An Immigrant’s Thanksgiving



The Thanksgiving turkey goes multicultural as immigrants share their food traditions

The Thanksgiving turkey goes multicultural as immigrants share their food traditions


For Thanksgiving: Beer soaked Turkey, Arepa and Sabzi


If the Pilgrim Fathers revisited America this year, they would certainly be amazed by the aromas, tastes and colors of the diverse Thanksgiving table. New York is, of course, one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. and its residents trace their roots to hundreds of countries and ethnicities.  Each immigrant family brings its own culture and food habits and incorporates them into the Thanksgiving meal.

Turkey, a purely New World concoction, is not always on their menu and if it is, it is transformed by ethnic touches. Many immigrant cultures have a vegetarian tradition and introduce an abundance of vegetables into the holiday meal.

Indeed, you won’t find any turkey on the table at the festive Thanksgiving meal of the Singh family of South Ozone Park, where three generations live under one roof. Jagjit, a mechanical engineer, and Kamaljit Singh, who is in the construction business, live with their wives, their parents and five children.

Thanksgiving is an American tradition but immigrants are bringing their own flavors to it.

Thanksgiving is an American tradition but immigrants are bringing their own flavors to it.

The family, which emigrated from Punjab in India, has not developed a taste for the big bird at all, and if Jagjit gets a turkey at work, he just gives it away to friends. Chicken replaces turkey as the central dish and is cooked, curry-style, in the traditional Indian way and is accompanied by sabzi (vegetables), daal (lentils) and aromatic biryani (rice).  The children don’t miss turkey because they also like their food spicy.

“It is not a turkey thing only – though a lot of people may think that,” says Jagjit.  “We are Americans too and we are part of the tradition. We celebrate Thanksgiving with our fellow Americans though our way of cooking, our diet may be a little different.”

For the Singhs, who are all musically inclined, Thanksgiving is about family unity and spirituality. They get together to pray and sing Shabbad Gurbani, sacred text from the Sikh holy book, to thank God for whatever they have.

At Thanksgiving, A Multicultural America

Mary-Ann Aviles of Woodhaven, who is a student, certainly has a multicultural meal on the Thanksgiving table since her mother is from Puerto Rico and her father emigrated from Venezula. She and her two brothers, Anthony and Angel, are part of a large extended family that comes together for the holiday.

Recalls Aviles,  “Our Thanksgiving was always quite different – it was more of a party with music rather than just a dinner! Now that I’m older, it’s more calm but when I was growing up the party would start at my house, then we’d go to one aunt’s home and then another aunt’s home – and we’d eat at everyone’s house.”

Mary-Ann’s mother Maria stuffs the turkey with pieces of meat such as pork, chicken and ham and rubs it with a mélange of spices: “That’s her secret – she will take that with her!” says Aviles.

The turkey is served with the Puerto Rican delicacy, Arroz Y Gandueles, yellow rice with pigeon peas, and the Venezulan dish Arepa, a pastry stuffed with meats.  This year the family is nixing the turkey and serving a baked ham with pineapples and cherries instead, accompanied by Arepas and Arrov Y Acaraota, rice with seafood.

Besides the Venezulan and Puerto Rican dishes, the feast includes traditional American desserts like pumpkin pie. Says Aviles: “My dad likes being in America but he tries to retain his culture and show it to us. At Thanksgiving we share both cultures so it’s a very special day for him.”

 Immigrants bring their own traditions to the Thanksgiving table

Turkey Makeover: Immigrants bring their own traditions to the Thanksgiving table

Turkey, Corn – and Thanks to America

Mila Kagan of Bayside is a Russian Jew who came from the Ukraine in 1987 with her parents as refugees. Her first Thanksgiving was spent with her brother David who had already been in the country for seven years.

“He explained to us that for this holiday we had to eat turkey and corn and celebrate American history,” says Kagan. “Since then I’ve loved the holiday but basically this is the only time of the year I put turkey on the table because it’s not my favorite meat.”

She cooks the turkey according to a recipe given to her years ago but she soaks it in beer the night before, and stuffs it with prunes and apple. “It comes out nice and juicy and everyone loves it!” she says.

The mandatory Russian touches on the table are a bottle of vodka and the traditional Russian salad. The family shops in a Russian deli and adds in cakes from a Russian bakery that is named after the city they migrated from, Kiev.

Kagan, who is a nurse, celebrates Thanksgiving with her husband Bob and son Edward, her father, her parents-in-law and her brother’s family. She says their Thanksgiving prayer is heartfelt: “We are so grateful to this land that welcomed us years ago and gave us opportunities to grow. Each year when we return to New York, we say ‘Thank you, God!’”

© Lavina Melwani

(This is a version of an article which first appeared in Newsday in 2004 but since it’s such an evergreen story and so true even today,  I thought I’d share it with you. Happy Thanksgiving! No matter what’s on your table, the joy is in the sharing and being surrounded by those you love.)

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

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