My Armenian grandparents came to the United States in the early 1900’s. Our family embraced being American and Thanksgiving was a big deal at our house. Any holiday with a food focus was perfect for us! Eating at a huge table, elbow to elbow, with as many family members as possible fit right in with the psyche of our heritage.
Of course, as they learned about American culture they gleaned that turkey is supposed to be Thanksgiving’s main attraction. But, people don’t generally discuss the rest of the traditional menu and from the get go, our family had an Armenian spin on the meal. All through my childhood, I was under the impression that my mother, grandmothers and aunts served traditional Thanksgiving food along with the required bird. I thought everyone had Armenian rice pilaf and eggplant as side dishes with their meals. Didn’t all houses serve appetizers of yalanchi (grape leaves stuffed with a rice mixture) and beoreg (cheese-filled filodough)? The normal holiday dessert was always khadaif (a very sweet dough and cream cheese pastry).
It wasn’t until high school that I figured out that we were different. A dessert invitation to one of our neighbor’s home on Thanksgiving day enlightened me, when I saw that they didn’t have any of the side dishes we had. Their leftovers did not even resemble ours. Rolls? Mashed potatoes? Corn? What was all that? That was the first time I’d ever eaten Pumpkin Pie.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one duped into this idea that MY Thanksgiving dinner was an actual traditional menu. An Italian-American friend of mine also had this issue. She grew up in New York. Her family had also arrived to the U.S. several generations back. When she was in college, she was invited to the home of a mid-western friend for Thanksgiving holidays. As she sat at the dinner table in a farmhouse in the middle of Ohio, she naively asked her host, “Where is the penne?” The table fell silent as her friend’s family stared at her in shock and confusion. She’s lucky they didn’t throw her out of the house!
Another friend from China grew up with cabbage side dishes. Someone from India always had naan bread and some kind of curried spinach. Just the number of rice dishes that various ethnic friends have with their turkey is astounding – spanish rice with peas and corn, jasmine rice, persian rice with pine nuts and a million different varieties of curried rices dishes.
The historian nerd in me wants to point out, also, that even if you are a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, your family is still probably not serving what the real Pilgrim diners ate in 1621. For one thing, the Mayflower survivors at Plymouth did not have access to white potatoes, since they didn’t exist on the North American continent back then. So, no mashed potatoes. They certainly didn’t have string bean casseroles with fried onions on top. No deep fryers in the Massachusetts woods. They may have had pinto or some other kind of common bean, though. Corn was different back then, too. It was more like the animal feed of today and they did not eat it off the cob. It was ground into meal and made into loaves, maybe similar to cornbread of today. There was no sugar, so no baked pie and probably not cranberry sauce either. Chances are good they actually did eat turkey (which still exists in the wild in New England), squash and maybe the precursor to the pumpkin pie – roasted pumpkin with honey. But they probably also served fish, venison and other wild birds like goose and duck – none of which is in the modern Turkey Day menu.
Someone needs to do a college thesis on why it was the turkey, and not the flounder or goose, that became the compulsory meat for this holiday. It’s not really fair that venison lost out, considering the abundance of deer in everyone’s back yard. We could be bringing in the holiday dinner from our rose garden.
My takeaway from all this is that “American” is as Americans do, and no matter where we came from, we are all Americans now. It’s a culinary free for all – well, almost. As long as there is a turkey on the table, you can still call it Thanksgiving. As my grandfather, who knew what hunger really was, used to say at the end of every meal, “Thank you. God Bless America.”