History is written through the eyes of the victor, as is the case of the classic Thanksgiving tale about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. This is the tale I was fed in elementary school. I distinctly remember days of preparation for our class “Thanksgiving feast” where we wove mats to sit on out of old newspaper and made black paper pilgrim hats, or white paper bonnets, or brown construction paper head bands adorned with colorful paper feathers to don for the feast. On the day of the “feast” we sat on our woven newspaper mats and ate cornbread. No sooner than when we had finished our cornbread, someone from the “Indian” group put their hand over their mouth and started ululating the stereotypical Native American war cry/whoop. This provoked a response from the “Pilgrim” group and mayhem ensued. Our feast ended in a silent indoor recess, punishment for our invoking war in the classroom. So much for peace and understanding among peoples.
Thankfully, at least in our neck of the woods, the history of the holiday is taught with more nuance, emphasizing different perspectives and specifically talking about the suffering experienced by the Native Americans. The history is grim, and it got me thinking about the holiday in general, what it was, and what it has evolved into. The history of Thanksgiving is complex, and what it has turned into is even more complicated. We have personalized the holiday in some very unique ways, in part because of the diversity of our country.
In my own multi-cultural family, we celebrated Thanksgiving either with extended family or a lovely group of
neighbors and their families. The celebration focused around being in each other’s company and sharing a meal together where everybody contributed something. Usually, my father would make a Vegetable Biryani to share. For those uninitiated into the world of Indian cuisine, Biryani is a complex, fragrant rice-based dish with veggies and/ or meat. My mother would make a Paté Lorrain, which is a regional speciality from Lorraine, France (from where she originally hails) whose recipe dates back to the medieval age. One of the other families was in charge of the
turkey and the more traditional side dishes, while another family was in charge of making a vegetarian main course and desserts. The butter we would have at the table was made from scratch, simply by pouring heavy cream into a mason jar and shaking it until the fat coagulated into butter. Everyone who was eating Thanksgiving dinner together would have their turn shaking the mason jar to help churn the butter. Nothing like a group effort to unite the clans!
A quick note about about this recipe. This is NOT my father’s Biryani recipe. My father doesn’t cook from recipes, it is all by feel. Each time he makes the dish it is a little different, and if you ask him how he makes it, he answers, “Oh, a little of this and a little of that,” while omitting some very important details that makes or breaks the dish. So to not misguide you, dear readers, I am sharing a very reliable, albeit involved, base recipe from a classic Indian cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey.
The chicken is first marinated for at least 2 hours in a paste of ginger, garlic, onions, yogurt, lemon juice, and spices. It is then cooked briefly. Partially cooked rice is placed over it, and the chicken and rice are allowed to steam for about an hour.
6 onions, medium sized
4 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 piece ginger, 2 inches long, peeled and chopped
10 cloves, whole
20 peppercorns, black, whole
seeds from 8 whole cardamom pods
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp coriander, ground
1 tsp cumin ground
1 tsp poppy seeds, whole
1/4 tsp mace, ground
4 1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp lemon juice
8 oz plain yogurt
8 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
4 cardamoms, large, black (if available)
2 lb chicken legs and breasts
2 tsp leaf saffron, roasted and crumbled
2 Tbsp milk
2 cup long-grain rice, like Basmati
2 Tbsp golden raisins, fried
2 Tbsp blanched almonds
2 eggs, hard-boiled, sliced or quartered
For the Rice:
24 hours in advance of cooking the Biryani, soak your rice in water to soften it and take some of the starches out of it.
For the Chicken Marinade:
Peel and coarsely chop 3 of the onions. Place chopped onion, garlic, and ginger in an electric blender, along with the cloves, peppercorns, the seeds only from the 8 cardamoms, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, poppy seeds, mace, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and the lemon juice.
Blend all of these at high speed until you have a smooth paste. Place this paste in a large bowl. Add the yogurt and mix well.
