Every year, Jyothi Raghavan, a retired software engineer who now focuses on charity work, hosts an elaborate feast for Thanksgiving.
Her home in Northern Virginia – part of the Washington, DC metro area – has a bright green lawn, a large patio, a cozy fireplace, and a warm, inviting doorway. She lives there with her husband and two sons.
A large network of other Indian-American families lives in the area, all of whom are invited to celebrate the ‘day of gratitude and sacrifice’. The Raghavans usually make staple Thanksgiving dishes like green bean casseroles, mashed potatoes, and, since they’re vegetarian, a non-meat-based turkey: the families make a paneer dish and stuff it inside a tofu-based turkey, and combine it with Indian rices and curries.
This year, though, because of the coronavirus pandemic, many families such as theirs are looking at muted celebrations for Thanksgiving. “We’ll meet our friends outdoors for a coffee or a drink, but a typical Thanksgiving dinner requires a lot of close interaction,” said Raghavan.
Rather than a big Thanksgiving gala, many said they were planning to host get-togethers with one other family, or, in a few instances, traveling to meet their families, though they plan to get tested beforehand. In other parts of the US, celebrations this year are happening through ‘Zoomsgiving’ – a virtual holiday celebration.
For the most part, people are choosing to stay put. The result? As with everything and everybody else, Thanksgiving is expected to look a lot different for the Indian-American community this year.
An Indian Thanksgiving
“Most of our friends are immigrants, with our kids being first-generation Americans,” said Raghavan. Northern Virginia, where they are based, is more cosmopolitan and diverse compared to the southern parts of Virginia, where people of colour often face racist locals hurling insults about “job-stealing” immigrants, Raghavan said.
Her children grew up in the area witnessing Thanksgiving as a holiday. “We may not celebrate Thanksgiving in traditional American form, but this has always been a holiday for us that we celebrate with our friends and family,” she said.
The holiday has become a tapestry of culinary cultures for many households.
“This year, I’m honouring classic American traditions with an Indian twist,” said Maneet Chauhan, a chef, TV personality, and judge on American TV game show series Chopped.
Chauhan is tweaking the traditional American ‘meat and three’, meaning one main meat dish and three side dishes, and calling it the ‘Turkey & Nine’ – a tandoori chicken stuffed with vegetable biryani, and nine small side dishes, including cranberry chutney, chestnut naan, and sweet potato raita (curd with raw or cooked vegetables).
Versatility is one of the many reasons Thanksgiving has become a popular affair among Indians in the US. Many Indian dishes, for instance, go well with Thanksgiving meals, said Suvir Saran, a popular, self-taught chef who won a Michelin star at Manhattan’s Devi restaurant, wrote three popular cookbooks, and appeared on Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters.
Until last year, when Saran moved back to India after 20 years in the US, his home in New York would turn into the city’s iconic Grand Central Station on Thanksgiving, he said.
Saran would host several guests including New York Magazine food critic Gael Green and her late partner Steven Richter; Raquel Pelzel, editorial director of Clarkson Potter, a reputed cookbook publisher; and many other chefs, food writers, and friends. He and his partner, Charles Burd, would have around 20 people at their table on this holiday.
“I was a gay man with a lover, and people didn’t care,” he said. “We had heterosexual couples, gay couples, gay single men, young kids of heterosexual friends, cousins and their children…It was an open table,” he said, adding that the table was as diverse as “any metropolis in America.”
Saran would make turkey, cornbread, cranberry salad, and Indian side dishes. “People would go crazy,” he said. “Green beans poriyal – a stir fry green beans with mustard seeds, cumin seeds, red chillies, and coconut – is a wonderful side dish because Americans have something called a green bean casserole, which goes perfectly with that,” said Saran, adding that South Indian masala potatoes are the perfect replacement for mashed potatoes.
Saran would also make a turkey glazed with tamarind chutney – a sweet, sour, and spicy roast turkey. He’d make the cornbread with cilantro, green chilies, red chillies, and roasted cumin powder in it, with roasted corn such as in an Indian bhutta (corn on the cob).
