How 7 immigrant families transform the Thanksgiving turkey with the flavors of their homelands

The Washington Post – By Tim Carman – November 22, 2019

Thanksgiving is an American holiday rooted, in myth and in practice, around the table. The emotion that underpins the day — gratitude for life’s bounty — is not unique to the United States, even if some of the trappings are, starting with the giant oven-roasted turkey in the middle of the dinner table.

Many first-generation immigrants to America can’t help but eyeball the bird with skepticism, no matter how much they want to adopt the customs of their new home. Turkeys — often hulking specimens, hard to cook, rather bland — are not native to many countries around the world. Compared with the complex, multilayered dishes of Italy or Lebanon or West Africa, a Butterball turkey blasted to 180 degrees can be (how to say this delicately?) underwhelming to the holiday’s newcomers.

Take Vito Rago, father of Rossella Rago, the host of “Cooking With Nonna,” a sweet, Old World-paced online series dedicated to homestyle Italian cooking. From the day he set foot in America from his native Puglia in southern Italy, Vito adapted a hard line against Thanksgiving turkey. His daughter remembers that, on the holiday in her childhood home, the turkey wouldn’t go into oven until 1 p.m., so that it was ready around 9:30 p.m., well after the parade of Italian American dishes had already been inhaled.

The turkey was “like a decoration” to her father, Rossella jokes. “If it were plastic, it would be fine to him.”

Vito may have been more active in keeping the turkey down, but other immigrants, or their offspring, share in his distaste. “I am not a big fan of turkeys,” Lebanese native and cookbook author Joumana Accad emailed from Beirut, where she moved after living in the United States for more than 30 years.

“I’m not a turkey fan,” echoed chef and author Pierre Thiam, a native of Senegal.

“I didn’t always like turkey!” noted Raj Thandhi, founder of the lifestyle blog Pink Chai Living and a first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants.

Immigrants who came from Latin American countries, as you might expect, have a different take on a bird that has a long history in the cuisines of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

“A lot of people do the perfunctory Thanksgiving turkey,” says Maricel Presilla, a chef, historian and author. “They go through the motions of having the bird because they want it to be pretty like in the glossy magazines. But they don’t really like turkey. I happen to love turkey. I love it. I absolutely love turkey.”

But regardless of their ancestral land, newcomers to the United States often identify with Thanksgiving, and for the holiday spread, they’ll frequently dip into the pantry of their mother country to modify the bird of their adopted country. Which is how you end up with Peking-style turkey, tandoori turkey, tamarind and honey-glazed turkey and countless other recipes that prove the American melting pot can be found in the kitchen, too.

The Thanksgiving holiday resonates for many immigrants, Presilla says.

“Everybody, in a way, that’s outside of their country is like a pilgrim,” she adds. “Pilgrim in the true sense of the word: You leave everything behind, and you reinvent yourself in a different country.”

Here are seven short stories about how immigrants or their children transformed the Thanksgiving turkey.

Rossella Rago

Thanksgiving Citrus Turkey

As a first-generation Italian American, Rago couldn’t help but notice how well Italians had assimilated into the United States — except, she says, on Thanksgiving, when everyone had to prove they were more Italian than their neighbors. The family might enjoy two different lasagnas before the turkey ever made an appearance on the table. But a few years ago, Rago’s mother-in-law, Maria Pesce, decided to introduce the turkey earlier in the meal, in an attempt to marry the Old World and the New World on Thanksgiving. Even her Thanksgiving Citrus Turkey recipe was a fusion: It incorporated flavors from the old country, including olive oil, garlic, rosemary, sage, navel orange, lemon and pinot grigio. Rago faithfully reproduced it in her cookbook “Cooking With Nonna: A Year of Italian Holidays.” So did the Italian-style turkey persuade Rago’s dad to try a bite of the bird? Not a chance, Rago says. “He doesn’t eat it,” she says. “He looks at it.”

Pierre Thiam

Tamarind and Honey-Glazed Roast Turkey

For the past few years, Thiam has been developing an American market for fonio, an ancient grain that is versatile, gluten-free and, perhaps most important, resistant to the drought conditions faced by West African farmers who grow the grasses. Though on a much smaller scale, Thiam’s Tamarind and Honey-Glazed Roast Turkey follows a similar path: It introduces Americans to some of the signature flavors in thieboudienne, Senegal’s national dish, which in turn encourages West African immigrants to embrace turkey, a bird rarely eaten in their native land. When Thiam developed the recipe for Saveur, he knew he wanted to include tamarind. After all, some think Dakar, Thiam’s hometown, was named after the Wolof word for the tamarind tree. From there, he added fish sauce and Scotch bonnet peppers for umami, fruitiness and a small element of heat. The result? Even for non-turkey eaters, the chef says, “you see people coming back for seconds.”

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Posted by Teri Perticone


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