Tropical Thanksgiving(s)

Thanksgiving is, without a doubt, one of my favorite holidays. Some of my happiest memories are of my mother and me cooking side-by-side for our family. Thanksgiving is about community and sharing, but it is also about the food that we eat and the memories we keep alive through specific dishes. No Thanksgiving would be complete in my family, for example, without my grandmother’s deviled eggs–a tradition my mother and I both honor.

But I have also had a few disappointing Thanksgiving meals. One year, before my husband and I were married, we decided to spend Thanksgiving alone at a romantic B&B in the countryside. He had found a charming restaurant that offered a five course Thanksgiving dinner–and for some reason which I now cannot recall, I decided to order pork chops rather than turkey. I then spent the entire meal with “food envy” while watching my partner chow down on his juicy turkey and stuffing. Then last year, we left town for Thanksgiving and had a very disappointing dinner of pasteis (on what was otherwise a very lovely vacation). But as I was chewing on my bland pastel (which lacked any sort of filling!!), I vowed that we would have a proper Thanksgiving dinner the following year, even if it meant hosting it myself.

So this year, my husband and I actually found ourselves celebrating Thanksgiving twice: once with Americans midday on Thursday and then again with new Brazilian friends on Saturday night. Our Thursday dinner was bountiful, chaotic and beautiful–we had invited several families and single friends from the embassy and each brought a dish to share. We had a spread of turkey and gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, lots of vegetable sides, rolls, and of course, pecan and pumpkin pie for dessert. Needless to say, this year redeemed last year’s meal in every possible way.

On Saturday night, we were invited by our friends, M. and R., to celebrate a “Tropical Thanksgiving”. They had spent the last two years in Utah and were eager to continue the tradition of Thanksgiving here in Brasilia. While we were texting back and forth about ideas for the meal, M. sent me this NYTimes piece on “The American Thanksgiving.” I loved reading the stories because they are all so unique and they remind us that the U.S. remains a country of immigrant families, who have made efforts to adapt and integrate, while at the same time retaining their rich cultural heritage. What better way to express this heritage than through food? Food is not just what we eat, it is a vessel of memories passed down from generation to generation. It reflects our immediate familial cultures and traditions, as well as regional and national identities.

At this Brazilian Thanksgiving, for example, we had rice instead of potatoes–a Brazilian staple for ANY meal! And, thanks to M.’s inspiration, I tried out this mango chutney to replace cranberry sauce. Cranberries are nowhere to be found, but it is currently mango season and they are everywhere. If we continue to be posted in the tropics, the chutney might become a new family Thanksgiving tradition.

While we were at dinner on Saturday, some of the other Brazilians asked us, the only Americans, about the origins of Thanksgiving and what was a “typical” way to celebrate Thanksgiving–catching me a bit off guard as I reflected on this peculiar American holiday. So I told them about the pilgrims and Native Americans, without hesitating to point out the irony of the ongoing #NoDAPL protests and clashes with authorities, something they had not heard of. But I was somewhat stumped on what was a “typical” way to spend the day. Of course, there are the stereotypes: watch the Macy’s Day parade, run an early morning Turkey Trot, watch/play football, eat a gluttonous early dinner, take a tryptophan induced nap in front of the television, go back to the kitchen for seconds… and then the onset of rampant consumerism that follows. How would you describe those things to a foreigner? And how much of that do we actually do? Or maybe you have other ideas of a “traditional” Thanksgiving? How do YOU spend Thanksgiving?


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