Now peel the 3 remaining onions. Slice them into very fine rings, and halve all the rings.
In a 10-inch heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil over medium flame. When hot, add the bay leaves and 4 black cardamoms. Fry for about 10 to 15 seconds. Now put in the onions and fry them, stirring, for about 10 minutes or until they get brown and crisp (but not burned). Remove them carefully with a slotted spoon, squeezing out as much of the oil as possible. Reserve all the onion-flavored oil, the black cardamoms, and the bay leaves. You will need them later. Mix in two-thirds of the fried onions with the marinade paste. Place the rest on a paper towel to drain. Set aside for garnishing.
Remove skin from the chicken legs and breasts. Cut the legs into two pieces each (drumstick and thigh), and quarter all the breasts. Pierce the chicken pieces with a fork and place in the bowl with the marinade paste. Mix well. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Turn occasionally.
After 2 hours (or more, the longer the better, overnight is best), remove the bowl from the refrigerator and place all its contents in a 3-4-quart heavy-bottomed pot. Bring slowly to a boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove only the chicken pieces, place them in a 5-quart casserole dish, and cover. Set aside. On a medium flame, boil down the marinade paste, stirring, until you have about 9 to 10 tablespoons left. Spoon the paste over the chicken. Cover again.
Preheat oven to 300 F.
Soak the saffron in 2 tablespoons hot (not boiling) milk. Bring about 13 cups water with 3 teaspoons of salt to a boil in a 4-quart pot, then add the rice. After it has come to a boil again, cook 5 minutes, timing very carefully (the rice must not cook through). Drain the rice in a colander, then place it on top of the chicken in the casserole. Pour the saffron milk over the rice, streaking it with orange lines. Spoon out the onion-flavored oil from the pan, reserving a level tablespoon to fry the raisins if you like. Sprinkle the oil, cardamom, and bay leaves over the rice. Cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil, cut 2 inches wider than the rim of the dish. Now put the lid on and use the foil edges to seal the dish as best you can by crinkling it and pushing it against the sides. Bake 1 hour.
Garnishes: There are several garnishes that can be used for biryani; you can use them all, or only what you like, but the fried onions are a must. If you wish to use raisins, you can fry them in a tablespoon of the onion-flavored oil just after you have fried the onions.
To serve: As you lift the cover off your casserole dish, you will see beautiful saffron streaks on the white rice. Spoon the rice and chicken out onto a large platter. Sprinkle fried onions and other garnishes of your choice over, and serve hot.
The Pâté Lorrain is a medieval meat-based dish that is encased in a puff pastry crust. It can be served warm or at room temperature.
The recipe below uses the metric system, because France uses the metric system, and no, I was not nice enough to convert it for you. For that, there is the almighty internet. Also, I’m giving you the traditional recipe here, but I personally don’t use veal because I like baby cows and feel a bit sad about eating them. You can really substitute whatever meat you’d prefer, though the taste will change from the original. It will still be delicious.
350g Pork Loin
1 bunch of parsley
2 cloves of garlic
1 branch of thyme
1 deciliter of dry white wine, like a Riesling or a gris de Toul
1 sheet of puff pastry (make sure it is made with real butter or it won’t taste as good)
The night before: Cut the meat into small cubes (1cm) and place in a bowl. Mince the entire bunch of parsley, garlic, shallots, and thyme leaves and mix in with the meat. Add the wine into the bowl and mix again to ensure an even marinade. Add salt and pepper, cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight for at least 12 hours.
The following day, preheat the oven at 400. Drain the excess wine from the marinated meat mixture. It is important that the meat is well drained or you will have a soggy crust in the end.
Work on a cookie sheet covered with a sheet of cooking parchment paper. Make sure your puff pastry is defrosted but still cold, and roll it out into a rectangle.
