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Thanksgiving From America’s Melting Pot

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 16, 2011

“This is how the Americans do it,” my grandmother would say as she laid the marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes on the table.

Sittau, which means “grandma” in Arabic, was the first of her six brothers and sisters to be born in the U.S. rather than Syria, the family’s first “real” American. Yet, Americans were still “other” to her, an elusive tribe she aspired to join, whose ways were to be carefully studied and appropriated.

Enter the Thanksgiving feast. Because she only cooked “American” once a year, it wasn’t much to look forward to. Those potatoes were mushy and cloying. The turkey was like carpet fiber. And the only one who really enjoyed it was my other grandmother, who was of Irish descent and therefore used to eating overcooked poultry. But the meal was Sittau’s declaration that she belonged, and an instruction to her children on how to become unimpeachable patriots.

And Sittau wasn’t alone. Starting in the late 19th century, Thanksgiving was seen as a way to “Americanize” new immigrants. Schoolchildren of all backgrounds were kitted out in pilgrim hats, and sent home with glorified tales of the Pilgrim Fathers’ heroism and instructions to preach the gospel of turkey and cranberry dressing, says food historian Sandra Oliver, co-author of Giving Thanks, a history of the holiday. “It was a way of teaching people how to be American,” she said.

And then the most American thing of all happened: The meal was changed and adapted. As it spread south, it picked up cornbread and sweet potatoes. As it went west, it took on seasonal ingredients such as artichokes, and regional flavors such as masa and chilies. And when it reached tables like Sittau’s, its staples took their place alongside the things we already knew as celebration foods — the neatly cut carrot-and-celery crudites (boring!) sidling up to kibbeh nayeh (Middle Eastern lamb tartare), the pumpkin pie sitting primly next to diamond-shaped pieces of baklava.

Americans come from more than 125 countries, according to Census figures, which makes for exponential variations on the holiday meal. Turkey replaced the usual holiday lamb-on-a-spit for chef Michael Psilakis, whose parents came from Greece, but it wasn’t Thanksgiving without lasagna-like pastitsio. Chef David Chang, who serves Asian-inflected American food at his Momofuku restaurants in New York, remembers mashed potatoes and mounds of sweet-spicy Korean short ribs.

And television chef and cookbook author Marcela Valladolid, who grew up commuting between Tijuana and San Diego, has integrated her holiday feast in the same way she has integrated her cultural identities. Rather than offering turkey alongside tamales, she glazes the bird with chili-spiked apricot, roasts her Brussels sprouts in morilla cream and adds chipotle to the squash. Ditto for chef Floyd Cardoz, who brings the flavors of his native India to the table with a chili-and-black-pepper rubbed turkey, cornbread stuffing tossed with the pork sausage, vinegar, pepper, cloves and cinnamon that define the cooking he knew from summers in Goa.

The most literal expression of Thanksgiving’s embrace of all of the country’s traditions, though, has to be in Hawaii. In the islands, where I lived for several years, every party is a potluck, with Japanese ramen, Korean kalbi, Portuguese pao doce, and spam musubi (which claims no specific heritage) all holding court on the same table. But on Thanksgiving, this potluck often starts in an imu, a communal underground oven.

One year I rubbed my turkey with za’atar spice and pomegranate molasses and drove it over the mountains to a community center, where it was lowered onto the hot rocks along with everyone else’s turkey: Next to mine were turkeys stuffed with Chinese lap cheong sausage, with Japanese mochi rice and salted plums; one was dressed with a vinegar-garlic marinade like a Portuguese vinha d’alhos. In the imu, my turkey took on the flavors of the smoke and of the ti leaves and picked up the soy, salt and porky flavors all around it, until I couldn’t tell which flavors I’d brought and which had come from the turkeys around mine.

Sittau used her Thanksgiving turkey and sweet potatoes to claim her place as an American. Decades later, my brothers and I do the opposite: The turkey we take for granted, but the kibbeh and grape leaves, the string cheese and baklava — these are items we wheel out only a couple of times a year. And only when we’re together. They are our way of remembering how our journey to America began, and of giving thanks to the family that brought us here. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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