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Hold the Turkey

After 15 years in America, one immigrant decided to put her own spin on Thanksgiving. She's still spinning.

"Here, my dear," Mrs. Wilson said, handing me a brush. "You just dip the brush into this paste, and baste the turkey like so."

I watched her baste the bird with practiced strokes and tried not to turn away or wrinkle my nose. Being Indian, Hindu and vegetarian, I had never touched a turkey before. But Mrs. Wilson was working so hard to include me in her family's Thanksgiving I didn't have the heart to tell her that I felt queasy, not thankful, at the opportunity to baste. So baste I did, taking care not to let my fingers come in contact with any part of the bird.

The Wilsons were an old New England family who "adopted" me when I came to Mount Holyoke as a student 15 years ago. On Thanksgiving Day, Mr. Wilson picked me up at my dorm and drove me to their Colonial home, where relatives asked polite questions about India. Crystal decanters clinked by the fireplace as the men helped themselves to drinks and discussed golf, politics, taxes and horses, but never each other. Women wearing smart, sensible clothes bustled around, laying china and silver on a cherry dining table that seated 15. Silver swans held place cards, and a large silver rabbit displayed a menu that never changed during the five Thanksgivings I spent there. Everything was so civilized compared to my family's feasts in India, where a hot, chaotic kitchen filled with sweaty, harassed cooks turned out vast quantities of food, where relatives insulted each other, abused the servants or went off in a huff never to return. So this is America, I thought.

Five years after my first Thanksgiving, I moved to Memphis for graduate school and was invited to spend the holiday with my roommate's family. Within minutes of my arrival, Mrs. Guyette enveloped me in a bear hug and coaxed my life story out of me. When I told her that I was a vegetarian, she was amazed. "Even our collard greens have lard," she said. Hastily, she ordered a cousin to "fry up some okra" for me. Instead of fancy china, we ate from beautiful handmade ceramics on a table covered with black-eyed peas, collard greens, candied yams, biscuits, cheese grits, sweet potato pie and, of course, turkey. As the day wore on, someone got out a guitar and we launched into an impromptu jam session. So this is America, I thought.

As I moved around the country, I encountered many variations on Thanksgiving. In Santa Fe, the Lorenzos spiked every dish--from stuffing to mashed potatoes--with green and red chiles. In Ann Arbor, my Italian boss invited several employees home for a traditional meal that included spinach lasagna. An old roommate's family, the Haitoglous, served an outdoor buffet with grape leaves, moussaka, souvlaki and a fragrant, fresh Greek salad that was the best part of the whole meal, given the 100-degree Miami temperature. This was America? Where was the turkey?

Last year, after a decade of attending other people's Thanksgiving dinners, I decided to host one of my own. It was time to plant my flag, to let America know I had arrived. It was time to participate instead of observe, contribute instead of mooch. I would not roast a turkey, of course. My meal would be a paean to the versatility of vegetarian food.

I considered following Mrs. Wilson's conventional Thanksgiving menu using meat substitutes, but the "tofu turkey" I tried tasted so horrible I decided against it. An all-Indian menu was out too; I wanted my menu to reflect America, and my experience of it. A friend suggested "world cuisine," and I jumped at the idea. America was a nation of immigrants, after all; I was one myself. Even the Wilsons, whose ancestors had sailed in with the Pilgrims, seemed as much of a minority as the Haitoglous, who flew to the United States 20 years ago and still dreamed of Crete. So it seemed perfectly appropriate to appropriate food from many different cultures for my meal.

Evenhandedly, I chose something from each continent except Antarctica, which doesn't have much by way of vegetables. If I couldn't offer turkey, I would at least offer a dish from Turkey, so the main course would be cabbage dolma--cabbage stuffed with rice, tomatoes, onions, pine nuts and currants. (Stuffed cabbage vaguely resembles stuffed turkey, I thought.) Instead of mashed potatoes, I would serve baba ghanouj. Japanese umeboshi plum paste could stand in for cranberry sauce; it was about the same color. I looked to Italy for my appetizers and salads. Aleecha, a hearty vegetable stew from Ethiopia, was the only African dish I knew. Chilled avocado soup would be South America's contribution; from Australia came the Shiraz wines I love.

So it came to be that I stood in my kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, cooking up the world and awaiting 12 guests. About half were foreigners, and the rest were artsy New Yorkers who preferred not to celebrate Thanksgiving with families they cordially disliked.

I spread a bright blue tablecloth and littered it with silver stars and candy canes (in lieu of stripes). The centerpiece was a small American flag stuck in a vase. I added flags from several other countries so as not to offend the foreigners, until my table had a true United Nations look.

My guests arrived, professing hunger and eagerness to sample my food. They looked innocuous enough as they awaited my avocado soup with mango-cilantro salsa, but when I brought it to the table, Todd, the painter, said he was allergic to mangoes, and Carlos, from Guadalajara, declared that he hated cilantro. How could a Mexican hate cilantro, I wondered as I spooned the garnish out of his bowl. Margo, the macrobiotic, wouldn't eat avocado since it wasn't native to New York, and Robert, the banker on a Pritikin diet, wouldn't eat it because it was high in fat.

Things got progressively worse. Niloufer, the daughter of a Turkish diplomat, took one look at my dolma and said, "That doesn't look like the ones my grandmother made." Reza, the Iranian consultant, announced that he wouldn't eat Turkish food since his ancestors were murdered by Turks. Todd, I discovered, wasn't allergic merely to mangoes but also to cabbage. He was, however, the only one in the group who touched my umeboshi cranberry sauce, which everyone else pronounced inedible. Olivia, my fashionable Italian friend, stated that she "couldn't" eat the pine nuts I had liberally tossed into my dolma stuffing, and spent the entire meal scratching her plate to spot and discard the offending kernels.

With each dish, I had to recite the ingredients in excruciating detail and answer questions about whether I had used stone-ground flour, whether the produce was organic (it wasn't), all of which determined which of my delicacies my guests would deign to eat. After an afternoon of listening to Olivia wax eloquent about how pine nuts are among the fattiest substances on the planet, keeping Reza and Niloufer from each other's throats and catering to Todd's multiple allergies, I was almost faint with frustration.

For the first time, I found myself empathizing with Mr. Wilson, who harked back to "simpler times," when everyone ate the same thing--a strange position for me, since in those simpler times my vegetarianism would have been viewed as an exasperating aberration.

My chef friends have it worse. Jerry Traunfeld, who turns out sublime nine-course tasting menus at the Herbfarm, his restaurant outside Seattle, says he can no longer serve the same thing to his 60 diners each night. Nowadays, he has to accommodate a dizzying array of diets--vegetarian, kosher, vegan, low-fat--not to mention any number of food allergies. Hearing this, I had to wonder if American individualism has run amok, with people shunning certain foods not just because of religious strictures or doctor's orders but simply because they can. I had planned a feast for a nation of immigrants but found myself serving a table of individuals. In this country, we seek to define ourselves in every decision we make, right down to what we'll allow on our plates. Language, ethnicity, religion--none of these seem as important as personal choice.

A year can soften a memory, which must be why I am thinking of hosting another Thanksgiving dinner. This year, rather than coming up with a monumental menu theme, I will invite some close friends and ask each one to bring a dish. If nothing else, people can eat whatever they've cooked. A potluck Thanksgiving for a melting-pot culture. How perfectly appropriate! No, not perfect, but appropriate.

Shoba Narayan is at work on a collection of essays to be published by Random House next year. She lives in New York City.

Published November 2001
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