Food traditions, like other family rites, tend to evolve slowly, simmering over time and seasoned by succeeding generations. Custom, as much as the menu, fixings and decor, is often the centerpiece of the holiday gathering.
Thanksgiving is a notable exception. Because of its ecumenical nature and its emphasis on gratitude and sharing, it is a holiday that allows newcomers--even invites them--to become instant practitioners of our national rituals. And, because it is a day essentially devoted to excessive eating, it doesn’t conflict with too many cultural or religious convictions. Thus, most people feel OK about jumping onto the gravy boat and taking a ride.
It is also, we shouldn’t forget, a holiday that was organized by immigrants to celebrate and give thanks for their new surroundings. But it’s understandable that many first-timers like the idea of Thanksgiving a lot more than the foods we associate with the holiday.
After all, early settlers were shocked, even appalled, at the sight of early regional New World culinary possibilities. According to Bill Bryson, the author of “Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States,” the lands and waters of the continent were bursting forth with edible options, and yet the first Pilgrims “showed a grim reluctance to eat anything that did not come from their dwindling stockpile . . . almost preferring,” in the words of one historian, “to starve in the midst of plenty, rather than experiment with the strange but kindly fruits of the Earth.”
Nowadays, at least, the great popular-culture machine has beamed word or image of cranberry sauce and whipped sweet potatoes with marshmallows to people all over the world, making it easier on potential immigrants. Today they get the chance to familiarize themselves with the stuff before actually going one on one with it.
C.J. Singh, who manages the Indian restaurant Yasmeen’s in Ventura, came from India eight years ago.
He started celebrating the holiday right away.
“You know, when in Rome . . . ,” he said. Nice sentiment, but they eat pasta and risotto in Rome, not creamed onions or chestnut stuffing.
“My boss, Ishrat Ali, is from India, and his wife, Sylvia, is from Mexico,” Singh said. “Every year they serve a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and invite the entire staff of the restaurant to their home in Oxnard.
“We always eat turkey, ham, and all the usual side dishes,” he said.
And after all these years, he claims to like all of it. Well, almost all of it.
“I like the cranberry sauce, the sweet potatoes, the ham. I even like the turkey, though I admit it’s sort of dry, compared with chicken.”
Didier Poirier, chef and owner of 71 Palm, another Ventura restaurant, left his hometown of Le Mans, France, and spent time in other French and Swiss cities before coming to the U.S. 15 years ago.
“I ate a Thanksgiving meal the very first year that I arrived here,” he said. “I wanted to be part of the American way of life and its traditions.”
But beyond the rather abstract, yet touching, concepts of heritage and inclusiveness, what does Poirier, as a Frenchman and a chef, actually think about the food?
“It’s fine,” he said, slightly hedging. “I eat all of it; or most of it. The turkey is OK, the stuffing is OK, even the cranberries are OK. But the yams--no.”
It probably would make no difference to Poirier that we don’t actually eat yams in this country, we eat sweet potatoes. Clearly, he wouldn’t like yams, either.
Lau Duong and Thau Sam, who own the Indo China Market in Goleta, came with their six children to the United States from Vietnam in 1978. The family was so daunted by the complexity and strangeness of the Thanksgiving meal that it took them 10 years to get up the courage to cook one.
The first attempt, according to twin daughters Ngo and Ngan Duong, was a disaster. Mistrustful of the cooking instructions on the package, their mother cooked the turkey so long it was inedible. “Everyone hated it,” Ngo Duong said. Her father even left the table muttering, “Thank God we don’t have to eat American food every day.”
It was five years before they tried again. “We decided to eat ham,” a food the family knew, because the French had introduced it to the Vietnamese, Ngan Duong said.
The rest of the meal was created through imitation. “We looked at pictures--from Martha Stewart, from television and from the Reynolds Wrap box,” Ngan Duong said. “And we tried to make our meal look like that.”
They bought instant potatoes. (“It’s the same thing, right?” Ngo Duong asked.) And they made salads in advance and boxed pumpkin pie, and picked up some canned whipped cream, which they squirted on top of the pie, just like in the pictures.
Asked about the cranberry sauce, the two were mystified. “What’s that?” they asked in unison.
They were still confused after getting a description.
Two years ago, they actually bought a precooked turkey. “We hated it,” Ngo Duong said. “It was so dry.”
The Pilgrims, certainly, would understand.
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