The day the Lees discovered Thanksgiving

This month’s issue of Gourmet magazine features a fusion Thanksgiving menu inspired by the flavors of “the east” aka Japan, China, and India.  Traditional turkey day eats are updated and become Pumpkin, Corn, and Lemongrass Soup, Roasted Japanese Sweet Potatoes with Scallion Butter, and Indian Spiced Pickled Vegtables among others.  Gourmet’s rock-staresque editor, Ruth Reichl, explains the inspiration for this menu by stating: 

“In our test kitchen we have one…Asian woman, and [she] started telling us about dishes [she was] going to be serving at [her] Thanksgivings, which are truly cross-cultural affairs. A lot of them sounded great, so we just went with them.” 

The fusion menu got me to thinking about my own family’s Thanksgiving traditions and also those of other immigrant and multi-cultural households.  As a first generation clan, my family never took to most American holidays.  The Fourth of July was just another day working in the family shoe store.  But Thanksgiving was different.  My parents understood Thanksgiving.  As first gen immigrants and survivors of the Korean War, they immediately took to the ideas of thankfulness, bounty, and family.  As far back as I can remember, my parents actually closed up shop on Thanksgiving and spent the day with the family.  This from people who opened their shoe store on Christmas Day in hopes that they’ll catch a few of the truly last minute shoppers. 

Our first few Thanksgivings were spent in the basement cafeteria of our Korean church eating lukewarm turkey and stuffing with the other families who couldn’t be bothered to spend the morning cooking.  Finally, in the fall of 1981 my sisters and I harangued our mother until she finally agreed to forgo church and instead make our own Thanksgiving dinner.  That first holiday will forever live on as the night of the burnt/raw turkey and ketchup stuffing.  My mother, a most superior Korean cook, didn’t realize you had to thaw out the turkey and remove the bag of giblets from inside the bird.  She also decided that ketchup and raisins belonged in stuffing.  It was almost enough to derail the whole holiday forever.  

The following Thanksgiving, remembering the traumas of her first attempt, my mother gave my sisters and I an ultimatum.  Either you cook Thanksgiving or we’re going to church.  At the ripe old ages of seven (me), nine, and 11, my sisters and I looked at each other and immediately accepted the deal.  We somehow managed to roast a chicken and make mashed potatoes from scratch.  Everything else came either from a box (Stove Top stuffing and frozen pumpkin pie), can (biscuits and Reddi Whip topping), jar (gravy), or bag (frozen corn).  It was the BEST Thanksgiving ever.  

Thanksgiving still lives on in my family.  Each Thanksgiving now consists of an entirely from scratch traditional spread and also a huge traditional Korean menu courtesy of my mother.  My (white) partner is always beside himself trying to decide what to eat first – can there be such a thing as too much food?  We’ve never tried mingling Korean influences into the American dishes or vice versa.  No kimchee stuffing thank you very much. 

So, how does this experience compare with other Asians out there?  Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?  And if you do, what does your table consist of?                

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Author: Bo

A 30something, 1.5 generation Korean-American/New Yorker who spends her day as an HR exec. specializing in corporate diversity & inclusion. I get to think about ways to make "The Man" less male, white, and straight. It's the best job in the world! When I'm not trying to change corporate America, I teach yoga and dabble in holistic health counseling. I have an MBA from New York University Stern School of Business and my undergraduate from the University of Michigan. Lesser known facts about me: I enjoy b&w film photography, training for endurance races, and making homemade jam. Other mindless observations can be found at http://itsbo.blogspot.com/