My dad was not Italian, but grew up with Italian kids in San Francisco and just south of there. Every year at Thanksgiving he’d recite the memory of his old friends’ dual holiday dinners, the turkey and gravy, sweet potatoes and stuffing, cranberry sauce and pecan pie, but next to those a shadow feast of ravioli and crab cioppino, Swiss chard with olive oil, and red wine that somebody’s grandpa used to make in the garage, siphoned into Gallo Hearty Burgundy jugs. Those parallel spreads were the thing my father remembered best about Thanksgiving at his buddies’ houses.
He’d tell us about these dual-track meals with two kinds of pride, both for the primacy of the American Thanksgiving menu that the story implied, and in the diversity of food that was one of the good things about America, even if it existed only in a supporting role to what the Pilgrims ate. As good as somebody’s nonna’s ravioli were, the American spread of turkey, relish trays, and pumpkin pies were the Caesar that demanded tribute on a day that marked the providence at the center of the national mythology.
Double Thanksgivings still happen, of course, maybe way more than ever. Immigrants, or the kids or grandkids of immigrants, express family origin as the girders in the superstructure of the official meal of turkey and gravy, and dinner rolls and pie. My husband’s family has Filipino pancit and lumpia next to the turkey. A friend’s first-gen Chinese parents have fried rice with lap cheong, prawns with candied walnuts, bok choy with oyster sauce, and a big platter of turkey and stuffing that everybody takes to be polite.
This is a tradition that should die, the two-track turkey dinner, the way molded Jell-O salads have died. As America has become more diverse, less homogeneous in its appetites, less blandly Anglo-Teutonic-Continental in its aspirations at the table, so should our loyalty to a meal that preserves the taste of 19th-century New England, and has nominal supremacy over the things we actually love.
In this first quarter of the 21st century, tamales, lechon, and salt-crusted fish with sticky rice—whatever stuff a family actually wants on Thanksgiving or understands a celebration meal to be—should hog the kitchen-island buffet, without being shoved to the perimeter to make room for turkey and green bean casserole. Nobody likes turkey anyway. Not when there’s tamales.
If the specter of a balkanized meal haunts the united vision of a secular American holiday, well: A crochet-web of communities playing out localized traditions is the actual fabric of America—the best thing about America, in my opinion, after the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the equality movements that began last century. The French try to enforce a cultural hegemony that leaves some minority groups ghettoized, an appendix to the nation’s official narrative, easy to flip past.
We’re better off. It’s possible preserve a sort of dual citizenship in the States, in Cuban or Vietnamese enclaves where we don’t have to speak English if we haven’t had the time or resources to learn it or simply do not give a damn, while pledging allegiance to the America of liberty, pursuing the life of happiness that calls to each of us in a particular way. It’s what makes America vibrant, confusing sometimes, but wonderful, the opposite of united, but unified in support of the neighbors’ right to eat goat, especially if they invite us in for a plate.
In a 2014 GQ article, David Chang wrote about the dual Thanksgiving as a way of kicking turkey’s ass, actually literally, in the accompanying illustration (feed the white meat to your dog, he says). He says, “You know what kills turkey every Thanksgiving? My mom’s braised short ribs, or galbijjim.” Kills in the sense of shames—that turkey, part of the spread of “everything white people eat,” next to the shrimp toast and Korean food that everybody actually wants to eat, is still hogging the buffet.
I say why bother. Don’t even.