As an expat I was initially mystified by the Thanksgiving holiday that happens on the fourth Thursday of November in the US and second Monday of October in Canada. Firstly, the same holiday in two neighboring countries on different dates, and secondly, it’s neither Christmas like in the sense of religious significance, yet an old tradition. My first experience of a turkey and cranberry dinner was in Canada more than a decade ago. I was visiting my brother and he had previously been invited for a thanksgiving meal. The boxed up leftovers became my meal later and I have to admit that together, mashed potatoes with sauce and turkey were delicious. But a decade later I still prefer my thanks-giving meal to reflect my history and culture, and to share it with friends. Hence, Friendsgiving.
A Pasta and Shellfish Thanksgiving meal prepared by Dominican and Guatemalan friends – our first Friendsgiving
A year after that Canadian experience when I eventually became an expat in the US, my first formal sit down thanksgiving meal was cooked by two other expats, from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. They baked a pasta casserole with shell fish, another pasta that I cannot recall now, there was lots of pie (store bought) and wine. No turkey, cranberry sauce or mashed potatoes. Our dinner party included us – a couple from India, the hosts and another expat from Nigeria. We sat down, went round the table to say thanks for whatever each one was grateful for, toasted and ate until we couldn’t move! A few years later tabouleh was a side dish for thanksgiving hosted by a Syrian-Turkish family. They roasted a turkey. And for our last social thanksgiving pre-pandemic we ate a potluck meal put together by Indian, Pakistani and American friends. All delicious, comfort food. These meals and mingling of cultures have become a feature of our Friendsgiving tables.
An annual ritual of counting our blessings
That first pasta casserole thanksgiving defined the essence of all future thanksgivings for us. It’s become a day to offer thanks for the year coming to a close. The original immigrants, Pilgrims from Europe who colonized lands of the indigenous tribes of America, also meant to give thanks. By that token, it is a holiday worth celebrating.
Being thankful can be transformational just as saying a prayer can be uplifting for a religious practitioner. Spiritual practices (religious or not) emphasize mindfulness, empathy and openness. There are also parallels with a long tradition of similar religious holidays for seeking forgiveness (Yom Kippur in Judaism, Paryushana in Jainism) or celebrating the victory of good over evil (Durga Puja and Diwali in Hindu traditions).
Living on the land of the Tohono O’odham
But thanksgiving is a holiday mired in a violent past that has not been acknowledged fully. Researching the origins of Thanksgiving, that became an official holiday in 1863, I learned about the 1970 declaration by United American Indians of New England calling it a Day of Mourning. For indigenous tribes it has been a reminder of the pain and suffering of their ancestors. Many indigenous people fast for twenty hours to mark this day. Kisha James, granddaughter of Wamsutta Frank James, who initiated the Day of Mourning, urges people to educate themselves. She suggests learning about the tribe whose land we live on. Engaging with them and donating where possible. I live on the land of the Tohono O’odham.
As an expat it can be easy to dismiss the history of our adoptive home. But coming from India, a country with its own history of caste discrimination and colonization, I feel a kinship to the native peoples of America. Caste has followed Indians as far as the Silicon Valley. An example of how difficult it can be to rid ourselves of deeply ingrained biases and discriminatory practices. As the new year dawns I hope to educate myself and learn more about the Tohono O’odham.
Friendsgiving – bonding over food
Food is a language unto itself. Extending the table to invite others to share a meal is intimate and can be variously, an act of generosity, understanding, kindness or simply friendship. In my book, as I am sure in yours, there is no higher honor than being invited to share a meal at someone’s home. This year we’ll finally be able to meet friends and open our home to them. The pandemic isn’t over. But we are all vaccinated and thankful for that. Thankful also for having made it so far. So, here’s what might grace my table this Friendsgiving. A medley of our favorite foods, most of which are on the blog and some recent experiments from other cooks and chefs’ websites.
Planning our Friendsgiving menu
Some years ago I wrote about planning a party menu. That is still my guide to every event. I think of the main entree – a show stopper – smaller sides, breads, rice and dessert and snacks. While the more the merrier is a good rule, sometimes less is more. To take the pressure off this thanksgiving, I am going to take my own advice and keep it simple.
Some ideas that I’ve been mulling over: a few decisions needs to be made, soon!
- For the show stopper: Either Ghosht Do Piazza or, Gingered Chicken or, Achari Chicken
- Something stewy and steaming: Either Mahn Di Dal or, Panchmel Dal or, Sabz Kadhi
- Rice inspired by the Rice Pilaf from this very Persian Roast Chicken
- Vegetarian show stopper: Haak ka Saag and/or a pumpkin sabzi like Achari Kaddu or Khatti Meethi Kaddu ki sabzi
- Flatbreads like this Makki Methi ki Roti or Missi Roti
- For dessert: either a halwa like this decadent Gajar ka Halwa or Malai Halwa or a baked custard like Lagan Nu Custard and if neither then a cake with ice cream. There are a few options for the cake like the Rum Soaked Carrot Cake, Rum and Date Cake or a simple Two-Egg Cake with fruits and ice cream.
- Snacks: there will be some cheese, fruits, dips like hari chutney, hummus and mathaa, an all nut butter similar to this Salted Chocolate All Nut Butter and if there is still time then, a sweet potato chaat.
- Drinks: assorted wine and spirits and perhaps some Mulled Wine because we don’t have to wait for the holidays!
This sounds and reads like a long list. Maybe even too much food for one night. But a lot can be done ahead of time like steaming dal, making the chutney and baking a cake. The chicken can be easily cooked a day in advance. In fact some dishes taste better the next day as the spices get time to seep in.
Since I will be hosting friends for a few nights, I’ve also baked and frozen a Persimmon Bread following this recipe by David Lebovitz and a batch of savory sourdough discard crackers modified to taste more like an Indian snack called namkeen-para or matar using a recipe by Amy Duska.
Friendsgiving – a mini holiday before the Holidays
I am looking forward to a week of cooking, baking, eating and commiserating over our pandemic experiences. And as the writer, filmmaker Natash Badhwar writes, “the human spirit is resilient, it is designed to survive. The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning, wrote Sam Shepard.” This thanksgiving will lead to the Holidays and eventually the next year with its own challenges. For this week we will try to be thankful.