As I’ve mentioned before, I’m German. Want proof? Check out my dazzling Dirndl-action!
Obviously, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving per se in Germany, although there are harvest festivals (which are not a big deal and which don’t involve turkey). So when I moved to the United States in 2005, my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s family graciously welcomed me into their home and shared their traditional Thanksgiving with me. What can I say? It was wonderful. Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, fresh cranberry sauce made in an ancient meat grinder, fresh baked bread, and most of all, my mother-in-law’s unbeatable, incomparably delicious stuffing (bread, celery, sausage) and her famous chocolate-pecan pie. And pumpkin pie. And ice cream. I met other members of the family, had a wonderful time feeling at home away from home, and I ate, and I ate, and I ate.
Curiously, that night I woke up in horrible pain, which didn’t subside. When the tight, convulsive cramping in my right lower abdomen wouldn’t subside, my father-in-law first suggested appendix issues, then scratched that since the appendix is located on the left side. He gave me Tums. They didn’t help. When I didn’t get better the next day and following night, my mother-in-law and wife took me to the emergency room, where I was X-rayed, poked, prodded, and finally diagnosed with a collapsed gall bladder filled to the brim with gall stones. Turns out high fat meals can trigger attacks. Go figure. They wanted to operate then and there, at which I burst into a teary-eyed, stumbling explanation that, look, this was Kansas, and I had mid-terms in Ohio coming up, my first semester in America, and we have plane tickets already, and my wife has to go back, what will I do? Well, the doctors gave in, let me fly back to Ohio with instructions to immediately go to the ER there.
2 days later I had outpatient surgery. Before the surgery, a smiling Russian second-in-command surgeon asked “Ahhh, gall bladder, is from baby?” “No,” I replied, “is from turkey.” (Well, in all likelihood it was from the stuffing or the pies, but hey, I was under duress). When I woke up, I found out after 2 more shots of morphine that I lack morphine receptors. Since I didn’t stop convulsing in pain, the nurses fed me a cookie, gave me a painkiller to swallow, and I was much, much better. Two days worth of chicken broth and a very coddling girlfriend later, I was back to normal, passed all my midterms with an A and craved chocolate-pecan pie.
Each year, I get asked which organ I intend to lose this year. Ah, Thanksgiving. I loved it.
Now for a bit more interesting fare, brought to you courtesy of the suggestion by wonderfully helpful Oh Cake!. I went and queried friends, colleagues and acquaintances about their Thanksgiving food traditions, and where their families originated from. I sampled English, Irish, German, Danish, American Indian, Swedish, Hungarian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Scottish, Italian, Spanish, Slovenian and Vietnamese, from 5th generation to directly immigrated like myself.
What I found was that the vast majority closely adhered to the gold standard – turkey, gravy, pumpkin and/or apple pie and/or pecan pie. Popular items all across the board were stuffing (bread or cornbread based), green beans, potatoes or sweet potatoes, mashed or scalloped, or with marshamallows, squash dishes and cranberry sauce. But there were a few standouts and particular stories I enjoyed and thought I’d share:
“My grandma also makes homemade egg noodles (roll out the dough and cut the noodles by hand with a knife). She makes them that day and they dry for hours on the dining room table. All the women sit around and cut them as they dry enough while chatting. And the kids always run by and steal the uncooked noodles.” – German descendent tradition
“With my sibling food allergies we didn’t have an extravegant thanksgiving, most of my childhold we had lamb cooked in a crock pot with banana squash, yams, and rice.” – British/German descendent
“We always do different things. I’ve made traditional japanese, indian, american, mexican and chinese food for thanksgiving (not all at once)” – Swedish descendent
“Wine-soaked cranberry sauce and tarhonya (a Hungarian noodle dish). Before my great-aunt died we had her amazing bread, now we buy baguettes to eat with our butter (did I mention the butter? we really, really love butter in my family). My grandmother makes sós stangli (Hungarian cheese straws), which get passed off to friends the next day because we’re all tired of them (she does nothing, ever, besides bake these). For dessert: Hungarian pastries, and a new version of rice pudding every year.” – Hungarian descendent, many recent immigrants
“My family goes with each family part making turkeys in different ways, but usually roasted and stewed. Also rice with different kinds of beans. In Puerto Rico pies aren’t very popular, but instead we make pumpkin flan. My aunt will make some escabeche of green bananas. – Puerto Rican studying abroad
“I try to make something native american, specially mayan or aztec, to show respect and appreciation.” – Mexican-American immigrant
“Butternut squash, corn, homemade bread, parnips – cut legthwise and fried in butter, rutabegas – boiled and mashed, sweet potatoes (no marshmallows!). My family is really adamant that we stick with very traditional food – Lots of root vegetables and what I would think of as late harvest food. – Irish descendent
“An old Scottish recipe that has been in our family for years and its pretty simple – oatmeal, butter, and onions” – Scottish descendent (I am particularly excited about this stuffing because I was promised a sample!)
“Growing up, my family incorporated a lot of Italian-American food into Thanksgiving. We always had a lasagna and antipasto earlier in the day before the actual “traditional” dinner of roasted turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes etc.” – Italian descendent
“Empanadas as appetizers to honor our latin roots and I also insist that she make a tomato/onion/lemon juice “dressing” which you can drizzle on the turkey in addition to regular gravy.” – Spanish descendent
“Duck (or turkey, but only if the kids insist)” – Vietnamese immigrants
“We use mashed green plantains to make the stuffing, add some seasoning, usually a lil bit of bacon, garlic and some people like to add raisins.” – Puerto Rican studying abroad
I hope you enjoyed this mini-study of Thanksgiving traditions! I, for one, would like to try almost all of the listed menus! Who knows, if I stay here permanently, maybe I’ll add a German twist on my Thanksgiving dinners, too. Are there any specialty items inspired by your family’s roots that simply must be there come Thanksgiving?