Turkey, Tagalog and Carnitas: A Multi-cultural Thanksgiving

Someone recently said to me, “Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving and it shouldn’t be messed with. It HAS to be all the traditional foods or it’s not Thanksgiving.” I beg to differ.

The first Thanksgiving was a blending of cultures. Indigenous brought their foods to the pilgrims who put their own very English twist on things. Pumpkin pie, by its very nature is a cultural blend. The pumpkin is indigenous to the U.S.; the pastry came over from England and the spices from farther afield.

I grew up in a Mexican-American household in a family that absolutely embraced Thanksgiving and what it meant – to be thankful for your blessings and to be surrounded by family. At those meals, the table would be loaded with the “traditional” American dishes, but a few Mexican ones too would sneak their way onto the table.

As an adult and a home cook who adores exploring food, I’ve had just about everything on my Thanksgiving table at one time or another. As my children’s tastes developed and their curiousity about food grew, we added more dishes to the table. They brought friends from different cultures over and married into others. The Thanksgiving table became more blended and more complex each year.

This year, I celebrated Thanksgiving at my in-laws. My daughter-in-law Marissa is Filipina and her mother Anabel is an amazing cook. Like me, she knows the grandchildren we share are American and so, though the holiday or the food is somewhat unfamiliar, she navigates it and together, we’ve blended it yet again. This year, in two days Anabel will be at the Pomona Fairgrounds for a swearing in ceremony with over three thousand other new Americans. She’s passed her citizenship exam and after Tuesday will be as American as our grandchildren, so this Thanksgiving is extra special to her.

Our meal was simple. There was turkey (small one), carnitas, rice, a ham from Honeybaked, and accompaniments, and a few baked goods. The conversation around the table was in English, Tagalog (which I’m picking up quickly) and Spanglish. It wasn’t the Thanksgiving dinner I would have cooked had I been hosting (though equally delicious), nor was it the holiday of my youth. Was it any less Thanksgiving? No. We were thankful to be together, to share a meal in celebration of the upcoming citizenship, and to be safe with a roof over our heads. We were grateful for the challenges met and surpassed this year, for health recovered, for these beautiful children who will eventually share a rich and varied tradition of blended cultures. We gave thanks for what we have and shared hopes for a better future.

This morning, I awoke not to pumpkin pie and coffee – but to the smell of fish frying and rice cooking. I had fried eggplant, rice, chopped tomatoes served over steamed rice with bits of crispy fried fish with my morning coffee. I also awoke to the happy sounds of two kids still ebullient and full of memories of a very happy Thanksgiving.

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