Thanksgiving doesn't have to mean turkey. For Nigeria-born Yewande Komolafe, the holiday has meant lobster—a tradition from her husband's family—as well as Lane cake from Alabama and achaar she picked up from a dinner party in Brooklyn. Gonzalo Guzmán of San Francisco’s Nopalito and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen ditch the traditional protein, too, in favor of tamales and prime rib.
As Komolafe puts it, “It's been my experience that a holiday in America is like a recipe that everyone knows but that you don't really have to follow precisely.”
From Boris Fishman and Lior Lev Sercarz describing their first encounters with turkey, to Nik Sharma and Reem Kassis explaining their multicultural side dishes, some of our favorite chefs and food writers have shared with us what Thanksgiving looks like for them—memories that make an easy case for diverse approaches to America’s favorite food holiday.
Author, “Savage Feast”
For me, Thanksgiving will always be the day that my family arrived in the United States as political refugees from the former Soviet Union after a roundabout odyssey through Austria and Italy. In Italy, there had been diplomatic complications, our stipend was reduced, and we were reduced in turn to buying the cheapest meat we could find in the supermarket while greater powers than us determined our stateless future. It was a strange cut indeed, basically chicken wings on steroids. We certainly had no idea what kind of animal these wings attached to, but we ate them for lunch and dinner five times a week as we wondered what was to become us.
When we reached New York on November 23, 1988, there was a strange bird awaiting us on the dining table of the first friends to welcome us.
"What is that?" we said.
"It’s a turkey," they said. "It’s Thanksgiving."
They couldn’t say thanks from whom to whom and for what, but you had to eat that bird once a year if you wanted to be an American. But we couldn’t touch that bird. We had never seen one in our lives, but we finally understood whose anxiety-braised wings we had been eating for the previous month. It was a while before we touched a turkey, and a while more before we began to think of ourselves as Americans.
Author, “The Palestinian Table”
I grew up in Jerusalem, so my first experience with Thanksgiving only happened once I started college in the U.S. I was fascinated by the flavors and the mixing of sweet and savory in so many dishes, but the thing that has fascinated me most over the last 15 years has been the realization of how the quintessential American holiday becomes a canvas for immigrants to this country. This holiday is in a way itself a celebration of immigration to the U.S.
My favorite combination today is the traditional roast turkey that we stuff with a Palestinian stuffing called hashweh, which is a combination of rice, ground lamb, spices and pine nuts. It's American on the outside, Palestinian on the inside and a harmonious combination at that.
Chef and author, “Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen”
We don't celebrate Thanksgiving back in Mexico, and when I first came here, I was busy working a lot. So, the first time I celebrated Thanksgiving was four years ago, when I had the day off and wanted to spend it with my family. Instead of eating turkey, we had some ceviche, salsa, chips, tamales, along with a couple other Mexican dishes.
My most memorable Thanksgiving dinner was my first one after my immigration to America. I had a somewhat vague idea of what to expect, mostly centered around the Thanksgiving turkey, and I didn't know much about the sides. When it came time for dinner, for some reason the turkey was taking a really long time to cook. The host decided to put the sides out, and they were amazing. We had two different versions of mashed potatoes, three different versions of Brussels sprouts and so on because the host wanted to please all the different family members and guests. Other guests had also brought their own versions.
I thought that was fantastic, because there was one turkey, but you had all these different versions of different sides. And that has always stayed in my mind. Ever since then, I always focus more on the sides and less on the turkey when I host Thanksgiving at my house. Each year I changed the flavors around, so it's never the same. That's the fun part about Thanksgiving: You make it special. You change it up and make it your own.
Chef, writer and food stylist
I've learned a lot about adaptation from celebrating American holidays. I've been to Thanksgiving dinners where no one was related. I've been to Thanksgiving dinners where there was no turkey served. My husband's family, for example, has lobsters on Thanksgiving Day. It's been my experience that a holiday in America is like a recipe that everyone knows but that you don't really have to follow precisely.
For me, whether it's a Lane cake recipe I picked up from living in Alabama or some achaar that I had at a friend's Brooklyn dinner party, and I now keep a jar of it in my pantry, the holidays are about adding what I've learned over the course of years to the traditions that already exist. So they really are about food memory.
Lior Lev Sercarz
Owner, NYC's La Boite
Before moving to the U.S. in 2002, I never cooked a whole turkey, but eventually I realized it was just one big chicken. That's all it is. So, I season it with a little bit of parsley, saffron, onion and garlic and roast in the oven.
Author, “Vietnamese Food Any Day”
30 years ago, I had my first true Thanksgiving with my then-boyfriend and his family. We didn't have a traditional Thanksgiving—his people were unconventional. In fact, we went out for prime rib at Lawry's in Los Angeles. It was a super-swank place where I had a Manhattan for the first time. No one in his family ordered turkey. They all ordered prime rib and so did I.
My family did Thanksgiving, but we didn't have turkey when I was growing up because my mom declared after a few years of trying it that it was one dry bird. So I liked these people. They were unconventional and untraditional. I liked their style for Thanksgiving. I ended up marrying that man, and we've been together ever since.
These excerpts have been edited for clarity.
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