What Thanksgiving looks like in four different cultures

The Chopras are preparing for this year's Thanksgiving gathering at their home in Matthews.  “At first it was like, 'Okay, it's just a holiday,' until you really understand what Thanksgiving is,” Leena said.  The Chopra family, from left to right, are Vijay, 13, Leena, Vikas and Viraj, 14.

The Chopras are preparing for this year’s Thanksgiving gathering at their home in Matthews. “At first it was like, ‘Okay, it’s just a holiday,’ until you really understand what Thanksgiving is,” Leena said. The Chopra family, from left to right, are Vijay, 13, Leena, Vikas and Viraj, 14.

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Faith, food, family, and football: These themes have dominated American Thanksgiving for generations.

The holiday conjures up images of colonial America, a bumper harvest, family reunions and, of course, the sacred pastime of watching a football game.

Dinners typically consist of turkey, corn, stuffing, green beans, and mashed potatoes, among other things. But is there more than one way to have an “American” Thanksgiving? What does “American” mean in this context?

In the true spirit of the beloved holiday, Charlotte dinner hosts from different cultures—an Indian family, a Black family, and an interfaith Jewish family—opened their homes to The Charlotte Observer and yesheard what Thanksgiving is like at their tables. A seat at that table has also been prepared for readers, by families who take pride in their “non-traditional” Thanksgiving celebrations.

Families like mine.

My Big Fat Puerto Rican Thanksgiving

In the early 1960s, my grandparents, Carmen and Félix, emigrated from the big island of Puerto Rico to New York City. Like so many others during this time, they came to the United States to work hard and build a better life for themselves and their descendants.

With them they brought customs and ideals that make us who we are today. Along with loyalty, pride and drive, my grandfather brought her musical talent and my grandmother came equipped with her ability to transport others to her homeland with food.

They both died early in my life, but their spirits live on through our traditions. Music and food are staples at my family’s Thanksgiving dinners.

Rice with pigeon peas is the base of our food. It’s a rice dish seasoned with sazón and cooked with our sofrito, a vibrant purée of onion, garlic, cilantro, red pepper, and green pepper. The rice features small, nutty-flavored pigeon peas, and sliced ​​olives often make a guest appearance.

My older sister has fond memories of snatching a few olives from the jars and eating them while my grandmother hovered over her unreasonably large pots, making pounds of rice.

A tastier substitute for turkey, a roast pork, is the real star of the show every Thanksgiving at my family’s dinner table. Known as “pernil”, the meat is vigorously marinated and cooked for six hours in the oven. It slowly fills the home with one of the most delicious aromas known to man.

Other more American dishes like stuffing, potato salad, sweet potatoes, and cornbread are also added to the spread, helping to round out our feast.

Meanwhile, laughter echoes off the dining room walls in a seemingly endless series of rounds. If there’s one thing Puerto Ricans love to do, it’s laugh.

In our home, the music of mambo, bachata and salsa resounds in every room of the house. Sports may be playing on the TV, but any comment is drowned out by cheers and colorful tunes playing on the stereo as family members young and old dance in the kitchen and living room.

The score of the game does not matter. Win or lose, we dance.

grandparents
After migrating from Puerto Rico to the United States, Felix (left) and Carmen Pagan (right) pose near the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City, circa 1963. Courtesy of Evan Santiago

A celebration of the harvest, family and life.

For Leena Chopra, a Matthews resident, family is the mainstay of all gatherings, especially on Thanksgiving. The Chopra family is originally from India, so their Thanksgiving feast includes traditional Indian cuisine, with a unique proviso.

“Our family is vegetarian,” Leena told The Charlotte Observer. “(Dinner) is traditional Indian or other cuisine that I can make vegetarian. Our focus is to have a gathering to enjoy a meal together that everyone can eat.”

The stuffing seen on most American Thanksgiving dinners is made with a twist of flavor in the Chopra house. Instead of croutons or white bread, this version of the dish uses Indian spices and cubed paneer, a milky cheese with a heavenly texture similar to ricotta or cottage cheese.

