Beyond Turkey: The Migration of Thanksgiving Tradition

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J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

No two Thanksgiving traditions are entirely alike. But just how unique do they get? Thanksgiving is, if anything, an immigrant's holiday; a story of the bridging of new world and old. So it's fitting that, like people, Thanksgiving traditions themselves continue to migrate and evolve.

We spoke to first- and second-generation immigrants in the food industry about how the cuisines of their ancestral homes have influenced the Thanksgiving meals they make here in the US. Here's what they had to say.

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Ox Restaurant chef Chef Gabrielle Quinonez Denton. Courtesy of Gabrielle Quinonez Denton

"For most of my life, I've felt that I had one foot in the United States and one foot in South America. Never is this more apparent than during the holidays. And while most holidays evoke memories of traditional Ecuadorian feasts, Thanksgiving is not one of them. This frees me up to celebrate all or none of the typical Thanksgiving customs. Many years, my family and I have opted out of cooking the usual turkey and accompaniments. Instead, we have given thanks around a table that one year held grilled lobsters, and, another, homemade papardelle with fresh white truffles. Yet another year, my husband and I went almost-traditional by deep frying a turkey and then tossing the whole damn thing in a bucket with some butter, tabasco, and Frank's Red Hot and then serving it to our friends Buffalo-style with celery sticks and blue cheese dressing.

There is, however, one part of the Thanksgiving feast that I cannot live without and that I always insist on cooking, and that's the green bean casserole. I love spending the time to make it from scratch, down to the fried onion—or, in my case, fried shallot—garnish. And if I'm missing my South American family and the flavors of their Andean kitchen, I might start off the Thanksgiving day by making my grandmother's fried empanadas or her sweet, tamale-like quimbolitos. They won't necessarily end up on the Thanksgiving table, but they're great snacks to help tide us over until we sit down to the main event later in the day." —Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, Ox Restaurant

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Turkish-American Pastry Chef Yigit Pura, of Tout Sweet Pâtisserie. Courtesy of Yigit Pura

"I never had a Thanksgiving dinner until my family and I first moved to the United States when I was 12. The customs and the history of Thanksgiving weren't really clear to me or my parents, but being Turkish, we all welcomed any holiday or family tradition that was based around a dinner table. That said, my mom's quite a traditionalist in her own kitchen and she never really embraced typical American dishes. Thanksgiving became roasted lamb and saffron rice instead of turkey and stuffing. In fact, I didn't have my first slice of pumpkin pie until I was 16 years old.

Today, I usually celebrate Thanksgiving at a friend's home. In my circle of friends, I suppose they see me as the lost puppy without a home when it comes to American holidays. That and they know I can bring some killer desserts, so I'm never shy on invites. And I'm always happy to oblige. It brings together a feeling of cozy and warm flavors, often rich with a hint of indulgence. And I love all the sweet spices, the heirloom pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and all things pie. It's food that really makes you feel good, through and through.

Thanksgiving really combines someone of my favorite things. Good times with close friends, being able to really embrace the idea of eating and celebrating, and not to mention it's really the one day of the year you can eat as much as you want and no one will judge you for it."—Yigit Pura, Tout Sweet Pâtisserie

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Chef Michael Psilakis, of Kefi, MP Taverna, Fishtag. Courtesy of Michael Psilakis

"When I was younger, my parents always hosted the biggest parties for the holidays. The center of every holiday was and will always be a whole spit-roasted lamb—even alongside a turkey for Thanksgiving. There's no need for fine china or crystal, but everything is always homemade. For the sides, we still do traditional Greek options like artichoke fricassee, Cretan rice pilaf, moussaka, braised greens, sweet breads, liver, keftedes, cheese, and kourabiedes. I always like to keep things traditional and simple, and let the food act as a tool to bring the family together. Between the dancing, eating and drinking, I would say we certainly know how to celebrate the holidays well! I'm forever thankful to my parents for instilling the tradition of these large family gatherings in me. It's a tradition I will always carry on and pass along to my own children." —Michael Psilakis, Kefi, MP Taverna, Fishtag

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Einat Admony, Chef-owner of Balaboosta. Courtesy of Einat Admony

"The turkey is always the center of my Thanksgiving dinner, but I like to put a Middle Eastern twist on the bird. One year, I did a pomegranate and walnut turkey, which ended up golden-brown and crispy. It was totally beautiful and had a great sweet and sour flavor. The year before, it was with honey and preserved lemon, with lots of cumin and paprika.

The gravy, of course, matches the turkey—I typically take the flavorful juices that come off of the bird and mix the liquid with a pretty straightforward of mirepoix of celery, onions, and carrots. My stuffing stays the same almost every year, though: quinoa with tons of nuts, dry fruits, and herbs. My husband is French, so of course he has to do the mashed potatoes. Which means something like three sticks of butter and tons of cream in them. It's very French." —Einat Admony, Chef-owner of Balaboosta, Bar Bolonat

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Nicolas Jammet, co-founder of Sweetgreen. Courtesy of Nicolas Jammet

"I didn't grow up with a traditional Thanksgiving meal—we used to go to La Caravelle restaurant every year. Then, after that, my parents started cooking their version of Thanksgiving at home with more French-inspired versions of the classics. My mom would brine her D'Artagnan Heritage Turkey in buttermilk, cognac, honey, and peppercorns for three days, and then we'd massage the turkey with two whole cups of black truffle butter. The one tradition we did generate was to start the meal with D'artagnan foie gras mousse on brioche with a mache salad. Every year." —Nicolas Jammet, Sweetgreen

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Jason Wang, of Xi'an Famous Foods. Courtesy of Jason Wang

"Come Thanksgiving, Chinese immigrant families all over the US tend to get confused by the turkey. It's a huge bird that we just aren't used to eating in Asia. Instead, we often celebrate with a potluck of various foods—mostly Chinese dishes—and friends and family from all over the region (especially in suburban America) gather in one house to enjoy the feast, no turkey necessary. My family is pretty small, so growing up we could never really finish a turkey ourselves. These days, we just get together for a quick dinner, mostly prepared by myself. Since we're always working, it's an occasion in itself for us to sit down at home for dinner!" —Jason Wang, Xi'an Famous Foods

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Salvatore Rizzo, owner and director of De Gustibus Cooking School.

"For Thanksgiving, we weave in our favorite Italian flavors and dishes at every turn. We always start with a wonderful antipasto platter with bottles of chilled Prosecco on the table, along with some artisan breads from the local panetteria (everyone has their favorite one in the city). I have a big Italian family, so we divide up the dishes. I always love to make the first course—usually an authentic pasta that really speaks to fall—like a rigatoni with roasted butternut squash, sweet and spicy sausage, sage, and a sprinkling of Pecorino Romano.

Aside from the pasta course, I always prepare some side dishes. This year, it will be broccoli rabe with a calabrian chili-spiked oil, roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta and a splash of red wine vinegar, mashed potatoes with basil and Pecorino, and roasted cauliflower with olives, capers and raisins. For wines this year, including the Prosecco, we are serving a delicious Soave with the pasta, and a 2005 Barrua from Sardegna which I saved for what I think is one of the most special holidays! For dessert, we have traditional American dishes like pumpkin pie, but this course is not complete without sfingi, deep-fried sweet ricotta fritters.

And, as with all holidays when you're Italian, it would not be complete without having at least 35+ guests, since both of my brother-in-laws' families attend, along with my in-laws, nieces, nephews, and friends." —Salvatore Rizzo, De Gustibus Cooking School