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I Celebrated My First Thanksgiving in America, And...

Food52 logo Food52 11/14/2017 Nikkitha Bakshani
a close up of many different types of food on a table © Provided by Food52

I spent my first Thanksgiving in America watching a VH1 Top 40 countdown with my brother, which means that every time I think of Thanksgiving, I also think of the song "7 Days" by Craig David. (If you know the lyrics... it's a strange, strange association.) By the time I turned 14, my family and I had developed a Thanksgiving tradition of reserving an otherwise difficult-to-book table in Manhattan and ordering from a prix-fixe menu. My brother and I always got turkey; everyone else ordered what they defended as "less bland." Perhaps we were trying to make up for our untraditional first Thanksgiving in America. Or perhaps turkey, like every Thanksgiving I've spent since I moved, is not bland at all. I get the fuss! And I look forward to it every year.

While not all new-to-America folk share my enthusiasm, first Thanksgivings, by default, make good stories. We asked 13 people from different parts of the world to describe their first turkey day feasts (and general musings on the holiday), from an intrepid mother who, in pre-Google 1994, used a recipe from her mailman; my own mother, who reveals what she did that night my brother and I were stuck at home; a newcomer who spent Thanksgiving with her co-workers (in the office); and a sweet potato casserole convert.

Yogev (Israel):

I had recently moved to Brooklyn from Tel Aviv, and my roommate was from Green Bay, and he took Thanksgiving with a seriousness I've come to realize only Midwesterners could. Our apartment was home to a yearly potluck Friendsgiving of about 40 "Sconnies" (and a handful of "Michiganders"). Planning started weeks ahead, but nothing prepared me for the sheer amount of casseroles. In an attempt to impress, I made couscous and a lamb tagine; as befitting a feast. It was really great but people definitely raised eyebrows at the untraditional choice. I ended up eating about a quart of sweet potatoes and marshmallows—who ever came up with that??? It remains to this day my favorite Thanksgiving dish!

a piece of cake on a plate: Sweet Potato Casserole with Brown Sugar Fluff © Provided by Food52 Sweet Potato Casserole with Brown Sugar Fluff

Sweet Potato Casserole with Brown Sugar Fluff by Ashley Rodriguez

Thais (Brazil):

I spent my first Thanksgiving [at] an Airbnb in Washington, DC, with five other Brazilians. We all had only known each other for 3 months, and we knew even less about how to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. We ended up preparing a fungi risotto and traditional Brazilian flan for dessert. After a lot of red wine, we went around the circle saying what we were thankful for, most of us selecting that very moment. Today, we all live very far away from each other, but we still text each other to laugh about our first Thanksgiving.

Last year, I spent Thanksgiving in Montauk, at the Harvest on Fort Pond, where my table for one collected a few stares from the big family reunions around me. The waitress brought me a plate that could easily serve 3. I still remember my first bite of stuffing and how I thought the plate didn’t have nearly enough of it. After dinner, I went to a bar and met a guy who was also alone. We drank a glass of wine and exchanged numbers. Never saw him again. I constantly think about that turkey stuffing, though.

Lail (Bangladesh):

I had arrived in the USA about 3 months before researching and writing a paper for my English 101 class in college—on the topic of Thanksgiving. That was my first introduction to the [holiday].

I love how Thanksgiving centers around [the] principles [of] being grateful, thanking God, keeping family ties, and feeding others. None of these values contradict the teachings of Islam, so I do prepare a Thanksgiving meal once in a while. When I create a menu, I try to feature classic ingredients such as pumpkin, sweet potato, [and] cranberries with a contemporary spin: cranberry sauce with jalapeño, autumn samosa with seasonal vegetables, sweet potato au gratin with the famous Bengali spice blend panch foron, my mom’s pumpkin halva that I grew up eating, or candied pumpkin inspired by Turkish ‘kabak tatlısı.' Of course, a halal roasted turkey takes center stage, and choco-chai [provides] a double dose of warmth as we wrap up the holiday meal.

a red sauce in a bowl: How to Make Cranberry Sauce Without a Recipe © Provided by Food52 How to Make Cranberry Sauce Without a Recipe

How to Make Cranberry Sauce Without a Recipe by Sarah Jampel

Susan (Kenya):

My first thanksgiving in America was in November 1999 (I think). I thought it was interesting that we all had to go to New Jersey for dinner. The first thing I remember is seeing the turkey and all the food that goes along with the day. It was bizarre to me that the Kenyan food that you find at every event wasn’t featured at all. To this day, I don’t like Thanksgiving food: Stuffing doesn’t make sense to me at all, turkey tastes like rubber, and authentic Kenyan food (chapo, dengu) is always way better.

Natalia (New Zealand):

In 2007, when I was 17, I moved from Auckland, New Zealand, to San Antonio, Texas. Growing up, my family would always eat ham around the holidays, so we decided to carry this tradition over to give some familiarity to our first Thanksgiving. In New Zealand, my mother would buy the meat from a specialty European butcher and roast it for hours with oranges and cloves. We were all a bit enchanted with the local chain grocery store, with its gargantuan isles and confusingly low prices, so we decided to buy our ham there. The glistening, pre-sliced ham on the bone didn’t absorb the flavor of the oranges, and, since we couldn’t really score it, the jar of cloves remained unopened on the kitchen counter. My mother would always make a plum gravy to go along with the ham, but that year she cooked down the plums with some fresh cranberries, which was perfect. My sister asked if there would be crackling with the ham. My mother said no. My sister ran away from the table in tears.

