Thanksgiving dinner welcomes cultural interpretations

You know Thanksgiving is near when frozen turkeys go on sale by the pound and your family lugs three-pound bags of cranberries home from Costco. It’s the all-American celebration, a blend of European tradition with native game and produce.

Turkey time · Thanksgiving meals are no longer limited to traditional American customs and have instead opened themselves up to various cultural alterations. - Sophia Lee | Daily Trojan

Just about half a century ago, the Thanksgiving menu was standard and predictable: roast turkey, an indigenous bird; cranberries, the fruit traditionally used by early colonists and Native Americans to flavor meat; and pumpkin pie, another native ingredient baked into America’s favorite dessert.

But as America’s diversity expanded beyond European and African minorities, non-traditional ethnic dishes started slipping into the customary November feast. Every ethnicity, region and family began to offer its own traditional additions.

While growing up in Singapore, I only had a vague idea of what Thanksgiving was. To me, the holiday was just another excuse to feast, a prelude to Christmas’ gluttony.

When I moved to Northern Virginia, I finally got the chance to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner with my church. Instead of an intimate gathering around a table laced with fall decorations with a whole turkey centerpiece, our Thanksgiving dinner was another loud, boisterous Asian potluck party.

In lieu of stuffing, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, we had stir-fried glass noodles mixed with funky wood ear mushrooms and pork, soy sauce-marinated turkey legs and whole eggs boiled and saturated in a broth of Coca Cola, soy sauce and spices. My mother always brought a huge plate of japchae, the traditional festive Korean noodle dish. There was no dessert because the older generation Chinese didn’t like American sweets.

It was only through books and TV that I realized this was not the traditional American Thanksgiving. I was disappointed; I wanted a nice, all-American dinner just like the families on TV. Determined to “Americanize” my church, I baked pecan pie and pumpkin pie from scratch for the next few Thanksgivings. But I soon became discouraged and stopped because although the chow mein disappeared from the buffet table within half an hour, my sweet American pies stayed mostly untouched.

Moving out of my suburban neighborhood in the East Coast to the more metropolitan, multi-ethnic Los Angeles, I discovered I wasn’t the only one celebrating a non-traditional Thanksgiving. The holiday, after all, was born in part from colonists homesick for England, hungry for their ancestral dishes and customs; it was only fitting that new immigrants would garnish the American tradition with their own.

That made me wonder: What other non-traditional dishes do people eat on Thanksgiving? To find out, I dished the question to friends, friends of friends, co-workers and neighbors.

Turns out, many Latino families eat tamales, a traditional celebratory food, with other more customary Thanksgiving dishes. Many Mexican families dole out mole on whole turkey; for a Oaxacan twist, the famous chain Guelagetza is offering smoky black mole with a 12- to 14-pound turkey marinated with chile paste, spices and chocolate.

Several of my Chinese and Taiwanese friends baste their turkeys with soy sauce and stuff them with common Asian ingredients like scallions and garlic. Others who are not quite so culinary hop over to Chinese supermarkets in San Gabriel, such as 99 Ranch Market, to pick up ready-made turkeys with sticky rice speckled with Taiwanese sausages, dried shrimp and shitake mushrooms as “stuffing,” or Chinese restaurants, such as Sam Woo and Plum Tree Inn, for a star anise-spiked, crisp-skinned turkey roasted à la Peking duck.

There are minor distinctions within regions as well. Corn bread stuffing is more common in the South; country ham is a familiar Thanksgiving protein in Maryland and Virginia; barbecue smoked brisket is common in Texas; stewed sauerkraut and fruit-filled strudels crop up in Midwestern states where there are high German and Scandinavian populations.

A friend with Polish heritage confided that there’s always pierogis and chruscikis on her family’s Thanksgiving table. Another with Irish heritage told me mashed potato is done Irish-style with shredded cabbage, called colcannon. Yet another mentioned dense Hungarian walnut loaf half made from crushed walnuts.

Not all alterations are made because of one’s heritage. Many times, substitutions are made for reasons as straightforward as dietary restrictions. Macaroni and cheese or spaghetti might slip in beside the mashed potatoes that might be replaced with potato salad by another family. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles is a safe haven for vegans and vegetarians on Thanksgiving, as many places offer animal-free Thanksgiving menus. Organic, vegan meals are served free on Thanksgiving afternoon on a first-come, first-serve basis at Café Gratitude on Larchmont Boulevard.

Pay attention to your Thanksgiving feast this year, and even take a peek at your neighbor’s Thanksgiving table. You might find regional and ethnic twists in each household, distinct customs that burrowed into deep-rooted traditional menu — not that it’s any less “American” in this melting pot nation.


Sophia Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism and East Asian languages and cultures. Her column “Cross Bites” ran Mondays.

4 replies
  1. uscdadnyc
    uscdadnyc says:

    The year 2000 Movie “What’s Cooking?” had a nice Take on Thanksgiving in L.A. I am an ABC (American Born Chinese) and the only “Ethnic-Bent” on Thanksgiving is my Watercress Soup. After Par-Boiling my rack of ribs (before they are BBQ’d), I save the Broth. Skim the FAT and add Watercress. Otherwise it is just Deep-Fried Turkey and Mushroom-Sausage-Cornbread Dressing. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. J-Money
    J-Money says:

    Hey Sophia,

    I love reading your articles. I’m an Annenberg grad as well. Hit me up via email – there’s the best food internship around waiting for you in New York this summer if you’re interested.


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