Tamales, not Turkey: New York Immigrants' Thanksgiving Traditions
Editor's note: We've talked plenty about Thanksgiving these past few weeks, and by now the subjects are rote: turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie. But there's more than one way to celebrate this American holiday. Craig Cavallo talked with immigrants in New York's food community to find out what's on—and who's around—their tables. — M.F.
Ideally it's snowing. But Grandma takes to her chair every Thanksgiving afternoon with a pot of string beans regardless of the weather. Three hours before we eat, the house warm from an oven that's been on since morning, Grandma waltzes to her recliner with an apron around her waist and slippers stuck to her feet. Once there, the same dull knife she's used for decades goes to work on the stem sides of the beans. The trimmed results get placed into an old pot. Grandma's 92. Her pot and green bean casserole recipe are nearly just as old.
In 1902, four years after Ellis Island became New York's main immigration center, Christopher Shourek and Dorothy Adamak—my great-grandparents—came to the states from what is now the Czech Republic. They settled in Tuckahoe, New York. Fast forward to present day and Gram writes birthday cards to a slew of grandchildren and rising number of great-grandchildren. Many of her (and my) earliest memories of Thanksgiving—roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy—are defined by traditional American customs. But those aren't the only American Thanksgiving traditions.
Arturo Rodriguez began his life in New York ten years ago after he left his home in Puebla, Mexico. "When I first came to this country," he remembers, "I didn't feel anything for Thanksgiving because we don't celebrate it in Mexico." He works long hours as a cook, but the holiday affords him and his extended family the rare chance to get together. "It's the only day we can see everyone," he told me, standing outside the Greenwich Village restaurant where he works. "Almost everybody's working. So that day we can make a reunion—my cousins, my uncles—we meet in the park in the morning and play soccer. After that we eat tamales and drink coffee. Then we go home and eat our big meal," which, like most Thanksgivings, starts with thanks.
"In my family," Arturo explained, "the head of the family prays to God for everyone. Sometimes it's the oldest, but it's always a man," he said. "We call varón. In my case it's my uncle, but sometimes he doesn't want to speak to everyone, so I do, because I care about that. This isn't our country, but I thank God for everything, for our jobs and for caring for us." For Arturo, the traditions are becoming routine and the holiday is one he looks forward to more every year. "I can see for my cousins and some of my family who were born here that it's very important to them. And for the country it's a very special day," he said. "So we celebrate too."
Jason Wang, the president and co-owner of the Xi'an Famous Foods mini-chain of restaurants, was born in China's Shaanxi province but moved to the U.S. when he was eight. "[Thanksgiving] isn't really a holiday for me in terms of time off," he told me, "because some of our restaurants (such as in Flushing and Chinatown) are quite busy on holidays."
With a business degree from Washington University and passion for his father's recipes, Jason's grown what started as a small store in the basement of the Flushing Mall to seven locations in three boroughs. Jason was working at one of them as a server last Thanksgiving. "My father and I both work on holidays, so we barely have time for festivities," he told me before adding, "I don't think I've had time to actually enjoy Thanksgiving in my life yet, unfortunately. Because holidays in the Chinese restaurant business mean no time to rest." Though if a slow day comes around, Jason finds time to celebrate. "My dad and I usually meet whenever it's not busy to have a meal together somewhere, but it doesn't have to be Thanksgiving Day," he told me. "We make time."
Einat Admony came from Israel to America in 1998 for what was supposed to be just three months. She stayed. Her passion for food and inspired approach to cooking has spawned three restaurant successes and made her one of the city's great culinary minds. "I celebrated Thanksgiving the first year I was here. Back then I didn't have a dining table. I had a very small apartment and a coffee table, but there were 16 people all around it. I was scared to do turkey, so I made a Peking duck."
There will be turkey this year, "just for its dramatic entrance." There will be stuffing, too. "Quinoa stuffing with butternut squash, honey, pepper, thyme, and a lot of nuts and dried fruit," she said, then added, "and maybe some pieces of challah," which suits the shared date Thanksgiving has with the start of Hanukkah this year.
Einat looks forward to celebrating both holidays. "First I'm going to light a candle with my kids," she told me, "and I'm going to make them some small, baby latkes. And maybe even do sufganiyot," she said, referring to the jelly donuts served in Jewish homes during Hanukkah.
As he got ready to head back to work, Arturo ended our talk with a moment of reflection. "We might be immigrants, but we bring our culture and our food with us."
About the Author: Craig Cavallo is a writer with an addiction to New York City's food and drink. Learn more about his problem at digestny.com.