Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The truly all-American Thanksgiving (kebab, anyone?)

A "Chinese American turkey" stuffed with sticky rice, red chili pepper, water chestnuts, Taiwanese sausage and other goodness, November 2010
Photo by Taekwonweirdo/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In their quest to assimilate, generations of immigrants from non-turkey-eating parts of the world have eaten or at least tried to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. But I'm going to let you in on a secret some may find tantamount to treason, or at least a deportable offense: Many of us don't care for it all that much.

Now, there are those who know how to do turkey. Immigrants from southern Mexico, for example, part of the bird's native stomping ground, serve it seasoned with chile and smothered in mole, a preparation that some Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles make for Thanksgiving take-out orders.

But the mild tasting American-style roasted bird traditionally served in the U.S. doesn't go over so well with everyone who encounters it as a newcomer. The solution? Claim it. Make it our own. Or if that fails, don't mind the turkey and eat something else, like a nice kebab.

Based on our own experiences, three colleagues and I have written up a sampling of four of the truly all-American feasts that go on every Thanksgiving holiday. Buen provecho.

Kim Bui, KPCC's OnCentral blog editor, writes about her Vietnamese American Thanksgivings:

My mom hates turkey.

She's long complained that it's dry, annoying to cook and all around not good. Every year for Thanksgiving, she would push for something tastier — duck, cornish game hens, something. And every year, my siblings and I would retaliate. We are in America, we said, we need to have cranberry sauce and dry turkey and mashed potatoes. We wanted to assimilate.

Then, every year for Christmas, we'd realize the error of our ways. So our December turkey has instead always been a traditional Vietnamese dish. Pho, nem nuong or something else. However, my mom loves yule logs and fruitcake, so we were subjected to one or the other every year.

This cycle (and yes, we had the same argument every year) became symbolic of the struggle my family has had since my parents immigrated here. The younger kids would want to be as American as possible, my parents would want to hold on to our culture, and in the end, we met in the middle.

Last year, my parents were in Vietnam for Thanksgiving, so some friends and I put together an orphan Thanksgiving. We made the traditional turkey, potatoes and yams. But we tossed in some Asian spices.

No matter what I've eaten — dry turkey, juicy duck, or soupy pho — I've always been thankful for our arguments and my parent's staunch resistance to adopting "too" much American culture. I am firmly both American and Vietnamese and my taste buds are representative of that.

By the way, this year, we are making a turkey. But my mom is seasoning it Vietnamese style. My belly is grumbling already.

Tami Abdollah, KPCC's new education blogger, writes about her Thanksgiving experiences as a Persian-Chinese American: 

As a kid growing up, Thanksgiving at my house was traditionally untraditional. I didn't think we were much different from the typical American family. We would stuff our turkey with Persian food, such as sabzi polo (rice cooked with vegetables, beans and chicken), and we would have delicious tahdig (crispy rice) and a few Chinese vegetable and meat dishes spread across the table. My parents would both take part in preparing foods from their homelands and spinning the recipes together into a truly diverse mix of Persiachimerican, and create, in my opinion, an actually very American meal.

It wasn't until I was a junior in college that I tasted what I believe (to this day I’m not sure) was traditional stuffing and had a semi-"normal" Thanksgiving - as a student abroad in France. Even then, I suspect those French chefs added their own apolomb to the sauces and flavorings. Last year I spent Thanksgiving in New Zealand with a mix of Kiwis and Americans, roasting local vegetables and eating chicken. The year before I was in Iraq with a hodgepodge of expats and a delicious giant turkey brought into the country in a well-packed suitcase from Jordan. Many gave thanks for its safe arrival.

This will be my first Thanksgiving back home in L.A. with family in years. Nostalgia is often hard to beat, but I am sure that my turkey day will remain traditionally untraditional still. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of this unity of diversity. No matter where we are from, or what we do to celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving, we all ultimately have reasons to give thanks.

