Thanksgiving may be the most American of all holidays but its foundation – food, family, friends and gratitude – knows no borders, religions or cultures. Everyone can relate, and everyone loves it.
By: Abigail DesVergnes
Thanksgiving is a time for all Americans to give thanks, cook, and get together with family and friends.
For many, turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie are dishes that can be found on the dining room table.
But for others from a variety of cultural backgrounds, dishes they cook on Thanksgiving reflect parts of the world where their families came from.
What’s so unique about America is that each family has a story regarding where they came from and how they got here, and the recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation are portals between the past, present and future. When the pilgrims landed in the New World in 1620 they brought with them cultural touchstones from England, but as they encountered the Wampanoags, they learned how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees and catch fish in the rivers – all concepts that would eventually define the new identity of Americans.
In November 1621, Plymouth colonists and the native Wampanoags shared an autumn harvest feast- combining both of their cultures – marking the first Thanksgiving.
Just as the Indians and settlers combined their cultures, many Americans combine the traditional turkey dinner with dishes that reflect their cultural identities.
The Alves family: Portuguese and Syrian food
The Alves family from Attleboro combine their Portuguese and Syrian cultures on Thanksgiving surrounded by family.
Husband Luciano Alves is of Portuguese background and wife Monique Alves, both 44 , is Syrian.
Their meal consists of Portuguese dishes such as papo secos (Portuguese bread rolls), Portuguese kale soup, arroz doce (Portugese rice pudding) and Syrian dishes such as baklava, hashweh (rice, ground beef and roasted nuts) and stuffed grape leaves.
And, they still have the turkey.
This “mixing of cultures,” as Monique describes it, is the Alves family tradition.
Both Luciano and Monique remember the times before they were married when they watched and learned from their parents about how to prepare their non-traditional Thanksgiving meals.
Luciano said he remembers watching his mother in the kitchen preparing seafood appetizers like spicy shrimp, calamari and clam and mussel stew.
“It was honestly my favorite part of the day,” he said.
Monique is thankful that she and her husband were able to combine their cultures on their Thanksgiving table.
“Thanksgiving to our family is a time where we can all come together and enjoy our differences as one,” she said. “We are thankful to have everything – most of all each other.”
Their daughter Kassandra, 17, hopes to pass down the traditions when she gets older.
“I love having non-traditional dishes. I think it’s amazing to have continued this tradition and I will definitely continue passing this tradition down,” she said.
The Nasa family: Lebanese food
In 2001, the Nasa family moved from a small village in northern Lebanon to Attleboro.
It was a journey of 5,000 miles, so some of the only things they could bring with them were recipes.
The Nasa family uses Thanksgiving to merge their American and Lebanese cultures together.
“We feel a part of both cultures, so why not merge the two together,” said Sarah Nasa,18.
Alongside the turkey, casseroles, mashed potatoes, pies, and cranberry sauce are the traditional Lebanese meals of rice with ground beef and pine nuts, spinach and meat pies, grape leaves, chicken with nuts, hummus and baba ghanouj.
“I still make the Thanksgiving dinner, plus the traditional Lebanese food, so everyone in the family is happy,” said Sara’s mother, Leila Nasa.
This is how it should be, according to Sara.
“I like how we eat our non-traditional foods alongside traditional foods because what greater representation of America could there be,” she said.
The Nasa family believes America, itself, is home to so many different nationalities that contribute to one big American culture.
“In my mind, it is the most American thing to have such a mixed meal during Thanksgiving because although I am paying homage to my heritage, I am also embracing my American side and acknowledging that the two don’t have to be separated, ” Sara said.
The DeRose family: Italian food
If there’s one thing Italians know how to do, it’s eat.
And the DeRose family of Attleboro loves going “all out” during the holidays, and Thanksgiving is just the start.
On the DeRose dining room table you’ll find meatballs, lasagna, gnocchi, and all sorts of pastas – and of course, the glorious turkey.
Oh, and let’s not forget the pies, cannolis and Italian cookies.
Alessandra DeRose, 18, says, “the more food the merrier for our family.”
Alessandra’s father, Bob DeRose, 57, says that cooking Italian dishes on Thanksgiving has been a tradition for as long as he can remember.
Bob recalls times when his grandmother, aunts and sisters would roll out more than 2,000 tortellinis a week before Thanksgiving to prepare for their traditional tortellini soup.
