying to a new country. The two weeks in Taiwan were different; we were living day to day. Our whereabouts were kept under wraps as the United States was involved in another tug-of-war over the Two Chinas Policy.
One day, we met Mme. Chiang at her orphanage, outside of Taipei. The stunning wife of the president/generalissimo also went to Wellesley. She was one of the three Soong sisters, who played influential roles in politics, economy and history of modern China. One married H.H. Kung, China’s richest man. Another married Sun Yat-sen, China’s first president. Laura Fei and Mme. Chiang were close friends. It was Laura who arranged the orphanage visit. I found out after the trip to Quemoy, that she also had been consulted on what to serve Americans at the Thanksgiving banquet. Apparently, turkeys were considered a delicacy and often reserved for honored guests.
Early Thanksgiving morning, we students and our three professors were bused to a military airport and stuffed into a DC 3, outfitted for civilian use. The only other passengers were Bill and Pat Buckley — he, dressed in a preppy rumpled suit (funny to me as I thought of his famously elegant prose); she (who often made New York’s best-dressed list), in a stylish red suit that had me wondering if the color was a rare fashion faux pas, given the reason for the visit.
Once seated and strapped into heavy seat belts, we were shown how to put on the life jackets under each seat. We were going to Quemoy, flying at very low altitude to avoid mainland radar. I held my breath during the forty-five minute flight as the plane skimmed the white caps of the Formosa Straits.
We were met at the small airport by English-speaking military, who drove us around the island for two hours, pointing out the fortifications with guns aimed at the mainland. One stop was fitted out with high-powered telescopes through which we could see the faces of the PRC soldiers looking back at us. We were allowed to photograph the fisherman on beaches and the mainland in the distance, but not the fortifications or the military escort.
At midday, we were ushered through heavy doors into a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was a large reception room, decorated with the American and Taiwanese flags. Ten round tables were carefully set with white damask cloths, napkins, chopsticks and shot glasses.
After the toasts, lovely blue and white porcelain bowls of rice were placed at each setting. We were politely shown how to pile on shredded turkey from a porcelain platter in the middle of a large lazy Susan and encouraged to add sauce and condiments from bowls surrounding the main platter. It was delicious. My fellow students thought so, too — some getting pleasantly pissed from the potent, local potable.
From time to time, if I’ve got leftover turkey, I’ve made Taiwanese turkey rice, remembering an extraordinary Thanksgiving among old friends from another time and place.
Taiwanese leftover turkey rice
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Shred 3lbs leftover cooked turkey breast
1 tbsp, plus 1 ½ tsp kosher salt
5 scallions, trimmed, halved
1 (2”) piece of ginger, peeled, sliced ¼” thick
8 whole star anise
¼ cup turkey stock
Cooked white rice
½ cup high-quality lard, turkey, duck or goose fat
16 shallots (about 12 oz), shaved on a mandoline or very thinly sliced
1 head of garlic
¼ cup michiu (Taiwanese rice wine) or sake
¼ cup light soy sauce
¼ cup sugar
2 tsp freshly ground white pepper
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Spread turkey in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle stock over, cover tightly with foil. Cook in oven until warmed through (about 15 minutes).Heat lard in a medium saucepan over medium-low. Add shallots and cook, stirring often until softened into a single layer, then continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 20-25 minutes total. (Shallots will crisp as they cool).
Drain shallots in a fine mesh sieve set over heatproof bowl. Transfer shallots to paper towels to drain; set aside. Heat shallot fat in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring often until fragrant and just starting to color (about 5 minutes). Add michiu, soy sauce, sugar, 2 tsp white pepper and reserved three cups chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is reduced by half and glossy (about 25 minutes). Taste and add up to 2½ tsp. more white pepper if needed.
To serve: Place rice in large bowls and pile turkey over. Spoon 2-3 tbsp sauce and reserved shallots over each bowl.