And here's a bit on the Cuban American Thanksgiving as experienced by me, your Multi-American blogger/editor host: 

Thanksgiving with my family has always involved what that my parents call "el guanajo."

This is how Cubans casually and rather comically refer to turkeys, otherwise known as "pavo" in proper Castilian. For as long as I can remember, the guanajo was never particularly well-loved in my household, nor did anyone in the family really look forward to eating it. "Sabe a corcho," my father would complain, "It tastes like cork."

The celebratory meat for Cubans is, of course, pork, known as lechón. This is what we eat every Christmas Eve for our Noche Buena meal, doused in a mojo marinade of garlic and sour orange and accompanied with rice and black beans. The key to assimilating, my mother discovered early on, was to turn the Thanksgiving guanajo into a lechón.

To this day, the preparations begin early. A day ahead of time, my father prepares a batch of fresh mojo, with juice squeezed from the tropical sour oranges he grows in the backyard. They soak the turkey in the mojo overnight before putting it in the oven Thanksgiving morning, and by the time I arrive to prepare the side dishes, the house smells like a Cuban restaurant, everything imbued with the fragrance of garlic and roasting meat. In the end, it still tastes like turkey. It will be the only time that my family eats turkey until next Thanksgiving. But the smell is heavenly.

I always make the obligatory "American" dishes, the green-bean casserole and the candied yams, which my uncle has been enamored of since his first Thanksgiving here 15 years ago. My mother, of course, makes rice and beans - plus a little extra garlic sauce to moisten that dry turkey. The end result is a hodgepodge of traditional Americana and tropical Noche Buena, cranberry sauce soaking into black beans, yams that pick up the taste of garlic.

It is the most utterly American meal I can think of.

Lastly, frequent Multi-American contributor and comic actor Lory Tatoulian writes about the Armenian American Thanksgiving she looks forward to each year:

In an Armenian household, every day is like Thanksgiving: a table lined with relatives (some you like, some you don’t, some who show up unannounced) gathered around copious amounts of food. But on Thanksgiving, we just feel like the rest of America is catching up to our regular, daily gastronomical prowess. All we do is tweak the menu a bit and call it Thanksgiving.

We do have the stuffed turkey, but the turkey is accompanied with chicken kebab, beef kebab, luleh kebab, lamb kebab, chee kufteh, sini kufteh, ham, basterma and soujoukh. (Sidenote: Thanksgiving is the only day where we say the word turkey with a smile). Next to the meats are dolma, sarma, hummus, tabouleh, pilaf, and a variety of cheeses.

If you are Persian-Armenian, you will probably have ghormeh sabzi on your table; and if you are an Armenian from Armenia, you will have even more meat and wash it down with cognac and start a never-ending litany of cheers and toasts. Most certainly, on this day, all outdoor grilling bans in the City of Glendale are broken.

For me, the best part of Thanksgiving is not the food or the family gossip or the conversations that escalate into diatribes about world politics. It’s the Armenia Fund Telethon blaring full blast on the TV in the living room. For the past sixteen years on Thanksgiving day, The Armenia Fund has been broadcasting a live telethon from the KCET studios in Hollywood that is televised across the world on satellite and cable networks. It is one of the biggest telethons in the country and all the proceeds go towards infrastructure development in Armenia.

Basically, there is no excuse for any Armenian not to donate to the Armenia Fund, because if you don’t, your relatives in Buenos Aires, Paris, Fresno, Sydney or Moscow will know about it, and you will not only shame them, but the entire Diaspora.

Lory adds that as legend has it, the first Armenian to arrive in the U.S. did so in the 1600s to Jamestown Colony, where he was known as "Martin Ye Armenian." She writes: "I suspect he was the one who introduced the idea of creating a national holiday that is all about the gratitude for family and food."

Now it's your turn - how does your family celebrate Thanksgiving?

Please share your story below. I'll post from the comments after the holiday.