Over the thirty-five years that my family has been in America, Thanksgiving has never stuck. By the time the holiday rolled around, we’d already celebrated the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival that mostly fell in September. Moon cakes, gazing at the giant moon, and returning to visit family were part of that traditional harvest-time celebration. The Moon Festival (Tet Trung Thu) symbolized a giving of thanks and culturally resonated with us.
Pilgrims, pumpkins, and pies were novelties that didn’t catch on with our family. My mother roasted turkeys that she bought through rock-bottom supermarket deals but we never liked them. The bird was too dry, and we could not afford a Butterball to taste how other Americans ate.
11/19/10 Update: After reading this post, my parents scanned in this photo and emailed it to me.
It's from the 1980s. You see the chestnuts, sticky rice stuffing. I think I dolled it up (that's my hand)
with baguette slices, for what reason I don't recall.
One Thanksgiving long ago, Mom suggested — and we unanimously agreed with her — to cook smaller, more succulent birds. Roasting chickens and game hens became our top choices during the holidays.
One thing we never waivered on were the holiday chestnuts. My parents would roast and peel several pounds of them. They'd combine the ugly broken ones with sticky rice, fatty ground pork, shiitake mushroom, cognac, butter and herbs. That dressing filled up the bird’s cavity, which my mother, a seamstress, neatly sewed up with a needle and bright red thread. She wanted a color that she could find once the bird was out of the oven. The beautiful whole chestnuts were simmered with chicken, butter, and cilantro.
My sister Linh was into sweet potatoes and often made a roasted casserole with orange peel and rum. There were no marshmallows. My mother, not a tippler, loved the dish and still makes it on occasion.
One year, I brought Brussels sprouts, a specialty crop in Northern California where I live. My immediate family was appalled. My sister Tasha reminded me that we’d eaten so many overcooked, gas-forming ones when we were at Camp Pendleton in 1975.
“I’m not eating them,” she said, shaking her head. I made them anyway, tossed with browned butter. My family members changed their minds and the refugee food scars healed a bit. I was relieved to dispense with 5 pounds of Brussels sprouts.
Thanksgiving changed after my siblings and I got married. We started new family traditions of our own and ended up spending Thanksgiving Thursdays with the in-laws and Thanksgiving Fridays at my parents’ home.
The result was that my mom hasn’t roasted a Thanksgiving bird in years. Instead, she takes email and phone requests for our favorite Vietnamese foods.
The grandchildren get sticky rice and Chinese sausages (lap xuong) and banh cuon steamed rice rolls. Adults ‘order’ banh xeo sizzling rice crepes, banh tom sweet potato and shrimp fritters, bun thang rice noodle soup, or bun cha grilled pork and rice noodles. There’s usually some homemade Vietnamese charcuterie such as warm cinnamon sausage (cha que) and tangy sweet pickled veggies (dua gop) for us to nibble on.
I won’t even mention the spread of sweets that my mom pulls out for one of her typical dessert courses. It’s as if she lures us home with her cooking.
This year, my husband and I decided to stay in Santa Cruz for Thanksgiving. His aunt passed away in June so we no longer have a Thanksgiving Thursday commitment. I have not made a regular Thanksgiving meal in a while so I did a ‘practice’ run yesterday to make sure that I’m still on my game with making the stuffing, roasting the bird, gravy, etc. (Details to come.)
After getting my email about not coming for Thanksgiving, my ever practical mother responded, “It’s good that you’re not coming for Thanksgiving. Christmas is just around the corner.”
Thanks for understanding, mom. I’ll surely miss Thanksgiving next Friday.
What’s your family's Thanksgiving holiday tradition like?