This past Sunday, my neighbor and I held a Friendsgiving celebration set in our adjoining apartments. Neither of us has family nearby so we thought it would be fun to actually play host instead of that awkward non-relative guest at the kid’s table of someone else’s family’s house.
We encouraged people to bring a traditional dish that we could share with each other. In came trays of bright red tandoori chicken; Senegalese lamb and vegetable stew with peanut paste sauce from Maty’s African Cuisine; a whole smoked turkey from Detroit stalwart Turkey Grill.
This medley perfectely complemented the mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green beans, mac and cheese and crescent rolls that others brought. The dinner proved that Thanksgiving is just as much about cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie as it is pozole and stuffed grape leaves.
And it got me thinking about how other immigrants and PoC use this holiday season to honor both their family heritage and their Americanness through food.
So I asked a few of the night’s dinner guests, Tostada Magazine contributors and others in the food world to tell me about some of their favorite family food traditions during the holiday season.
Steffi Cao, Tostada Magazine contributor, University of Michigan communications major
In my family, Thanksgiving was never really about the history or the white colonization of America. It was commonly understood that adults had a day off work, and there was a general guideline of food involved: turkey, potatoes, pumpkins and greens. Oh, and it was supposed to be about being thankful and family or whatever. The rest was pretty much improvised and thus was born our Chinese American Thanksgiving.
Because often there was only part of our family living in America, the “extended family” idea was swapped out for family friends and community members. Chinese school friends, other families from the same province back in China, my aunt’s church study group members – you get the idea. We would congregate in our cousin’s home for mahjong and karaoke and talking loudly around the table, aunties bringing dishes that would all eventually find their way to the dinner table as sort of a potluck-style buffet.
Like many Asian family parties, the format was akin to Chinese New Years and Christmases. Uncles and older male cousins* would stay in the living room to watch football and loudly discuss politics, aunties would hang out in the kitchen and argue about who would do dishes, and everyone who did not have a mortgage to pay would be sent upstairs, where most little kids would simply pull out their devices and play in silence. The older cousins who were in college or high school – not quite adults, not quite children – would either lock themselves alone in a room or if we were already friends, hang out on our own. And, of course, there would always be one random white person who would ask what the food was before putting it on their plate, breaking the sacred rule of eating Chinese food at a family party: eat it first, ask later.
Like other Thanksgivings, the food was still very much a centerpiece of our Chinese American Thanksgiving. But again, the rules were definitely tampered with. The standards of turkey, potatoes, pumpkins and greens were there, but at some point, these instructions were most definitely tossed out the window. Yes, we had turkey, but the green beans were pan-fried Hunanese style, the potatoes were sometimes swapped out for cold glass noodles, and some auntie always brought fish (head and bones still intact, obviously, none of that filet business). The pumpkin pie was always store-bought, and we paired it with the traditional Chinese dessert – a platter of fruit, usually cantaloupes and melons and watermelon slices.
It used to embarrass me quite a bit, when other kids at school would talk about their cranberry sauce and casseroles, but now, I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without my hodgepodge of foods, fixing a plate and laughing as some aunt’s white Bible study friend looks at the eggplant with a certain degree of suspicion. Thanksgiving, to me, is my cousins hiding away from the older and younger kids, doing each others’ makeup and rolling my eyes at the unnecessarily loud volume of uncles two floors below screaming about affirmative action. Because although the practice of our Thanksgiving may be a little different from other families, the intent is still very much the same. Be thankful, keep your loved ones close, and eat good food that will stay in your memory for a very long time.
*Note: “Cousins” is a term used very loosely. By cousins, I mean these party attendees who were also Chinese. In the actual language, we address older boys and girls as sisters and brothers, but it doesn’t quite fit in English.