“It has always been tradition to incorporate Italian foods in our holiday dinners – that’s what I grew up with, it’s a part of our heritage,” he said. “There is pasta at all of our holiday celebrations, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The Harvey family: Vegetarian food
Although the Harvey family is British and Irish, they don’t celebrate their Thanksgiving with the traditional meals of their cultures, like bangers and mash. Rather they celebrate the holiday by eating all vegetarian and vegan foods.
“I cook vegetarian and vegan dishes because we are an all vegetarian and vegan household,” said Attleboro resident and mother, Melanie Harvey, 37.
Harvey has six kids, and all are either vegetarian or vegan.
Her two youngest sons have never even had meat, and “it isn’t something I plan on introducing to them, unless they specifically ask,” she said. “Cooking vegetarian and vegan is an everyday thing for me – Thanksgiving isn’t any different.”
Some of the meals the Harvey family has prepared in the past is, vegan/gluten free stuffed mushrooms, ravioli lasagna, tofurkey, and vegducken.
Tofurkey is a meat substitute in the form of a loaf of vegetarian protein, usually made from tofu with a stuffing made from grains or bread. Vegducken is zucchini stuffed into an eggplant, stuffed into a butternut squash, with vegetarian stuffing between each layer.
Melanie’s daughter Grace said she loves the dishes.
“It’s hard to go out to other people’s houses and eat when you’re vegan, so it’s nice to have a day where all the food is vegan-friendly,” she said.
Melanie starts preparing for the vegetarian feast as early as 5 a.m., and once the kids roll out of bed they either help cook or sit in the living room and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“Thanksgiving is a lot of cooking and stress, but it pays off because it means I get to see all my kids together. Having the whole family sit down together and really appreciate one another is something I look forward to every year,” Melanie said.
Pan Family: Chinese food
The Pan family of Attleboro is known for the Chinese restaurants they own in the area, including Hong Kong Treasures in Attleboro and Hong Kong City in Taunton.
During their Thanksgiving they eat traditional Chinese foods like rice, braised pork, steamed broccoli, along with the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.
In the Chinese culture, family is very important – and the Pan’s reflect that on Thanksgiving, as it’s a chance for all members of their family to get together and give thanks.
Stephanie Pan, 17, of Attleboro said there’s a sort of “tribe” mentality among Chinese families, where everyone in the family takes care of one another.
“When a baby is born, relatives will often help take care of and raise the baby to allow the parents to be more relaxed as the parents work,” she said. “And as parents grow older and become elderly, they tend to move in with their adult children so that their kids can take care of them, instead of living independently or being put in a nursing home.
“I think this is one of the main reasons why Thanksgiving is important to my family. Since our culture emphasizes the importance of family, Thanksgiving gives us the chance to get together with the entire family and re-establish that belief.”
Pan used to “hate” having non-traditional dishes because it was hard for her to relate with friends whenever they talked about Thanksgiving. But over the years, she has begun to enjoy having non-traditional meals much more.
“I have come to love it. My family is so unique and the dishes that we choose to have on Thanksgiving shows how important our culture is to us,” she said.
“I think that it is very important for people to keep in touch with their family background/culture because it gives them an open mind and allows them to see the world from multiple perspectives,” Pan said.
Salguero Family: Guatemalan food
The Salguero family of Attleboro stays far away from turkey on Thanksgiving.
As Guatemalans, the Salgueros enjoy cooking foods like tamales (made of a starchy dough, usually corn-based steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf, and stuffed with meat) ceviche (shrimp in citrus juices), caldo (meat stew), rice, beans and tortillas.
Twenty-one years ago, husband and wife Fidelfo and Olga Salguero, now 42, decided to leave Guatemala – where they met – to the United States in search of opportunity.
“Being Guatemalan means being strong and overcoming hardships. My background wasn’t the greatest, but I always found the motivation to keep moving forward,” Olga said.
And once the family grew with the addition of three kids, they decided that each Thanksgiving they would give thanks to their Guatemalan heritage by cooking dishes they grew up eating.
Their son Kevin said his parents raised him to be proud of his heritage.
“In my house, Thanksgiving brings happiness and great vibes. My parents make sure that us children never forget where we came from,” he said.
“I’m very proud to be Guatemalan, it has made me strong. Eating Guatemalan food reminds me of where I came from, and to never forget it,” Olga said. “And, it just tastes good.”