On the Thanksgiving Table
I LOVE Thanksgiving! It is my favorite American holiday. I did not grow up celebrating it, but I do come from a culture that cherishes family get togethers and food. So a couple of years after arriving in the US, we started celebrating Thanksgiving like everyone else. There was always a turkey, usually bought smoked because no one really knew how to roast a turkey. But there are some amazing cooks in my family so the rest of the table would be set with an array of Persian rices and side dishes: Plum chicken, roasted eggplant and garlic spread, yogurt with cucumber and mint. About fifteen years ago, when it was my turn to host, I realized that no one in my family had ever tasted dressing or cranberry sauce or any other of the traditional dishes that are served at this time of the year. So I offered to give everyone the experience of these very American foods. My relatives offered to bring something and I politely asked them not to, because I wanted to maintain a certain flavor in the whole menu. I did ask my mother to make Shirin Polo, which I thought was a great Persian contribution to the Thanksgiving table. It is basmati rice with slivered almonds, pistachios, currants and shredded carrots, flavored with saffron. The sweet and savory flavors can play the role of the dressing to the turkey I figured. Despite my protestations, on Thanksgiving day, my aunt did arrive with a crockpot full of Aash-e-reshte, a very popular thick soup of legumes, greens and noodles; think minestrone without the tomato influence. As I called people to my table of a perfectly roasted turkey, corn bread stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes, the guests noticed the Aash and enthusiastically went for it first. I was so disappointed that fifteen years later I still talk about it! It wasn't so much about feeling that my cooking was rejected. It was and still is about my desire to invite all those around me to taste each others' cultures, to break the wall of insularity and engage fully with their neighbors. When I lived in Latin America, I was amazed at some American families who lived in the bubble of their expatriate communities, never learning the language, rarely making friends with the local people and seldom engaging in the day to day life of their adopted city. I know my life has been richer by playing the chameleon wherever I have lived. It has helped me distill the best of my original culture and add flavors from others that I have met along the way. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for friendships and family that know no borders or limitations imposed by distance, language and culture.
Passing the Torch
In the thirty years since our mother died, my sister and I have shared the role of family matriarch. In this role, we have alternated the hosting of Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. Although she hates to cook, she does enjoy hosting family events. I love to cook, so it has never been a hardship to me. However, time has marched on inexorably, changing us and our roles. My sister has, for the last several years, been ready to abdicate the role of holiday hostess, hoping to turn that duty over to our respective daughters-in-law (and their husbands, of course). I have been a little less eager to do so, wanting to hold on to the way things have been. However, because of some physical limitations, neither my sister or I am capable of playing hostess this year. So, for the first time ever, my older son and his wife will be hosting the family Thanksgiving gathering this year. I have mixed feelings about that. In my family, the hostess makes some (maybe most) of the food, but everyone else also contributes to the meal. So I am only making two dishes to take, not four or five. That isn't so much of a burden. Also on the plus side, I am very relieved not to have been cleaning my house for the last four days. I am also remembering just now that the lonely cleanup after everyone else has gone is a pain in the tuckus. I won't have to do that this year, either. Hmm. Not so bad. From a practical standpoint, this is a positive move. From a sentimental standpoint, not so much. My life is changing. My place in life in changing. Change is hard. Change is inevitable. The blessings continue.
Coffee and Conversation
by Esmeralda Lara
Traditional turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and ham make their debut on the counter in my mom’s kitchen. The pumpkin cheesecake pie and pecan pie proudly sit at the dessert table with turkey cupcakes on display. Food is a big deal for any occasion in my family. Birthday, holidays, Sundays. Food brings us together, but the love and conversations keep us at the table.
Although the food is amazing, and the preparation of the meal always leads to laughter, its what happens after the meal that stays with me long after the turkey pounds have been shed. When the coffee is poured into mismatching coffee cups, and the dessert comes out, the deep conversation starts to pour out. We discuss my grandmother’s childhood, or how she and my grandfather’s courtship came to be. I learn about my aunts as young girls, and then more as young women. Sometimes there are tears, most of the time because we can’t stop laughing at some statement someone has said. All of the time however, there is nothing but love. The knowledge I have gained during our coffee talks is more than just folktales and memories handed down. They have taught me how to be strong, to never give up. They have shown me the kind of person I strive to be. I am fully convinced I know and am related to the strongest women. Ones that smile through struggles, and pray for those who have harmed them.
Today on the day designated to giving thanks, I am thankful for table talk, coffee and conversations, and seven women who I am eternally grateful for.
Macaroni & Cheese and Other Claims to Fame
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of the food. I absolutely love cooking all of the traditional foods of my family, my community. It is one of few times a year that I pull up my Southern African-American roots in the kitchen. Cornbread, collard greens, mashed potatoes, rice, gravy, buttered sweet corn, green beans, potato salad, baked ham and roasted turkey, sometimes fried fish and chicken wings, cheesecake, sweet potatoes baked into pies and made into candied yams, as we call them. And, of course, no Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without a deep -dish, bubbling baked macaroni and cheese. On most tables, the turkey is the star. This is not so for any of the Southern black families I can think of. Though I am always quite proud of my turkey, my family is no different. The baked macaroni is the most desired part of the meal. And here is the thing about mac and cheese. Every cook thinks hers (or his) is the best! So when you have more than one "cook in the kitchen" for family gatherings this can get a little precarious because each wants to bring his or her signature mac to the gathering. This year, we had five heads-of-households at our family dinner. However, we gathered at MY house so making MY macaroni and cheese was the one thing I insisted on. It is the BEST macaroni and cheese, made the way I was taught by my mother and grandmother and attested to by my family and friends. I use a blend of three cheeses, pure organic butter, milk and eggs, salt and pepper to perfectly dense, not too greasy with a balanced blend of pasta and hot, melted cheese in every bite. Each of the heads-of-household at our gathering made his or her second and third signature dishes to contribute to an absolutely tantalizing smorgasbord of food plentiful enough to feed a small nation. With our bellies filled and egos stroked with overflowing compliments for prized dishes, stories from yesterdays, laughs of todays and memories for tomorrows flowed freely. When I am gone, my children may say that their mom made the best mac and cheese. I pray, however, what they will remember more than anything is that food and Thanksgiving were vehicles for building our family and making family out of friends. And this will be our truest claim to fame.