Place your meat in the form of a log in the center of the puff pastry leaving a few centimeters border of plain puff pastry. Fold in the sides of the puff pastry to cover and encase the meat. Seal the edges with a little bit of cold water. Flip the meat filled pastry so that the folded/ messy side is now the bottom of your pastry. Beat an egg and brush the egg wash over the entire top and sides of the puff pastry. Make a hole in the middle of the top of your pâté and place a little tube/ chimney made of aluminum foil to allow the steam to escape as your pâté cooks. Decorate the top of your puff pastry as you like.
Place in the oven for at least 45 minutes, check to see if you have a good brown color on the puff pastry and if not, put it back in the oven for another 10-15 minutes.
Once removed from the oven, allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.
The truth is, even the beginnings of Thanksgiving are a hotly contested issue. Traditionally, there had been thanksgiving/ autumn harvest feasts throughout the Native American nations, especially in the tribes of the Northeast, long before European colonization. There had been Thanksgivings celebrated in the English and Spanish colonies in their formative years, but it wasn’t formalized as a national holiday until 1863 when President Lincoln tried to unite the country by recognizing its blessings in the midst of the Civil War. How did we get to Pilgrims, square tipped shoes and large silver belt buckles? Apparently as an attempt to homogenize an increasingly diverse population in the 1800s. Go figure. The cultural leaders at the time took bits of evidence from the 1600s and put together the legend of the Pilgrim and Native American Thanksgiving.
Its no wonder that this “traditional American” feast has as many interpretations as there are people in this country. And its no wonder that the “traditional American” feast is made up of dishes that either originated or were inspired elsewhere!
When I asked a handful of friends about what their typical Thanksgiving traditions and meals comprised of, these were their responses:
“Being Native American, I do not celebrate (the traditional American) Thanksgiving. It’s a reminder of the genocide of my people. On Thanksgiving day I usually pray to my ancestors and share the Chanupa (Sacred Prayer Pipe in the Lakota Sioux language) with a few close friends. The weekend after Thanksgiving, I’ll get together with friends, share stories, eat a main dish of salmon and eat pie for dessert.”
“What makes our Thanksgiving ours is our cultural spin with the Chinese veggies and side dishes. We’ve had Chow Mein as a side dish. Usually, my mom makes a dish called 8 Treasure Duck the day after Thanksgiving, on Black
Friday! Another dish that comes up for special occasions is Yu Fan (which translates to ‘oily rice’ in English). It is a sticky rice dish kind of like stuffing.”
“I love Thanksgiving but we are vegetarians, so we don’t have turkey. But I love all the Thanksgiving side dishes. I Indianize the traditional sides. I especially love cranberry sauce, and to make it to my liking I add cayenne pepper and a pinch of Garam Masala. For sweet potatoes, I cube them and cook them with green chilies, chopped ginger, and sautéed onions, turmeric and salt then add fried black mustard seeds and urad dal (black gram lentils). For stuffing, I get a box of plain stuffing from the store, and I make a typical Mumbai tambrahm (Tamil Brahmin) Bread Upma. I soak the stuffing cubes in buttermilk that has been salted. Then I fry mustard seeds and urad dal in oil, add chopped onions, ginger, curry leaves, green chilies, and turmeric. Once it changes color, I add the soaked bread cubes, mix, cover and cook for a few minutes.”
“You know, we usually (meaning on a daily basis) eat traditional North Indian fare, so for Thanksgiving, we keep it super stereotypically ‘American’ because that is exotic and different for us. It is a real treat to do the American classics!”
Quite a mixed response, right? When I asked my ETM co-captain Maki if there was something she’d like to share with you about her family’s Thanksgiving traditions this is what she had to say:
Ah, Thanksgiving. We’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving with the same family friends for about a decade now. During that time, my husband dreamed up a new tradition for the day after Thanksgiving, and this is what I look forward to. And when I say he dreamed it up, I mean this literally. Like, in his dream. Without further ado…ladies and gentlemen, I present my family’s Thanksgiving tradition:
THE TAFT, SANDWICH OF DREAMS