Introduction to Thanksgiving for the Non-American
Our First American Thanksgiving
It was yet another bewildering holiday in America for all of us, my newly citizened family of eight in the late 1960′s. We were all in the kitchen, assembling the ingredients that we had seen portrayed as necessary in our local Food Store ad insert for an American “Thanksgiving Holiday.”
My siblings and I had talked our mother into buying everything advertised in the color newsprint pages for that week. There was the large shrink wrapped turkey, the crinkly bag of Brownberry Ovens stuffing, boxes of orange Jell-O, purple cans of Prince brand yams, bakery fresh pumpkin pie, the cellophane bag of fresh cranberries, and the pop-top can of French’s deep fried onion rings to place on top of the not-to-be-missed green bean casserole.
We were all ready to get busy in our American kitchen. Why? Because we knew all of our friends from school would be doing this. We had heard them talk about this all week. Our reason for all of this food preparation was to be able to go back to school with matching stories of eating too much pumpkin pie.
We were “assimilating” into our new culture. This was what my siblings and I wanted more than anything: To have an American Thanksgiving. All that our Spanish-only speaking mother and grandmother understood about this holiday was that we had two days off of school to stay home and eat.
A day off of school to stay home and eat? It made no sense, but that is what we told my mother and grandmother they had to do that Thursday in the last week of November.
We Didn’t Do This in Colombia
My two brothers, my three sisters and I were all eagerly shoving black and white sketches from our school textbooks depicting the First Thanksgiving into my grandmother’s line of vision.
“See, Abuela?” we told her rushedly in Spanish. “See? Here are the Indians sitting with the Pilgrims eating turkey and corn and cranberries and we have to make all this here today in exactly the same way. It’s what they do in America.”
“Si, Si…” my grandmother said, doing her best to try and please us. But I knew by the sound of her voice that she had little idea of the purpose of this day.
“I will make this turkey, and the other foods in the pictures. Though we never ate like this in South America. A turkey is very expensive in Colombia. And I have never seen cranberries before. I think a chicken would be better. What do you think of two good chickens instead?”
We all listened, aghast. Did our grandmother just suggest two chickens in place of a Thanksgiving Turkey?
“No, Abuela! It MUST be a turkey!”
She rolled the 12-pound bird over and over on the kitchen table. “I wonder for how long I shall need to cook something this large. If I divide it, and quarter it, it shall cook much faster, and then we will be able to fit it into the oven…” she pondered aloud.
“No! Abuela! No!” we all cried with alarm. “See! See this picture here! With this American family?? The turkey is all in one piece! And it’s dark brown! You cannot cut it up, Abuela, it must be served whole!”
“I see, I see,” she said, pressing her lips together. “Why don’t you, all of you, go and decorate the dining room table the way the Americans will do today. I shall see what I can do”
We widened our eyes at this marvelous suggestion! Yes! Yes! We would decorate the dining table the way the Americans did! Quickly, we ran to the front room and laid out that day’s newspaper. We would get ideas for decorating from the paper. We laid down on the floor and pored over that day’s ads, scrutinizing each picture showing a typical American family. Studying and majoring in all things American, we were determined to spend the day as Americans would.
We turned the paper’s pages, and stared. Then, then we slowly, one by one, realized something about our family. No matter how much preparation we did on this day, we would never be like the pictures in the paper. Did we actually think we’d be just like that family in the ad insert? The pictures we had been looking at were so far from what we looked like and lived like. The mothers in the pictures showed a woman, checkered apron tied at the waist, entering the dining room to beaming smiles, while she, radiant and proud, carried an oval platter displaying a steaming, perfectly golden brown turkey. A turkey that had been left whole.
We were not this family. We would never be this family. We were who we were.
We could hear our grandmother clattering in the kitchen as she tried to re-arrange the shelves in the oven to fit the 12-pound bird. We all knew what we had to do.
A Tradition of Our Own
One by one, we went to her. We watched as our beautiful grandmother struggled with how to know what to do with a bird this large. We put our arms around her, smelled her delicious smell of comino and aji and cilantro that always hung so comfortingly around her.
“Abuela, ” we all said. “Why don’t you make the turkey the way you know how. It’ll be good the way you know how.”
“Verdad, ninos? Can I?” she asked us in Spanish.
“Si, Abuela, make it like you know we like it,” was our reassuring reply.
“Bueno, si, I will.”
We leaned on the kitchen table, surrounding my grandmother as she rubbed the turkey in comino and tomate. The air began to smell familiar, and the holiday began to feel like our own.
And, so, on that Thanksgiving Day so long ago, while other families dined on perfectly golden whole birds, behind the door at this address, was possibly the first ever sliced and quartered arroz con pavo.
And that felt right to us. It was who we were. We were no one else.