November 17, 2012
Before Americans discovered tandoori turkey, there was just turkey. Golden, buttery brown on the outside, slightly crisp skin. Bright, white meat on the inside. Sitting on a large platter, having cooked for many labor-intensive hours. Sliced thin for every eager plate. Stuffing perfectly soft, crunchy, salty on the side. Gravy spread graciously over the entire plate.
It was a traditional Thanksgiving that my meat-loving Punjabi father always sought. My mother - the vegetarian - not so much.
Growing up outside of Philadelphia in the 1970's, Thanksgiving was the first major celebrated holiday I can remember outside of my and my brother's birthdays. It wasn't Diwali or any other Indian tradition - it was ironically Thanksgiving.
As new immigrants to this country, we didn't have any blood relatives nearby. It could have been a very lonely existence, but in typical Punjabi/Indian tradition - we turned it into a party. All of our friends became our family.
They lived over the bridge in New Jersey, and every holiday was spent together. Like family. Our parents clung to the idea of surrounding their kids with others that looked and acted like them - with similar conservative cultural and religious values. And they clung to the idea of a community that for a night on a given weekend made them forget the families they left in India thousands of frequent flyer miles away.
We rotated holidays among friends, and Thanksgiving was always spent with one family in particular, where Auntie (not even related to us), opened her home and her heart to us every Thanksgiving without fail.
We'd enter the house and usually go our separate ways. The women in the kitchen, gossiping at the table. The men in the more formal living room, and the kids either in the family room on chairs or in the basement with the toys depending on our ages.
No one was trying to create 'fusion' turkey traditions by making a red turkey or stuffing it with Indian spices. In our group and our community our parents, most new immigrants, were more interested in assimilating to their new country - but usually only when it came to food.
Everything else needed to stay Indian. "Don't be like your Amriken friends, they are too independent," my parents would lecture, fingers wagging.
The lecture almost translated to our Thanksgiving evening dinner. On the one end sat the beautifully cooked turkey with sides like sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and gravy. And on the other? Every North Indian dish known: Palak Paneer, Baingan Bharta, kali dal, bhindi masala, and stacks and stack of beautifully rolled out and round homemade rotis.
This was before it became fashionable for the Indian set to cater - before there were even Indian restaurants in our east coast enclave. Everything was homemade and made from scratch. Even the gulab jamun, which was usually made by another Auntie are still some of the most delicious I've ever eaten. Round, delicately browned like donut holes served up in a puddle of sweet, sticky syrup right next to a slice of homemade pecan pie with a dollop of whipped cream.
Together on the same plate, but still very separate.
The way my parents and their friends preferred it. Fusion meant confusion to them. It was not a concept they had the luxury to indulge in as they struggled to work long hours, put food on the table, and string change together to send home to their families. Nor could they afford to mix their social lives or their children with the 'other' - the gauras, or white Americans we went to school with and they to work with.
Unlike Indian immigrants today, the intention back then was only to make enough money and leave this country to go back to their beloved India.
...and fusion..along with tandoori turkeys was a thing of the future.
Little did they know life had so much more in store for them.
Stay tuned for my new fave recipe for Thanksgiving...Masala Brussels sprout chips - I will include it over the next day or so.