(WOMENSENEWS)--Although many immigrants and their descendants embraced the traditional Thanksgiving foods, many of them included--and still do--their own ethnic variations.
Voula Parliaros, an elementary schoolteacher, said that her mother spends several days before
Thanksgiving making traditional Greek dishes--pastitsio and spanakopita--along with the traditional Thanksgiving foods.
Another teacher described how her family celebrates their Italian heritage by making a feast of antipasti and lasagna "with a turkey on the side that no one eats."
On my survey, I asked people to list foods on their Thanksgiving menu that are tied to their cultural identity.
Jan Kristo identified herself as "Lithuanian (Full Blood)." She wrote that "We had headcheese for Thanksgiving--a huge gray loaf substance with pig's feet and knuckles mixed with gelatin. Sounds gross, but I still like it!" Their Thanksgiving meal also included horseradish and herring and "potato fudge" and ausukes. According to Jan, potato fudge "has a bottom layer of potatoes and confectionery sugar and a top layer of deep, dark bitter chocolate--so you have the taste of bitter and sweet." Ausukes are a "fried dough--we called them 'pig's ears'--in the shape of a bow covered with confectionery sugar, so when you bite into it you either inhale all the sugar and go into a coughing fit or the sugar all goes down the front of you in a blizzard! Eating those successfully was a talent!"
Sorren Varney grew up in Puerto Rico and she and her friends and family ate turkey, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, turnips, green beans, cranberries, pumpkin, pie, and pecan pie--plus arroz e gandules (rice and pigeon peas) and pig cooked on a spit.
Evie Small Hohler is Jewish, and along with the traditional Thanksgiving meal, her family eats chicken livers, herring, and lox with crackers as an appetizer. During her childhood, Diana Chen's Chinese American family added fried rice, egg rolls, and hot and sour soup to their traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
Judith V. Quinn grew up in a Hungarian American family that added stuffed cabbage to the menu.
Kevin Abanilla wrote that he is Filipino, and his family eats pancit molo, a soup with wonton wrappers stuffed with a filling at Thanksgiving.
In Hawaii, cooking turkeys in an imu, a large pit oven, is a Thanksgiving tradition. Kiawe wood is used to heat lava rocks that are covered with banana tree stumps. The hot rocks and stumps create steam to cook the turkeys, which are wrapped in foil and placed on the stumps. The turkeys are covered with banana and ti leaves to create more steam and flavor. Next comes a layer of burlap bags and canvas tarps. Finally the imu is covered with a large plastic sheet that is sealed tight around the edges by dirt. As a fund-raising activity, schools and community groups build large imus and cook Thanksgiving turkeys.
Guava Tart on West Indian Table
J. J. Johnson identifies himself as West Indian. When he was a kid, his family added red kidney beans, coconut tart and guava tart to their traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
"Baby marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes and Jell-O" were the foods that Rhian Miller listed as reflecting her cultural heritage as a "WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] Midwestern."
A Syrian American person recalled eating yebedet (grape leaves with rice and lamb).
A Korean American woman wrote that she serves rice and kimchi because her "parents can't eat without kimchi." Myra Zarnowski remembered the first time she spent Thanksgiving with her Polish American husband's family. "After we ate the turkey and stuffing and all the side dishes, I thought we were through. But we were just getting started because then they started bringing out all the Polish dishes--kielbasa, pierogi, etc."
Thanksgiving in Pauline Moley's Italian American family consisted of two meals--one the traditional turkey dinner, the other a complete Italian dinner. For the traditional Thanksgiving meal, Moley listed roast turkey, sage bread stuffing, shrimp-based bread stuffing or oyster stuffing (depending on the favorite of the cook); mashed potatoes; candied sweet potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes; two Jell-O salads (lime Jell-O with carrots and celery and black cherry Jell-O with bing cherries in the bottom, both with whipped cream cheese on top); fresh cranberries and canned cranberries; some type of vegetable casserole such as green beans with mushroom soup or cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts with cheese sauce; and pumpkin pie and pecan pie, both served with freshly whipped cream.
The traditional Italian meal, according to Moley, "usually consisted of homemade ravioli in the traditional red sauce; homemade meatballs (every family member had their special way of making the meatballs); Italian sausage (made by my father, who owned a grocery store and had his own recipe--every Italian grocer had a unique recipe that was secret and guarded); roast, such as chuck or rump, that was stuffed with garlic and mint by chopping the garlic and mint and using a paring knife to make slits throughout the roast and inserting the garlic and mint mixture (the roast was first browned in a skillet on all sides and cooked the rest of the way in a sauce--again to add flavor to the sauce; you can only imagine the size of the pot and the amount of the sauce); salad; Italian bread not just any bread but, again, bread bought from an Italian bakery."
The traditional Thanksgiving meal itself has also been undergoing steady revision throughout the years.
For example, celery was once considered indispensable. In 1779, Juliana Smith wrote a letter to her cousin Betsey Smith and described the first appearance of "Sellery" at her family's Thanksgiving feast: "There was an abundance of good Vegetables of all the old Sorts and one which I do not believe you have yet seen. Uncle Simeon had imported the seede from England. . . . It is called Sellery and you eat it without cooking.
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Penny Colman writes about a wide range of significant and intriguing topics in her award-winning books, including Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, and her forthcoming book Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World. Her book Thankgiving: The True Story was published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Co. For more information: www.pennycolman.com.
For more information:
Three excerpts from radio interview with Penny Colman, November 2009:
Thanksgiving, the True Story: