I Celebrated My First Thanksgiving in America, And...

November 14, 2017

I spent my first Thanksgiving in America watching a VH1 Top 40 countdown with my brother, which means that every time I think of Thanksgiving, I also think of the song "7 Days" by Craig David. (If you know the lyrics... it's a strange, strange association.) By the time I turned 14, my family and I had developed a Thanksgiving tradition of reserving an otherwise difficult-to-book table in Manhattan and ordering from a prix-fixe menu. My brother and I always got turkey; everyone else ordered what they defended as "less bland." Perhaps we were trying to make up for our untraditional first Thanksgiving in America. Or perhaps turkey, like every Thanksgiving I've spent since I moved, is not bland at all. I get the fuss! And I look forward to it every year.

While not all new-to-America folk share my enthusiasm, first Thanksgivings, by default, make good stories. We asked 13 people from different parts of the world to describe their first turkey day feasts (and general musings on the holiday), from an intrepid mother who, in pre-Google 1994, used a recipe from her mailman to my own mother, who reveals what she did that night my brother and I were stuck at home. We also heard from a newcomer who spent Thanksgiving with her co-workers (in the office), a sweet potato casserole convert, and more.

Yogev (Israel):

I had recently moved to Brooklyn from Tel Aviv, and my roommate was from Green Bay. Our apartment was home to a yearly potluck Friendsgiving of about 40 "Sconnies" (and a handful of "Michiganders"). Planning started weeks ahead, but nothing prepared me for the sheer amount of casseroles. In an attempt to impress, I made couscous and a lamb tagine, as befitting a feast. It was really great but people definitely raised eyebrows at the untraditional choice. I ended up eating about a quart of sweet potatoes and marshmallows—who ever came up with that? It remains to this day my favorite Thanksgiving dish!

Thais (Brazil):

I spent my first Thanksgiving at an Airbnb in Washington, DC, with five other Brazilians. We all had only known each other for 3 months, and we knew even less about how to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. We ended up preparing a fungi risotto and traditional Brazilian flan for dessert. After a lot of red wine, we went around the circle saying what we were thankful for, most of us selecting that very moment. Today, we all live very far away from each other, but we still text each other to laugh about our first Thanksgiving.

Last year, I spent Thanksgiving at a restaurant in Montauk, where my table for one collected a few stares from the big family reunions around me. The waitress brought me a plate that could easily serve 3. I still remember my first bite of stuffing and how I thought the plate didn’t have nearly enough of it. After dinner, I went to a bar and met a guy who was also alone. We drank a glass of wine and exchanged numbers. Never saw him again. I constantly think about that turkey stuffing, though.

Lail (Bangladesh):

I had arrived in the USA about 3 months before researching and writing a paper for my English 101 class in college—on the topic of Thanksgiving. That was my first introduction to the holiday.

I love how Thanksgiving centers around the principles of being grateful, thanking God, keeping family ties, and feeding others. None of these values contradict the teachings of Islam, so I do prepare a Thanksgiving meal once in a while. When I create a menu, I try to feature classic ingredients such as pumpkin, sweet potato, and cranberries with a contemporary spin: cranberry sauce with jalapeño, autumn samosas with seasonal vegetables, sweet potato au gratin with the famous Bengali spice blend panch foron, my mom’s pumpkin halva that I grew up eating, or candied pumpkin inspired by Turkish ‘kabak tatlısı.' Of course, a halal roasted turkey takes center stage, and choco-chai provides a double dose of warmth as we wrap up the holiday meal.

Susan (Kenya):

My first Thanksgiving in America was in November 1999 (I think). The first thing I remember is seeing the turkey and all the food that goes along with the day. It was bizarre to me that the Kenyan food that you find at every event wasn’t featured at all. To this day, I'm not sure I like Thanksgiving food: Stuffing doesn’t make sense to me and I find turkey rubbery. Ultimately I prefer authentic Kenyan food (chapo, dengu).

Natalia (New Zealand):

In 2007, when I was 17, I moved from Auckland, New Zealand, to San Antonio, Texas. Growing up, my family would always eat ham around the holidays, so we decided to carry this tradition over to give some familiarity to our first Thanksgiving. In New Zealand, my mother would buy the meat from a specialty European butcher and roast it for hours with oranges and cloves. We were all a bit enchanted with the local chain grocery store, with its gargantuan aisles and confusingly low prices, so we decided to buy our ham there. The glistening, pre-sliced ham on the bone didn’t absorb the flavor of the oranges, and, since we couldn’t really score it, the jar of cloves remained unopened on the kitchen counter. My mother would always make a plum gravy to go along with the ham, but that year she cooked down the plums with some fresh cranberries, which was perfect. My sister asked if there would be crackling with the ham. My mother said no. My sister ran away from the table in tears.

Zsolt (Hungary):

I experienced my first Thanksgiving as an exchange student at Beloit College in Wisconsin, in 2006. The concept of devoting an entire holiday to giving thanks sounded foreign to me, but since that first Thanksgiving among the silos and cornfields, I have warmed up to the idea of the holiday and now I look forward to it every year. I view it as a welcome extension of the holiday season, filling my soul with Yuletide vibes, giving me a chance to celebrate with my friends, and most importantly, making me hit pause and take stock of the good in my life.

Michiko (Japan):

In 1994, as an expat mother of two small children in a New Jersey suburb, who spoke little English, I didn’t think I would ever grow into the role of a graceful host. Without the convenience of Google, I used my mailman’s recipe for turkey: salt, pepper, supermarket brand stuffing, roasted for 6-7 hours. Our friends brought cranberry sauce and politely picked at the turkey. I used the leftovers for sandwiches and fried rice until my husband said "no more!" My family refused to touch turkey for several years, until a dear family friend invited us to her Thanksgiving table, a feast laden with prosciutto, melon, and a delicious turkey. I finally understood what the fuss was about, and learned how to cook for it. Nowadays, I host Thanksgiving every year, serving a menu reflecting my Japanese upbringing and my profession as a dietician.

Michiko even gave us a bonus recipe for Thanksgiving (or anytime):

I always serve a healthy, yummy, easy carrot dressing on top of the salad I serve every time I host. I always make extra of so my friends can take it home: Mix 3 medium carrots (cut to 2-inch pieces), 1 medium apple (cored and quartered), 1 peeled lemon, 1/3 cup water, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 4 tablespoons roasted ground sesame seeds, 1.5 tablespoons fresh ginger, and puree in a blender until you get a smooth consistency. Add 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, a pinch of salt, and 1/2-1 tablespoon of honey (optional), and continue blending. Slowly drizzle 3-4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil as you go.

Without the convenience of Google, I used my mailman’s recipe for turkey. I used the leftovers for sandwiches and fried rice until my husband said 'no more!'

Daniela (Italy):

My first Thanksgiving in America was in New York in 2015, and I spent it with a mix of American and Italian friends. Being Italian, it was a brand new experience for me. We celebrated it at a friend’s place and everybody brought something they cooked. I cooked lasagna of course, but I didn’t eat it, because I wanted to try this "famous" turkey everybody was telling me about. I actually loved it, with the gravy and the cranberry sauce. I also tasted, for the first time, a slice of pumpkin pie. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, but combined with an Italian espresso, I found it was very nice!

Luis (Uruguay):

I had my first Thanksgiving as a graduate school student. I was warmly received by the family that rented me a room in their house. They made me feel like I was part of their family, like we had known each other for years. It was the feeling of warmth that I remember the most. Not just the room temperature (since it was warm inside and very cold outside), but the conversation, the smiles, and the laughs.

Ilana (South Africa):

My roommates and I, neither of whom were American, attempted a potluck, which had a lot of veggies and no Thanksgiving-ish food. I don't remember much, other than how un-Thanksgiving-y it was. I made something like a vegetarian fish ball that wasn't great, one roommate made a salad (the type she always ate), and there was mulled wine. Is mulled wine made by a South African Thanksgiving-y?

Aurelie (France):

My first Thanksgiving was at work. I had moved to the U.S. four months prior, and had not yet had the chance to make good friends to spend Thanksgiving dinner with. We were all asked to prepare something, and the kitchen table was full of delicious dishes that everyone had prepared. (I made garlic bread.) It was very colorful and diverse. I remembered being curious about a casserole with green beans, weird crumbs, and burned onions on top. I had never seen this before! Of course, the turkey was ridiculously enormous, and someone was in charge of cutting this big bird into small pieces. The sweets were particularly surprising to me. I tried for the first time a slice of pumpkin pie. I found it quite yummy. I left work that day inspired.

Nisha (India):

We drove all the way to Long Island, to Ashwini Aunty's house. She had made very bland turkey, with a lot of sides; it was nice but I didn't really understand it. Her sister brought with her a leg of ham, which I really liked. She made some Indian food, too, because she knew we were new to the country. I mostly ate that. I remember everyone went around the table and said what they were thankful for, which was a really nice tradition that we now do at our meals, too. After that we went to Lucky Uncle and Shilpa Aunty's house. They would have something of a big bash for the holiday and invited people openly, even ones they barely knew.

Aireen (the Philippines):

My first Thanksgiving was in 2001. The most interesting thing, which I loved, was the turkey. It was so...big.

This article has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Hana A. November 14, 2017
So heartwarming, Nikkitha! I loved reading these individual stories, reminded me of my own East-meets-West Thanksgiving table. I definitely laughed out loud, too. ;)
HalfPint November 14, 2017
This was wonderful. I got a little teary-eyed for some reason even though all the stories were happy/funny.

I don't remember our first Thanksgiving, but I do remember the first few years in the US when my mother made turkey a la charsiu style. It wasn't exactly a big hit with us kids (leftovers for weeks!). But I vividly recall the first year she made a traditional roast turkey from a recipe dictated by her supervisor, Bob (whom we nicknamed "God" because his word/opinions were gospel to Mom). It was a butter-basted golden roast turkey that was simply heaven. We finished that 15lb bird that day. It was that good. Every year my parents received 2 turkeys from work. So successful was the Thanksgiving turkey, my mom cooked the 2nd bird the same way at Christmas. It went the same way as the Thanksgiving turkey - quickly. We upped the ante the following year, making extra turkey for sandwiches later that night and the next day, should there be any turkey still left :)
Every year until she sold the house and moved to warmer California, we had this turkey for Thanksgiving.
Joy H. November 14, 2017
But oh, a char siu turkey sounds amazing!
HalfPint November 14, 2017
@Joy Huang, I know, right? But somehow, it didn't work for us. We (including Dad) dreaded that turkey every Thanksgiving and Mom didn't know how else to cook turkey until God - I mean Bob - told her. I think the turkey was too lean for char siu.
Joy H. November 14, 2017
Haha, that makes sense. Thanks for sharing your story!
AntoniaJames November 14, 2017
Does Bob know that you referred to him as God? Assuming it would not seem blasphemous to him, I bet he'd enjoy knowing that. Love your story, HalfPint, and how beautifully it is told. ;o)
HalfPint November 15, 2017
Aww Thanks @AJ. No I don't think Bob knew that we called him "God", but I take a guess that he would have had a good chuckle.
Chihiro November 14, 2017
Love all of this!