George Azar, chef/owner, Flowers of Vietnam
The grape leaves that we make are the Palestinian grape leaves. They’re served hot, that’s one thing that’s different, that and there’s meat in them. You make them in a pressure cooker, with tomatoes, lamb chunks, squash there, not really like a stew, but you put all together with Arabic 7 Spice, that’s one of the main spices that you recognize that’s super Palestinian.
My aunt who died recently was the matriarchal cook on my dad’s side. She made the best grape leaves, she was the OG. She used to babysit me and was a big influence on me with cooking.
Making stuffed grape leaves is super laborious. How many you make really depends on how many people come over, but I would say at least 50 people could pass through throughout the day, so…
I used to help hand roll them, sometimes others help out, too. It really depends on who ends up being a control freak in the kitchen. If my aunt doesn’t like the way you’re doing it though, she redo it and be like, ‘no, I got it, I got it.’”
Ederique Goudia, co-owner, (forthcoming) Gabriel Hall
Thanksgiving is the first holiday when it starts to get cool so in New Orleans where I’m originally from it becomes the perfect gumbo weather. It’s all about fellowship over a pot of gumbo. Even here in Michigan it was just something I always did even if it wasn’t something that’s traditional around here.
The matriarch in the family usually makes it. In my case, my mom would always make it and when my grandmother was alive she would always make it. Since I’ve been in Michigan I have made it, but since my mom moved here in July, I’ve literally not make a gumbo since then.
Making gumbo is a process because more than anything it’s all about the roux and the roux takes a really, really long time to get it right. You have to cook it really slow on low heat because it burns really easily. It can take over an hour, depending on how big of a roux you’re making, so that’s most challenging part to get that really dark, rich flavor.
The roux is equal parts flour and fat. For the fat, you can use bacon, oil, butter. My family usually uses oil. We also use chicken, smoked sausage, andouille sausage, smoked turkey necks and shrimp.
A couple more things, gumbo always tastes better the day after and it always goes with potato salad. A lot of people in Detroit don’t know that, but it’s a tradition where I’m from.
Nargis Hakim Rahman, writer, Feet In 2 Worlds/WDET food journalism fellow
Our family does not celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas in the traditional sense. However we get together because everyone is off from work and school and share a large meal.
This is one of the few times a whole halal turkey can be found easily. We usually get ours from Bishr Food & Poultry in Detroit. Our meal consists of Bangladeshi foods such as pulaw, mangsho aloo, shutki and tanga. We cook the turkey either Tandoori style or Chicken 65, with a blend of various chili peppers and spices. For the past few years, we have added cheesecake as a dessert. We enjoy spending quality time with our family during any and all holidays.
Brittany Hutson, Tostada Magazine contributor, Feet In 2 Worlds/WDET food journalism fellow
In my family, our Thanskgiving must haves are: Greens (which could be just collard greens or a variation of collards, kale, and/or mustard greens, cooked with ham hocks and/or bacon and potatoes); baked mac and cheese; mashed potatoes; sweet potato pie.
There’s usually a turkey and ham, and from the old folks — my grandfather loved chitterlings (aka chitlins) and my grandmother loved candied yams.
In my home, the husband loves Parker House yeast rolls
Some other traditions, someone always has to run to the grocery store in the middle of the day to pick up something for the meal, and everybody else has to wait for them to come back. Oh, and eating late (after 5 p.m.)!
Elias Khalil, co-owner La Feria Spanish Tapas Restaurant
For Friendsgiving, I brought a Senegalese dish called maafe, which is a meat and vegetable stew made with a peanut paste sauce served over white rice. I brought it from Maty’s African cuisine on Grand River. I used to live in Senegal so fell in love with the cuisine.
Steven Alvarez, assistant English professor, St. John’s University, Queens
Pozole for Thanksgiving, and also a side of frijoles, because that’s every day anyway, and always tortillas de harina, and Hatch, New Mexico green chiles… Arizona holidays.
There are obviously myriad ways that families honor this American holiday in their own special way. Tell us, what are some of your favorite dishes?
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Serena Maria Daniels
Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.
Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!