Our Indian-American Multicultural Thanksgivings
Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday — the one holiday where the commonality is family, food and gratitude. After immigrating here in 1966, my parents began incorporating American traditions for our family as we assimilated into the culture. My mom doesn’t remember when she started making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner but says it just happened organically, like celebrating the other American holidays.
While some Indian families may have started out with traditional Thanksgiving dinners, over time our Indian food crept onto the table. It started out first by accommodating the aunties and uncles who may not enjoy American food as much. Out of respect, a few items would be added for them: dal, a couple of sabzi’s, rice, roti, to ensure that everyone had something to eat. People would also bring desserts saying, “maybe auntie and uncle would like gulab jamun, gajjar halwa or kheer.” These additions did not go unnoticed by others. After eating the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, folks would veer over and take seconds from the Indian food at the table.
Over time, we started marinating the turkey in tandoori and garam masala spices and “Indianizing” the side dishes. The table setting became an amalgamation of fusion cuisine, ensuring that all the discriminating palates were satisfied.
I hadn’t realized how much Thanksgiving meant to me until 1998, when I was visiting India in November. I hadn’t thought much about the holiday but by the Monday before Thanksgiving, I became sad at the thought of not having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Since the holiday meant nothing to my Indian relatives, there was no one to commiserate with or even understand what it meant to Americans. By Tuesday morning, I had a brilliant idea: I surmised that since the five-star hotels catered to a Western clientele, they might serve a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. I called the hotels and sure enough, The Oberoi New Delhi, offered an American-style Thanksgiving buffet dinner. Since the food was taken care of, I then invited my relatives to join me in the holiday meal. Even though it was not at my home, I hosted the dinner. Over the next few days, my excitement grew in knowing that I was re-creating an American Thanksgiving here in India with the traditional feast and surrounded by relatives. When I asked my cousin’s wife why everyone accepted my invitation to a Thanksgiving dinner so rapidly, she replied, “no one is going to decline dinner at The Oberoi Hotel.”
On Thanksgiving Day, my Indian family and I gathered at the table at The Oberoi. When the waiter came and asked for orders, one after another, my relatives ordered an Indian entree. My uncle noticed the shocked look on my face, and when it was his turn to order, he said, “I will join you.” In the end, while I was disappointed that most had chosen not to partake in the feast, I was elated that I, at least, had a traditional Thanksgiving meal surrounded by family.
Fast forward to my own family. With only the three of us, my husband, our son and me, it is much easier for us to travel to be with relatives over Thanksgiving. We have spent most Thanksgiving holidays with John’s family as it is the one holiday when his extended family gathers together. Since they are spread out across the country, our modus operandi throughout the years has been to rotate visiting his relatives. Over time, Johns family started asking me to make an Indian side dish to accompany the Thanksgiving meal. This became a popular request, so I started carrying Indian spices when traveling for Thanksgiving because they looked forward to the Indian dish. In 2018, John’s sister announced that she would no longer host Thanksgiving in San Francisco. I volunteered to host the dinner in 2019, if the various Yates’ families would visit. Immediately, they agreed on one condition, “no traditional American Thanksgiving dinner”; they wanted Indian food! My Indian relatives were disappointed, but we acquiesced to their request.
Because of the dire warnings of celebrating Thanksgiving this year with family and friends, we observed the holiday in a very low-key manner. However, our table returned to a delicious fusion spread — a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner complimented with Indian dinner items.