Thanksgiving is a day of gratitude for all Americans, regardless of heritage or ethnicity. For families with diverse cultural backgrounds, what’s on the dinner table may be very different from what is consider the traditional Thanksgiving Day fare. Francis Lam talked with two women that live to discuss the many ways in which cultures intersect in the United States. Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer are cofounders of The Mash-Up Americans and cohosts of its podcast by the same name. Amy and Rebecca shared their experiences of growing up in immigrant homes and what it meant specifically for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Francis also joined Rebecca and Amy for an episode of The Mash-Up Americans, and shared with them more about his personal mash-up experiences from Thanksgivings past. Enjoy their fun holiday conversation by listening to “What’s For San Giving?”
Francis Lam: I have a few years of Catholic school under my belt; Catholic school and I go way back. But you celebrate the feast day of a saint that I have never heard of. Who is San Giving?
Rebecca Lehrer: He’s the projection of all of our American dreams. [laughs] Not really.
So many Latinos are Catholic – although I happen to be a Latin Jew – but many are Catholic. So, you come to the States and you hear people talking about “Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving.” You put it through a Spanish – or Spanglish – lens and you hear, “Oh, it's San Giving.”
Amy Choi: We're all getting together, and we’re going to eat!
RL: I'm saying San Giving is this idea of how we, as new Americans, come to embrace and celebrate Thanksgiving.
FL: Rebecca, where does your family come from?
RL: My mom is from El Salvador; she's a Salvadoran Jew. My dad's family is from Vienna and Poland.
FL: Amy, your family is from?
AC: The Republic of Korea. I was the first person born here. My parents immigrated in the 1970s on that big ol’ wave of Korean immigrants. When we celebrated San Giving, it wasn't the patron saint for us because I have no Latino background. For us, Thanksgiving was always the “American” holiday. We didn't have a deep understanding of what it signified or meant, only that it was a time when Americans came together around the table. And we were now American, so this is what we did. We were kind of Christian, but not really the way that I think a lot of the Korean community is in the US. On Christmas and Easter, we eat Korean food like galbi-jjim, doenjang-jjigae and banchan. But on Thanksgiving we had Stovetop stuffing and instant mashed potatoes – because that was “American.”
RL: It was like we were performing American-ness in my family as well. It was just the only non-Jewish holiday that we celebrated. It was like, “This is what Americans do.”
AC: You didn't have to go to synagogue on Thanksgiving.
RL: Exactly. Even though I love the ritual of many prayers and religious things, I loved Thanksgiving because it's the one holiday where you simply just ate, and it wasn't like a four-hour Seder.
Rebecca Lehrer and Amy S. Choi (Photos: Megan Miller | 500 Pens)
FL: But there's also this cultural idea of what's supposed to be on that table. For a lot of families – including my own – that table looks very different. I'd love to hear what was on your San Giving tables when you were growing up.
AC: It was this time in which what my parents created was really a part of integrating into American-ness. We did the turkey, and it wasn't like a soy-glazed turkey or a miso glaze – it was just turkey. It was Stovetop stuffing. It was instant mashed potatoes because we didn't cook potatoes any time other than Thanksgiving, so we didn't know how. But then all the accoutrement was like – my dad had to eat gochujang with turkey.
FL: Which is the Korean fermented bean and chili sauce?
RL: And there was a whole array of banchan, which are the Korean – snacks?
AC: Side dishes. We didn't have bread on the table. It was always white rice, banchan, gochujang, soy sauce.
FL: Like kimchi and marinated vegetables.
FL: And Rebecca?
RL: As I said, it was a performance of American-ness in some ways. We had the turkey. But then we couldn't not have rugelach or something for dessert. It was something like, “I also stopped at Canter's Deli because you never know if you’re going to need it.”
AC: It wasn't until hanging out with white people as an adult and having celebratory meals, that I learned that you could carve a bird and make it beautiful; that that was a thing that people did. We just had a cleaver and you would chop through the bird.
RL: Was that your experience, Francis?
FL: My experience is that my family came from China. Turkey is not really a thing there at all. I didn’t know what the deal with this holiday was. It seemed cool. Kids were off from school. But we're not eating a turkey. Why would you make yourself eat turkey when there are other actual delicious things to eat?
But, like you said like about performing American-ness, I was a kid going to school with kids who, of course, always had turkey on the table for Thanksgiving. I felt so self-conscious about not eating turkey for Thanksgiving. Every year I would go, “Mommy, why can’t we have a turkey?” I would feel like we're weird and not really American. One year, my mother finally gave in and got me turkey, and I was so excited for it. She starts putting food on the table. It’s rice and vegetables; it basically looked like another Chinese meal. I was starting to get a little worried. I'm like, “Where's the turkey?” And then she pulled out this platter, put it on the table, and opened it up. She had bought turkey from the cold cut counter at the supermarket, and warmed it up for me. And she is like, “Here, you got your turkey.”
RL: Did she know that that's what was happening? Did she know that –
FL: How ridiculous it was?
RL: Yes. [laughs]
FL: I don't know. I think she just thought, “I don’t have to buy a whole turkey. He’s the only one that’s going to eat it. Let’s just get a quarter-pound and call it a day.”
AC: Oh my God, I love that.
FL: Thanks, mama.
Rebecca and Amy with Rebecca's rescue dog, Gunther, a Tibetan-Maltese. As you may have guessed, he loves turkey!
(Photos: Megan Miller | 500 Pens)
RL: A lot of our fans and readers of The Mash-Up Americans have sent us their wonderful family recipes. A friend, Paige, who likes to say she’s “Chinatown Chinese” – a few generations American, but from San Francisco Chinatown – her family has this fabulous soy-marinated turkey. Then there’s a Puerto Rican friend who has this guava adobado turkey. There's also a sticky rice stuffing recipe. A lot of mash-ups really do take it and interpret it, while still working within some constraint of ingredients.
AC: I so appreciate that. And if there is one last thing that I think we would really want to impart here, it’s that we believe in creating culture every day.
AC: Just by living we’re creating a new culture – by having deep roots and carrying them forward into the new families. Maybe you make your daughter turkey or maybe not. Maybe it's a beautiful bird infused with the flavors of your traditions – like Hong Kong flavors. And that’s incredible. We get to do it because we have access to all these things.
FL: And they're all equally American.
RL: Amen. We're grateful for that.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.