a plate of food with a slice of cake on a table: Super Simple Glazed Ham © Provided by Food52 Super Simple Glazed Ham

Super Simple Glazed Ham by Kayb

Zsolt (Hungary):

I experienced my first Thanksgiving as an exchange student at Beloit College in Wisconsin, in 2006. The concept of devoting an entire holiday to giving thanks sounded foreign to me as a Hungarian: We are used to commemorating suppressed revolutions, marking religious holidays, and spending our days complaining about everything—taking time to count our blessings is usually not on the agenda. Just as mashed sweet potato, cranberry sauce, or eggnog will not make their way onto a traditional Hungarian dinner table. Since that first Thanksgiving among the silos and cornfields, however, I have warmed up to the idea of the holiday and now I look forward to it every year. I view it as a welcome extension of the holiday season, filling my soul with Yuletide vibes, giving me a chance to celebrate [with] my friends, and most importantly, making me hit pause and take stock of the good in my life.

Michiko (Japan):

I host Thanksgiving every year, serving a menu reflecting my Japanese upbringing and my profession as a dietician. In 1994, as an expat mother of two small children in a New Jersey suburb, [who spoke] little English, I didn’t think I would grow into this role of graceful host. Without the convenience of Google, I used my mailman’s recipe for turkey: salt, pepper, Kings supermarket–brand stuffing, roasted for 6-7 hours. Our friends brought cranberry sauce and politely picked at the turkey. I used the leftovers for sandwiches and fried rice until my husband said "no more!" My family refused to touch turkey for several years, until a dear family friend invited us to her Thanksgiving table, [a feast] laden with prosciutto, melon, and a delicious turkey. I finally understood what the fuss was about.

Michiko even gave us a bonus recipe for Thanksgiving (or anytime):

[I always serve a] healthy, yummy, easy carrot dressing on top of the salad I serve every time I host. I always make extra of so my friends can take it home: Mix 3 medium carrots (cut to 2-inch pieces), 1 medium apple (cored and quartered), 1 peeled lemon, 1/3 cup water, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 4 tablespoons roasted ground sesame seeds, 1.5 tablespoons fresh ginger, and puree in a blender until you get a smooth consistency. Add 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, a pinch of salt, and 1/2-1 tablespoon of honey (optional), and continue blending. Slowly drizzle 3-4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil as you go.

Daniela (Italy):

My first Thanksgiving in America was in New York in 2015, and I spent it with a mix of American and Italian friends! Being Italian, it was a brand new experience for me. That's why I lived it with the eyes of an explorer and it was pretty fun! We celebrated it at a friend’s place and everybody brought something they cooked. I cooked lasagna of course… but I didn’t eat it, because I wanted to try this ‘famous’ turkey everybody was telling me about. I actually loved it, with the gravy and the cranberry sauce! I also tasted for the first time a slice of pumpkin pie and, even though at the beginning I wasn’t sure I liked it, while chewing the final bite I realized how the aftertaste was actually very nice… especially when combined with an Italian espresso!

Luis (Uruguay):

I had my first Thanksgiving as an adult. Freshly arrived in the US to attend graduate school, I was warmly received by the family [from whom] I was renting a room. They made me feel part of their family; as if we had been together for years. It was the feeling of warmth that I remember the most. Not just the room temperature (it was warm inside and very cold outside of the house); but the conversation, the smiles, and the laughs.

Ilana (South Africa):

[My roommates and I] had a potluck with mainly veggies and no Thanksgiving-ish food. I don't remember much, other than how un-Thanksgiving-y it was. I made something like a vegetarian fish ball that wasn't great. I think one roommate made a salad (the type she always eats, but I can't remember what was in it). Is mulled wine made by a South African Thanksgiving-y? Either way, unless I lie, I'm not sure my story will be a great one.

a wooden table topped with a cut in half: Pumpkin Sugar Pie © Provided by Food52 Pumpkin Sugar Pie

Pumpkin Sugar Pie by Erin McDowell

Aurelie (France):

My first Thanksgiving was at work. I had moved to the U.S. four months before, and had not [yet] had the chance to make good friends to spend Thanksgiving dinner with. We were all asked to prepare [something], and the kitchen table was full of delicious dishes that everyone had prepared. (I made garlic bread.) It was very colorful and diverse. I remembered being curious about a casserole with green peas, weird crumbs, and burned onions on top. I had never seen this before! Of course, the turkey was ridiculously enormous, and someone was in charge of cutting this big bird into small pieces. The sweets were particularly surprising to me. I tried for the first time a slice of pumpkin pie. I found it quite yummy!! I left work that day inspired.

Nisha (India):

We drove all the way to Long Island to Ashwini Aunty's house. She had made the... very bland turkey, with a lot of sides, which was nice but I didn't really understand it. Her sister brought with her a leg of ham, which I really liked. She made some Indian food, too, because she knew we were new to the country; I mostly ate that. I remember everyone went around the table and said what they were thankful for, which was a really nice tradition that we now do at our meals, too. After that we went to Lucky Uncle and Shilpa Aunty's house. They would have something of a big bash for the holiday and invited people openly, even ones they barely knew, especially if they would be spending it alone.

Aireen (the Phillipenes):

My first Thanksgiving was in 2001. The most interesting thing [which I loved] was the turkey. It was so... big.

Stumped about what to cook this Thanksgiving? Check out our Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker:

a group of people sitting at a table with a plate of food: Food52's Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker Is Here! © Provided by Food52 Food52's Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker Is Here!

Food52's Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker Is Here! by Caroline Lange

Related gallery: 25 Recipes That Will Put Your Thanksgiving Leftovers to Good Use


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