Every year, the Thanksgiving party at the Chopra house concludes with an unexpected dish: homemade birthday cake.

Leena’s son and brother share a birthday over the holidays, so the household welcomes the opportunity to not only express appreciation for the year’s “harvest” and the family as a unit, but also for the life of the individual.

CLT_ALS_Thanksgiving_008
Indian food sits on the kitchen table in the Chopra family in Matthews, NC, on Monday, November 21, 2022. Alex Slitz [email protected]

‘Christmas music, video games and Mexican food for two’

For Laurisha and Marcus Fant, an African-American couple living in Charlotte, Thanksgiving is far from what one might expect from a black Southern family, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. The Fants trade large gatherings, extravagant parties and traditional festivities for Christmas music, video games and Mexican food for two.

“We avoid large gatherings for many reasons, but we love our little family of two and how we celebrate,” Laurisha told the Observer.

Fant’s quiet little Thanksgiving breaks the mold for multiple reasons, but it’s not a form of protest. For Laurisha, the Thanksgiving holiday is more about rest and reflection.

“We have quite a large family on both sides and we used to travel between states. The trip was eventful and we don’t really see anyone from the event outside of said holidays,” Laurisha said. “So we got to enjoy just relaxing at home and reflecting after a long year. It gives us space to really be grateful for where we are and plan for our future.”

When I asked Laurisha about choosing Mexican cuisine over a “traditional” holiday menu, she expressed that it all comes down to reinvention. For her, the holiday can be whatever you want it to be and there is no right or wrong way to celebrate.

“We just don’t like to eat all the traditional Thanksgiving foods and we really love Mexican food,” Laurisha said. “We love and respect other cultures as much as our own. I think multiculturalism is one of the best things about being in the United States.”

come one come all

Kara Culp, along with her husband and two children, is opting to have a more intimate Thanksgiving gathering this year. To prevent the family from getting sick during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the early start of a fierce flu season, Culp’s mother will only join the interfaith Jewish family of four this year, a stark contrast to the celebrations. which usually include cousins, aunts and uncles as well.

While dinner preparations are underway, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will fill the TV screen in the living room as the aroma of baked tzimme balls wafts from the kitchen.

The dish is an Eastern European Jewish delicacy, Culp said in an interview with the Observer. It’s the perfect way to include all the Thanksgiving staples in one bite.

“This is how we get our sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving,” Culp joked as he explained the recipe. “Inside (are) sweet potatoes, a little bit of blueberry and a little bit of pineapple. You bake it in a muffin tin, so you cut the puff pastry into squares and bake it in the oven. And it’s so delicious because it’s like your roll and your sweet potato in one bite.”

The more common corn casserole and turkey and stuffing are also on the menu. “And it’s not dressing, it’s stuffing in our house,” Culp quipped.

The family involves everyone in the cooking process and if there is aAny stragglers in the Culps circle who have been left behind are invited to join in the festivities.

Culp says that the act of inviting people who have nowhere to go, especially during High Holidays (like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur), is central to Jewish culture. The invitation serves as a “mitzvah,” or good deed, and has allowed the Culps to cultivate a community of “framily,” or friends who have become as close as blood relatives.

For Culp, Thanksgiving is an especially beautiful holiday because it’s usually celebrated by everyone, but in slightly different ways.

“Everybody has different cultures and we do a lot of the same things, but everyone has their own twist,” Culp said. “It’s very special.”

Learning about the different ways my neighbors celebrate the same holiday has taught me more than I thought. Every home is different and consequently so are our traditions.

But there is a common thread that unites us all: mishpachah, parivaar, family — family.

Although there are different ways to celebrate American Thanksgiving, in the end, we are more alike than different. That is something to be grateful for.

This story was originally published November 24, 2022 6:00 a.m.

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Evan Santiago is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer and writes for the publication’s Service Journalism Desk. He is a native of New York City and currently resides in the Queen City, where he works to help local readers overcome the challenges of daily life in the modern world.

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