My family goes rogue every Thanksgiving and eats Vietnamese food. This year, Dad emailed the menu: fried imperial rolls (cha gio by my mom), Hanoi beef pho (made by me; kept frozen by my mom), and lemongrass pork riblets (mom followed my recipe in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen). I’ll bake a fruit galette for dessert. We’ve never had an entire American Thanksgiving menu of turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, and pumpkin pie, but this year I wondered how far off the mark we’d been.
There was one year when a friend gifted my dad a cooler full of quail, pheasant, and venison, which my mom turned into a feast that went on for days. In recent years, my dad has deviated from wine to serving beer at our family meals. For Thanksgiving a while back, I asked my mom to make Hanoi turmeric and dill fish (cha ca) with rice vermicelli noodles; we’ve also had fish my brother caught. My mom adores roast hard squashes such as kabocha and kuri squash so I always bring her one grown by a local farmer. We are eclectic Thanksgiving celebrants with no fixed menu.
Noodling around the web yesterday to read up on Thanksgiving history, I realized that the Thanksgiving menu started out quite varied. The first celebration in 1621 lasted 3 days, which I suppose is akin to our modern long Thanksgiving weekend. It was a harvest festival to give thanks so the celebrants utilized what they’d grown, gathered, and hunted down.
According to Nathaniel Philbick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, the 1621 menu may have included poultry such as geese, ducks, and wild turkeys. Seafood – fish (bass, bluefish, and cod), lobsters, and mussels, were abundant in the local waters so they may have been included on the menu too. For sure, there was venison since the Native American guests contributed five (5) deer to the meal. The Pilgrims also enjoyed pottages – soups and stews.
Beer was favored by the Pilgrims, who likely brewed their own with the 1621 barley crop. They had brought beer with them on the Mayflower. Indian corn, which had been dried after harvest and pounded, was likely made into baked goods. The season’s pumpkin and other squash may have been boiled, roasted or baked with cornmeal. There was no pumpkin pie.
In 1789 George Washington proclaimed November 26 as a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer,” but it wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving became a national holiday with the menu that we’re familiar with. Abraham Lincoln formally declared the holiday during the Civil War, months after the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. It was a seriously bad time in American history.
Melanie Kirkpatrick details the holiday’s history in this Wall Street Journal article and her new book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. A pivotal figure was Sarah Josepha Hale, poet (“Mary Had a Little Lamb”) and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular magazine of the time. Hale vigorously campaigned for a national Thanksgiving, gathering recipes and ideas that she felt reflected America at the time. She favored a menu that included roast turkey and pumpkin pie, not only to get people to eat the same food on the same day, but during the Civil War, such a menu was also meant to symbolize the unifying capabilities of the country. She wrote Lincoln, who shrewdly agreed and thus, we have a Thanksgiving national holiday.
Among the many things that 2016 has highlighted is this: we’re a very diverse country. Though the turkey and pumpkin pie tradition goes back to 1863, I’m of the mind to think independently and focus on what the holiday was originally about feeling blessed.
My family and have been in this country for over forty years and we’re grateful for the opportunities to not just be Vietnamese in America, but also to be Vietnamese-Americans. Just like the Pilgrims and Native Americans who participated in the first Thanksgiving in 1621, we’re focused on the bounty that life brings us.
Go ahead and tweak Thanksgiving. Celebrate like it’s 1621! Eat what you’re thankful for. Gather a bunch of people to cook and feast. Savor local, seasonal ingredients. Here are some ideas from the VWK archives:
- Step-by-Step Chinese-style Roast Duck (Duck!)
- Crisp Pot Sticker Duck Tacos (Duck!)
- Sweet Potato and Curry Leaf (Potatoes)
- Thai Beef Yellow Curry and Potato (Pottage-ish)
- Roasted Kabocha and Vegetable Dumpling (Squash/pumpkin, group project!)
- Pumpkin, Lime Leaf and Coconut Soup (Pottage-ish)
- Grilled Whole Fish in Banana Leaf (Fish – use something local!)
- Stir-fried Clams with Bean Sauce (Shellfish)
- Crab Rangoon (Dungeness crab season just opened! I’m very thankful for this.)
- Turkey Pho (in case you do have that turkey, be thankful to turn it into something Viet-glish!)