"I love Thanksgiving," Tanya Holland says. "It's nondenominational; everyone's invited. My gatherings tend to be a little like the island of misfit toys." The chef is so devoted to the holiday that when she was a homesick 26-year-old student at France's prestigious La Varenne cooking school, she invited her classmates to a Thanksgiving dinner. "There was a store in Paris that sold some American grocery items," she says, "but I couldn't find yams or cornmeal." Still, she pulled it off. This year, she created a spectacular meal that brings together her French training, Creole background and California influences.
Holland is the owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, California. She moved there the same year I did, 2003, although I didn't know it at the time. I'm an urban farmer who left Seattle looking for a less rainy place to keep my bees and raise my chickens. I rented a duplex next to an abandoned lot and rode my bicycle around in search of something to eat. Dodging potholes and broken glass, all I found was fast food and three Korean restaurants.
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Like me, Holland quickly realized that she'd have to get in her car just to find a decent cup of coffee. Yet the Bobby Flay protégé still loved her new neighborhood, a predominantly African-American working-class area that reporters often called "gritty."