“Orange potatoes with marshmallows?”
My mom couldn’t imagine it.
“But that’s what Americans eat, Mamko!”
I studied the storybook pictures of holidays, listened to what I heard at school and totally drove my poor mom crazy asking her to create a real, American Thanksgiving.
That year, my Czech-born mother made a glistening chicken, potato dumplings and spinach. That’s the best she could come up with. And it was delicious.
This is the immigrant Thanksgiving — a blend of old and new, a combination of cultural interpretations and scrappy ingenuity — usually spurred by insistent, sometimes bossy children longing to belong.
It is important, the meal. Because, for many immigrants, there were no cousins and grandparents and aunts nearby, no gathering after dinner to watch football.
Most of us understood little about the game.
So we had to do our best to fit in. And that meant making an American meal.
Let’s start with the turkey.
During the industrial age, some manufacturers began giving out turkeys as a way to introduce immigrants to the American tradition of Thanksgiving, said Mitchell L. Moss, an urban policy professor at New York University.
But when some Asian families received their turkeys, they turned them down, said Victoria Siu, an MRI technologist in Charlottesville, Virginia, who vividly remembers her family’s first Thanksgiving. “Or they chopped it up. They’re not familiar with it.”
But her dad, a Hong Kong-trained classic Chinese chef, loved the challenge. He cooked it Peking-style, like a duck.
“It was sizzling, succulent, crispy,” said Siu, whom I met when her brother married my husband’s cousin several years ago. “He knows how to make food.”
They were a little fuzzy on the side dishes, though. So they went to the store and assembled things they could afford that looked American.
Thus the first Siu Thanksgiving — eaten on a board over two pickle buckets in an apartment in Philadelphia 1983 — included bologna and coleslaw, too.
Sure, many immigrants continue celebrating the holiday traditions of their home countries- tamales at Christmas, boeber for Eid al-Fitr, pierogi for Easter, macaroons for Passover, mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
But Thanksgiving? It’s nonreligious, nonpolitical — hopefully — and like America, adaptable.
And it’s my favorite holiday for exactly that reason.
“The appeal of Thanksgiving is based on its lack of any direct connection to an official government event, to any specific organized interest group or theology,” Moss said. “Simply put, it is a holiday that is based in the home, tied to food we do not often eat, such as turkey, and which brings people together — a task that is increasingly difficult in this Internet era.”
The myth of the first Thanksgiving is dubious, for sure. And I’ve spoken with Native Americans who understandably find great pain in the way the story of that holiday is told.
But today, the efforts immigrants have put into making themselves a part of the American tradition is almost like a rite of passage to full citizenship.
Turkey stuffed with noodles and Asian mushrooms, meatloaf, turkey stew, coleslaw, spinach, curry, kebabs, kimchi, lumpia and pierogi have all graced the tables of my first-generation or new immigrant friends whose families dove into this strange, new tradition.
Francis Gortaire, who came from Ecuador with her family almost 20 years ago, got together with her sister to create a Thanksgiving meal when they were new immigrants. They found a Boston Market hack recipe for sweet potato casserole, because no one knew how to make that. And they did meatloaf instead of turkey.
Or there’s my friend who came to America from Vietnam. Her family stuffed their turkey with chopped vermicelli noodles and sliced Asian mushrooms. Which sounds way better to me than any Stove Top stuffing.
A Pakistani friend had biryani and chutney instead of mashed potatoes and cranberries.
My Polish friend’s family obliged with the turkey, but they also had pierogi, hunter stew and polish sausage.
A lot of other Central and Eastern Europeans I knew, who were unfamiliar with turkey, went with a goose or duck.
My family eventually started doing turkey instead of chicken, though my mom never gave in on the sweet potatoes.
While the turkey seems to be a constant that most families adopt there is a common thread in this holiday that binds us even tighter: gratitude.
I love the way Siu’s family tackled that part of it.
“[My mom] worked out the translation, and with that, [we were] able to acknowledge the purpose of Thanksgiving, to say we’re thankful,” Siu said.
So they went around the pickle bucket table and listed the things they were thankful for. “We had a roof over our head, we had clothes, we were safe, we were in this country,” she said.
It is the perfect holiday that unites all of us in the most universal — and necessary — of sentiments, no matter what food is on the table.