Why I celebrate Immigrant Thanksgiving (with recipes!)
Chicago: November, 2014. The scent of caraway-seasoned duck and braised cabbage fills our small Uptown apartment, around the corner from Argyle St.'s"Little Saigon." We are hosting friends from Mexico, Columbia, and Belgium. They have no expectations of turkey or the typical midwesterner abundance of comfort carbs. They are definitely not invested in the American colonial myth of happy pilgrims and Indians eating corn together.
I am the American friend, and I play my role strangely, but well. Everybody loves the duck. We celebrate unexpected friendship across age and culture, transplanted to this cold and still unfamiliar city.
I do not identify with the colonial narrative of Thanksgiving. It isn't my family's story. Plus I don't think whitewashed genocide is a reason for celebration. But I am thankful to be in America, and thankful that my family could come here as refugees and thrive.
I think back to this story my parents love to tell. My father spent his first Thanksgiving with my mother's Eastern European immigrant family in Washington, D.C. They were roasting goose, speaking Russian and Yiddish...my father, who was raised in Cincinnati in a very midwestern, much more assimilated Jewish family, had serious culture shock. So much so he still talks about it more than 30 years later. They made goose. Goose!
(I wish I could afford a goose)
I haven't spent Thanksgiving with my parents in over a decade, but my husband and I have made our own traditions. We host our kind of Thanksgiving—a table for outcasts, for immigrants, for anyone stranded on the holiday. And I have never made a turkey!
My Thanksgiving recipes are Czech, Polish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, French...it's always about the food materials I have access to, my kitchen skills, sad wheat gluten allergy...
Here are some of my favorite recipes throughout the years:
Duck cooked with caraway and apples is classic Czech/Polish holiday fare.
Here's a good recipe if you want to cook the duck whole. And pro-tip? I actually prefer to break it into parts so that the duck breast does not overcook and duck legs are tender. I usually buy some additional duck legs and braise them so stretch duck to a larger group. Find your favorite method for cooking duck legs—confit, slow braise—and adjust the seasoning for your taste.
Lately I have been doing Chinese-inspired duck dishes because I am addicted to sticky rice stuffing, and they go quite well together. I braise the legs in "red braised" seasoning and pan fry the duck breasts to medium-rare with five spice seasoning.
Cranberry sauce is my favorite part of "traditional" New England Thanksgiving menus, and luckily it is really easy to adapt to any cuisine. Cranberries work really well as an Indian-style chutney. I'm a fan of the no-recipe approach, usually adding orange zest, cloves, anise, ginger, some kind of juice or alcohol, and sugar to-taste. I change the seasonings based on what I serve it with.
If like me, you can't have gluten...or maybe you are dairy free, Thai coconut pumpkin custard makes a really great alternative to pumpkin pie. Though it is not quite as visually striking, I prefer the texture of the steamed Cambodian variation.
If you HAVE to have turkey, consider using a Vietnamese fish sauce & lemongrass marinade or tandoori marinade to seal in the flavor and give the dry bird a little kick. And definitely use the drippings and leftovers to make Taiwanese turkey rice.