Much like a large cauldron of beer-cheese soup simmering on the stove top this Thanksgiving, America is a melting pot—a metaphorical coalescence of traditions from a wealth of cultural backgrounds.
From the descendants of the first colonists to land on these shores, through the first wave of immigrants from the old world to the modern influx of newcomers, there has always been a deep well of rich heritages at America’s disposal. And while we endure divisive language from elected demagogues who seek to tear us apart, we can all rest assured that a diverse menu of comfort food will be there to stitch us back together and lull us into a sleepy, albeit brief, sense of peace.
Turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Corn casserole, green beans and all the pies—Americans know how to do Thanksgiving. Yet, it doesn’t hurt to diversify and Americans with roots in the Caribbean, Italy, Puerto Rico, Iran, Sweden and beyond all unify through food and give thanks with grub in their own way.
Citizens from the Caribbean region, including Jamaica, brought with them traditions of beef oxtail and more. The oxtail is viewed as a low-quality cut by some misguided souls; however, it’s tender, rich, just a touch fatty and perfectly succulent. Jamaicans tend to prepare oxtail with scotch bonnet peppers to a hot, fruity flavor, enlivening any Thanksgiving meal.
I grew up in an Italian household and though turkey was the main event on Thanksgiving, we always started with a lasagna and appetizers and side dishes like impossibly thin fried eggplant, fried mozzarella with anchovy sauce, stuffed peppers and polenta. Some members of the tribe prepare stuffing leaning in the Italian direction with rice, hard-boiled egg and salami.
Plantains play an important role in the Puerto Rican take on Thanksgiving. This member of the banana family finds its way into the fried side with tostones or its sweet cousin, maduros, as well as in turkey’s stuffing such as mofongo. This Puerto Rican dish with African origins features mashed green plantains, garlic, olive oil and either pork rinds or bacon, and is stuffed into pavochon, a turkey seasoned like a roasted pig. Proper swine comes into play with lechon, a roasted suckling pig.
In Iranian cooking, rice is king and that holds true on Thanksgiving. Tahchin is an Iranian rice cake, layered with lamb or chicken and prepared with a sweet and savory bent featuring saffron. In Persian cooking, barberries are used as an alternative to cranberries and provide a sharp, acidic edge to the meal.
Finally, köttbullar, the world famous Swedish meatballs, play an important role in Scandinavian families’ meals, especially in the northern Midwest states. Throughout the year, the meatball morsels of pork and beef are eaten as snacks or in sandwiches, but on Thanksgiving köttbullar is prepared with a creamy mushroom sauce and served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam.
When Thanksgiving rolls around on November 24, perhaps it’s time to make room for some new traditions in your home. America, no matter the inflexibility of its leaders, has always been a place of general acceptance and cultural celebration. That’s one tradition worth keeping.