The Evolution of an Immigrant’s Thanksgiving

It’s been a long time since our first Thanksgiving, more than twenty years now, but it’s safe to say it didn’t seem like much of a holiday back then. We were far away from our families, our grad-school professors somehow loved the idea of assigning homework over the four-day period like it was going out of fashion, and there was not a little confusion about what exactly we were supposed to do for the holiday. We just receded into our cocoons and took it as a great opportunity to catch a breath and prepare — halfheartedly — for exams that were always just around the corner.

Once we graduated and started working, our circle of friends grew and we shared a few Thanksgiving dinners at friends’ homes. But still, more Thanksgiving dinners than not consisted of heading out to a restaurant or heading out of town. Slowly, the size of our family grew bit by bit. Cousins moved here from India, siblings got married and we all had children.
That last part — having children — it turns out, was the catalyst for building all manner of traditions and rituals.

We had left behind a culture that boasts of many festivals and rituals that bring families together. With extended families living in close proximity, impromptu family gatherings are still the norm in our hometowns. Once we moved here we got busy with school and work calendars and we regularly lost track of those festivals (and still do), only a call from home prompting us to remember when it was too late.

Starting from fretting over not knowing any of the lullabies my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents crooned to me to not remembering what needed to be done for such and such festival, the burden of raising children far away from the co-ordinates that shaped my own upbringing was hard to escape. In my quest to understand how immigrant mothers raised children in a setting devoid of the trappings of their home cultures, I interviewed a few for an essay on immigrant parenting.

In the course of my conversations with them, I realized that celebrating a uniquely American tradition such as Thanksgiving (which, funnily enough, resonates with many Indians who have some version of a festival meant to offer thanks for the bounty of their harvests, such as Shankranthi and Pongal) allowed immigrant parents to evoke memories of their own childhoods and of family gatherings from a place and time far away, and enabled them to create new memories of celebrations for their children. New festival, new ritual, new culture, new co-ordinates, but the memories were old, familiar and trusted.

As the years went by and the children grew older, Thanksgiving gatherings became regular. We got together with visiting family, and friends who had accompanied us on our journey through school, jobs, marriage and children over all these years of living and making a home here.

Without the burden of any expectation from previous generations of how Thanksgiving should go, we were all over the map in terms of cuisine. We made Chicken Biryani once, and had a Mediterranean potluck the next time where everyone gathered in my kitchen and made the entire meal almost from scratch.

A couple of years ago, we decided that Thanksgiving could be all vegetarian and all South Indian and made many favorite dishes and condiments (it took about half of Wednesday to make three types of our favorite chutney powders) from the cuisine of both branches of our family, with the very important exception of dessert — which was New York Style Cheesecake. And if the menu has even a suggestion of Indian in it, we make cranberry pickle from the recipe of a dear friend. I must tell you it is beyond delicious. Crunchy, sour cranberries, it turns out, are the perfect foil for Indian pickling spices (recipe).

So this Thanksgiving, what I’m most thankful for of all, is that there is such a thing as Thanksgiving that is reserved for gathering friends and family around food. Because what better way to make memories, right?


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