There would also be a ‘khatta meetha kaddu ki sabzi’ – a sweet and sour butternut squash – similar to a dish made during festivals in India. Saran said this is increasingly popular with Americans especially since pumpkin and squash are celebrated at Thanksgiving.
For dessert, the table would again end up with a fusion of cuisines including pecan pie, apple pie, pumpkin pie, and then Indian desserts such as kheer (pudding) and shahi tukda (a Mughlai dessert).
National Day of Mourning
While many people celebrate Thanksgiving’s story as one of the Pilgrims and Native Americans gathering together for a famous feast, that story is widely viewed as inaccurate.
The first Thanksgiving stemmed from the massacre of Pequot people – a Native American group residing in what is now known as Connecticut – in 1637, a culmination of the Pequot War. The first official mention of a celebration on this day occurred that year after colonists “brutally massacred an entire Pequot village, then subsequently celebrated their barbaric victory,” according to Native American writer Sean Sherman in Time magazine.
For Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and protest, since it commemorates the arrival of settlers in North America. The day is known as the National Day of Mourning, in recognition of the centuries of oppression and genocide that followed.
Many Indian-Americans interviewed by Scroll.in said that given this history, younger Indians are choosing not to observe this holiday, joining Thanksgiving Day protests, or turning it into a day of acknowledging its colonial history.
Anita Mannur, author of Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture, and an associate professor of English at Miami University, explained this: “There’s never a moment in my experience where you sit down and say ‘be grateful’ because this is a problematic holiday,” she said.
Mannur’s closest friends are Americans, Filipinos, Mexican Americans, and other immigrants. Every year, on this day, they try to reconcile: “What does it mean to celebrate this holiday that is lauded as a moment of the ‘pioneers’ and the Native Americans? It’s based on genocide. To uncritically celebrate it is never high on the agenda.”
Moving to the US as an immigrant for college, as opposed to having grown up in the US, are two different experiences, said Mannur. Growing up in the US, as she did, there is pressure to fit in, causing many immigrants to uncritically adopt and embrace this holiday.
But having lived in the US since 1993, in recent years, she has come across some Indians’ rejection of Thanksgiving as a “settler-colonial holiday for White America”. “Many people spend it as just another day,” she said.
Younger communities are questioning its relevance in today’s context. “Rather than trying to ‘Indianise’ it by making, for example, a Telugu version of cranberry chutney, my students are saying, ‘We actually have to acknowledge that as Indian-Americans, we are racialised as people of colour in the United States,’” said Mannur. “We have to be aware of the inequities that structures this holiday.”
National celebrations such as Independence Day on July 4 and Thanksgiving have their roots in the myth-making of the American nation as a multicultural nation, but people are starting to expose that as a lie, the author said, adding, “It’s easy multiculturalism to say: Let’s sit down and eat these foods, as if there isn’t a history of genocide.”
Mannur asked: How do you celebrate a whitewashed history, at a moment when we’re seeing the US government’s flagrant mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis and allowing people to die en masse?
“In a perverse way, this also seems like a moment of poetic symmetry,” said Mannur. “This nation is founded on genocide, and we are celebrating a holiday at a time when people are dying.”
‘Making room at the table’
“Thanksgiving is about making room at the table, like Diwali,” said Suvir Saran, the self-taught chef. “You never say no to people.”
The idea is to connect people to the geography they’re living in, be grateful, and acknowledge the importance of friends and family, which are messages the Indian community resonates with, particularly since this is not widely viewed as a religious holiday.
Saran and his partner would use Thanksgiving as a way of “stretching Diwali” or creating a “quasi-Diwali” since Saran would miss the major Indian festival, which falls around the same time as Thanksgiving every year.
The pandemic has brought home the meaning of Thanksgiving especially this year, according to Saran. “At the table, we’d come together and have cathartic releases, almost like therapy,” he said. “The message now is that we can be destroyed in a second. The importance lies in being true to oneself, appreciative of what we have, and proud of our families and friends. The importance is seeing humanity in the other.”