Thanksgiving Food in America Is as Diverse as Its Population

How various generations of immigrants have infused their cultures and flavors into the traditional holiday feast

Thanksgiving Food in America Is as Diverse as Its Population
Turkey on a bed of biryani (Alamy)

What does Thanksgiving mean to immigrants, who often emphasize family time and gather frequently throughout the year, holiday or not? More interestingly, what do immigrant families serve on Thanksgiving? Tradition holds strong, and turkey maintains its place as the main dish for many. But a couple of dishes from the old country to complement the bird inevitably find their way to the table, creating vibrant meals across America.

For the Seddiq family of northern Virginia, Thanksgiving is always an event. Immigrants from Afghanistan, they first arrived in America in the 1970s. To accommodate the entire extended family on Thanksgiving, the Seddiqs organize a potluck banquet at a rented hall. Family member Mirriam Zary is a lawyer and well-known food blogger on Instagram and TikTok. Her passion for traditional and contemporary Afghan cuisine is evident in her social media posts. Mirriam believes that, for observant Muslims, the concept of gratitude is never restricted to one day.

“We express gratitude many times in our five daily prayers and throughout the day in conversation,” she said. “Our answer to a question about how we are faring is ‘thank God.’” For Mirriam, who came to America at only 18 months of age, the fact that Thanksgiving is a federal holiday literally means that it has been granted to her by the state to spend with family, with the tables full of food closest to the heart.

Afghanistan’s rich cuisines offer many options, and at Mirriam’s family gathering the meal is served with heaping sides of mashed potatoes, creating a unique combination that, according to her, “simply makes sense.” The last two Thanksgiving holidays have been hard on Mirriam, with deaths in the family and the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

“We cut back on the tradition the last two years to something smaller,” she said. “This year, I am cooking something a little bit different.”

As the second and third generations of the Seddiqs came of age in the family’s new country, Mirriam wanted to include both America and Afghanistan in an innovative infusion. Hence “Thanksgiving Biryani” was born. Combining the main rice ingredient with the spices and flavors of fall, such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and raisins, along with root vegetables such as butternut squash and carrots, Mirriam creates the perfect balance of the aromas of her two homelands. The dish is vegan but can serve as a side to turkey.

Some families of other immigrant communities take a slightly different approach. Shahed Amanullah, an entrepreneur and developer of the halal food app “Zabiha,” is attending a Thanksgiving banquet hosted by his mother, an immigrant from Pakistan, where only “the traditional American” dishes will be prepared. Shahed describes his mother as a “Thanksgiving purist,” but, since he will be taking on the task of cooking the turkey this year, he insists that he will “spice it up a bit.”

In recent years, the Muslim community of America, which consists largely of immigrants, has found in Thanksgiving an opportunity to give back to their communities. Muslim-run turkey drives across the country operate under the slogan “fueling an American tradition” and offer thousands of turkeys and side dishes to struggling families, regardless of faith or background. There is only one cultural infusion: The turkeys are slaughtered halal and kosher.

Puerto Rican Thanksgiving reflects the cultural syncretism of the Caribbean island and its complex relationship to the United States. The traditional turkey would be considered bland in comparison with the endless flavors that abound in Caribbean cuisine, and bland food is no cause for celebration. Nilsa Méndez relocated from Puerto Rico to Chicago several years ago. Thanksgiving for her means gratitude and family, and one way of expressing this is an elaborate method of cooking turkey. For starters, the giant bird lies in a marinade of sofrito — a blend of aromatic ingredients finely chopped and sauteed or braised in cooking oil with various spices. Nilsa then cooks a dish of “arroz con gandules” (rice and pigeon peas, a staple in Puerto Rico). The rice is flavored with a traditional adobo spice mix that consists of granulated garlic, onion powder, salt, black pepper and oregano. It may also contain citrus zest and/or turmeric. The rice is then stuffed in the marinated turkey. The result is a moist, flavorful cut of poultry that needs no gravy for taste and texture.

At Sameer’s house in Maryland, a divide is present at the family table every year. Sameer emigrated from Iraq in 2006 at the height of civil unrest and violence. Secular and unaffiliated with politics, Sameer found success in film and documentary production but believed he could only secure a better future for his four children by leaving Baghdad behind. For Sameer and his wife, Thanksgiving is for remembering the blessing of a new opportunity and gratitude to America.

Though his children were all born in Iraq, they have now spent the majority of their lives as Americans. With their adopted identity comes the freedom to doubt and question, and Sameer often finds himself at odds with his kids, who appreciate the family gathering and the food but denounce the holiday itself as whitewashing of Indigenous genocide. For many years, the family cooked the traditional Thanksgiving meal along with a side from Iraq, mostly a form of kabab or charcoal-roasted meat. This year, however, Sameer has opted for an all-Iraqi meal. It is the first year that all his children have left for their careers or school, and he and his wife live alone. The Iraqi-ness of the meal is for the comfort and nostalgic feeling it provides as his family gathers.

In Iraq, the dish most associated with family gatherings is dolma, which is Armenian in origin, from the town of Dolmadakia. Variations can be found across the Mediterranean under different names, such as “mah-shi” (stuffed vegetables) and “waraq anab” (stuffed grape leaves). In the Iraqi version, grape leaves are replaced with Swiss chards or turnip greens, and more vegetables are included as main ingredients. The rice stuffing is flavored with spices, thinly sliced meat, chopped aromatic greens and tomato paste. The vegetables and leafy green of choice are stuffed with the rice, including delicate layers of onion flesh, then added to a pot to cook in a tangy, salted broth. “There is no turkey this year, but we have dolma,” Sameer tells me.

Thanksgiving is an all-American holiday and one for which, most of the time, there’s little division between different generations of immigrants. Not all families celebrate, but many do. For these families, the changes to the traditional feast seldom face objection or resistance. Infusion and inclusion are accepted as the natural outcomes of immigration.

“Would it be better if we stayed in our villages and guarded the recipes of meals? Maybe,” says Mirriam. “But we didn’t. We are here now and this is our home.”

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