How I'm Making Thanksgiving Feel Like Home This Year
To quell my homesickness, I’m bringing Trinidad to the Thanksgiving table.
If you were born and raised in America, maybe you don’t remember your first Thanksgiving because it was always part of your life. Maybe your early Thanksgiving memories are of your mom roasting the turkey, a table set with the good china, and pies cooling on the counter. That’s the Thanksgiving fantasy I imagine, inspired by years of watching American sitcoms. I migrated from Trinidad to America in 1998 as a 19-year-old college freshman. I have very vivid memories of my first few Thanksgivings here.
The first one, I spent with the family of the girl from my floor who I used to go clubbing with. The next Thanksgiving, I spent in my dorm alone, trudging down to the resident faculty apartment for a plate of turkey and a slice of pie, joined by fellow international students left behind over the holiday. The third Thanksgiving, my then-boyfriend, soon-to-be-fiancé brought me home to meet the family.
I was so nervous; they were Midwestern nice. I helped set the table, and I tried my first green bean casserole. Afterwards, we went to look at Christmas lights. I started to understand why Thanksgiving felt so special. I began to appreciate the warmth and family traditions beyond just shopping deals, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.
It has taken me a long time to feel like I had a real stake in celebrating Thanksgiving. My husband and I don’t have children, so in many ways we're free of that sense of obligation. More often, we're the ones who show up at a relative’s home to stay for a few days, who might make a side dish or clear the table but are happy to get out of the way and just be guests. I can count the number of times I have hosted Thanksgiving and made our own turkey on one hand. And now, 2020, here we are.
The history of Thanksgiving makes it an inherently problematic celebration for me, and I believe it's important to recognize its ugly colonialist roots. Like many others, I've shifted the observance away from the traditional narrative and towards a more personal focus on family, gratitude, and giving. This Thanksgiving, instead of visiting family to break bread together, we’re coordinating time zones and deciding which video chat app works best for us all to eat dinner together online.
This year has granted me perspective and gratitude in ways I never could have imagined. Nevertheless, this Thanksgiving already feels sad, heavy, and lonely. We’re trying to make the best of it, but that is the truth for myself and many others.
Typically, around this time of year, I might be planning a quick trip down to Florida to see friends, and then to Trinidad to see my family. Because of COVID-19, I couldn’t get to my home country if I tried. To lift my spirits, I’m bringing my culture to the Thanksgiving table, quelling my homesickness with the flavors of home.
I’m not alone. Many of my Caribbean-American friends are also planning deeply personal, pared-down Thanksgivings.
Washington-based chef Sarah Chan of Calypso Kitchen brings Trini flavor to her community through her catering and cooking classes, and over Thanksgiving, she plans to give a taste of our homeland to those in need.
“My girls and I will be in my commercial kitchen space cooking meals for the homeless in our community and helping to distribute them,” she said. “This is a project I have started to do every Thursday and will continue to do so, as long as I have the resources.”
My high school friend Marsha Massiah-Aaron now lives in New York City, where she is the founder of the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival. She’s got relatives here, so it has been easier for her to create that sense of home. Even still, it’s taken some effort to embrace this particular celebration, given its history.
“Lots of the Trini dishes make it to our table along with ethical and enlightening moments of sharing to keep truth and understanding at the center of it all,” she said. “So, it’s less about the pilgrims and more about what can we openly share and recognize gratitude to and for."
"Thanksgiving then has taken on a mini Christmas mood," she continued. "Pigeon peas, sorrel, some kinda baked savory pie: shepherd’s or pastelle, macaroni pie invariably make it to the table. We have been experimenting with Caribbean flavors for turkey. None of us love turkey too much.”
Turkey isn’t very popular in Trinidad and Tobago outside of appearing on tables for Christmas alongside the obligatory ham, so I get that. It is a bland white meat that can often turn out dry, and the traditional seasonings of sage and rosemary aren’t part of the Caribbean palate. So side dishes, sauces, and spice take on extra significance for our holiday tables, since turkey is what is it is.
Novelist and Bajan-Canadian immigrant Nicole Blades plans on making baked goods that take her back home. “Sweetbread or coconut bread is my go-to for the holidays,” she said. “I’ve used the same coconut bread recipe for 20 years now. It’s from Rita Springer’s Caribbean Cookbook, but I’ve embellished it and now have it down to a science.”
Another must for the holiday? Black cake. “My mom would always get one made and keep adding rum to it over the week leading up to Christmas, [to] let it marinate or cure,” she said.
For many of us, that lead-into Christmas might be the most important part of Thanksgiving. Author and leadership coach Karen Walrond makes her usual Trinidadian family favorites, and is on the same holiday timeline as Marsha and me. “Must have macaroni pie! And rum punch," she told me. "And the day after Thanksgiving in our house starts the Christmas season, so it's all parang all the time.”
Inspired by my island sisters, I feel more determined to support local charities and food banks, and also to come up with a menu that celebrates my culture as well as the traditions my American-born husband craves. There will be turkey and dressing, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie, but all the rest of it needs figuring out.
I’m going to look at Caribbean Pot and Eat ah Food for ideas on spices and remixing traditional recipes. We will bring out our best plates and make our place settings pretty. We’ll video chat with the in-laws and call my family in Trinidad, even though it will just be another Thursday to them. And after the feast we will crank some Caribbean Christmas music and start decorating the tree. We will raise a glass of rum punch to toast in memory of those we have lost, and another to, somehow, still making it through.