“Thankfulness Is a Responsibility”: How Parents Are Celebrating a Very Different Thanksgiving
I was raised as a Muslim. There are no celebrations in the Islamic faith that do not center reverence for Allah—but for my family, Thanksgiving was an exception. On the hour-and-a-half bus ride to my aunt’s home in South Philly, my mother would remind us to make sure that what we put on our plates did not contain any “swine,” her favorite word to use describing anything pig. My family are descendants of the American South and that means that a lot of the dishes would be accented with salt pork, pork neck, smoked pork tail, or another piece of what I now know as a chef to be delicious pieces of pig.
She would also prime us for the saying of grace. My extended family was entirely Baptist so the prayer would usually be said by either my Uncle Butch (a pastor and owner of a church) or my Uncle Eric (a deacon). Grace was always anchored in the doctrine of the Holy Bible. My mother told us to bow our heads, hold hands, and close our eyes like everyone else. She would then direct us to not consume the prayer but to replace it with the words of the Holy Quran to ourselves.
I remember her instructions, and I remember the roast turkey’s aroma with sage, garlic, paprika; caramelized cheese from the baked macaroni; and unforgettable sweet potatoes enveloped in cinnamon and brown sugar. Scents wafted into my nostrils below the prayer that hung in the air.
School taught me that Thanksgiving is a day that honors the generosity of Indigenous Americans to the Protestants and Puritans who settled here. My home showed me a more complex holiday of tensions. I’ve always told my 13-year-old son, Bashir, the true origins of the holiday and extended to him an experience of delicious offerings, laughs, and communing.
I asked my wife (Cybille St.Aude-Tate, a chef and children’s book author, and pregnant with our first child together) her definition of the “thanks” part of Thanksgiving. She delivered to me one word: “honor.” She wants to honor those whose lives were lost and destroyed in the very places we all call home. “Thankfulness is more than a feeling; it’s a responsibility,” says Cybille.
This year, America finds itself at a new dawn. To truly understand the diverse nuances and varied experiences on Thanksgiving that many enjoy, look to your community and ask them their family’s gratitude rituals. I asked a few other friends and fellow parents how they honor the holiday in unique ways, weaving their heritage with their present.
Rock climber Addison Hertzberger and his wife, Leah Meyerhoff, a filmmaker, live in Los Angeles. They are parents to 3-year-old Aries. They have abandoned the tale of the 1621 gathering that took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, two years after English “settlement.” Addison spearheads the cooking with Aries by his side. A spread of roasted chicken with thyme and bacon gravy or warm panzanella salad in place of a traditional stuffing offer Addison, Leah, and Aries a sense of “familial warmth and joy,” a nostalgic feeling that sends Addison back to his grandmother’s modest home situated in rural Indiana.
His grandmother would also make every child in the family an individual pie of several varieties. Offerings would include chocolate, date-nut, or lemon meringue, to name a few under her repertoire. “None of them were like the best pies, but her ability to cook a large meal and find time to create individual pies for us as well as fudge says a lot about who she is as a person,” Addison told me. He’s returned to pie making as a nod to the yearly ritual his grandmother is remembered for.
Simone Brown and Olivier St. Aude are both track and field coaches and health instructors in Long Island, NY. Both of them are immigrants, and they have four children. I asked them both about centerpieces on their families’ tables. Simone, who is Jamaican, recalls curry chicken and rice and peas being present alongside the American staples turkey and ham. Olivier agrees, having a similar experience in his very Haitian childhood with poulet en sos and djon djon rice in place of Simone’s curry and rice duo. Olivier, who moved to the States at 15 years old, says, “My parents wanted us to feel a sense of normalcy. We were going to school in America with American kids, so naturally, they wanted our family to belong and participate in the day.
Pre-pandemic, the crew would gather with older siblings and a chorus of singing cousins to join the household with Jordan and Jaxson to celebrate. This year they plan to FaceTime the older two (who do not live at home). Three-year-old Jaxson will most likely dominate the music this year. “He really enjoys that silly song Turkey Turkey [by Big Block Singsong] on YouTube,” says Simone.
I moved to Brooklyn in 2013 with Bashir, my first son (now a teenager), and I was a sous chef of Runner and Stone. Every Thanksgiving, the restaurant and bakery would host family, friends, and staff to a grand feast of eclectic assortment. Co-owner and chef Chris Pizzuli is of Italian and Dominican heritage, and his wife, Karen, is Chinese-American. Their spread on the big day would include lasagna, Dominican rice and pigeon peas, his mother-in-law’s pork and shrimp egg rolls, as well as three different kinds of turkey and even Peking style duck. The atmosphere that Runner and Stone created became a second family to us. Bashir found his place with the other children, running around the tables giggling and mostly eating sweets and drinking cider. COVID-19 has brought this vibrant affair that takes place in the restaurant every year to a stop.
In 2020 chef Chris, Karen, and their two children, Olivia and Oscar, are celebrating at home. When asked about what they’re going to do this year, he said, “We’re going to do what we always do minus the large gathering—give thanks and acknowledge the less fortunate. “
“It’s important to tell our children that this is stolen land and what we should be celebrating is our gratitude.” says Pizzuli.
If this year has taught us anything, our old customs’ normalcy needs new life. As parents, our children are more precious, and so are the moments between us. In this way, bonding has taught me that time is limited, but it has also taught me how to dance to songs on TikTok with Bashir. The tables will yield familiar smells. Most of us will be locking hands with only our closest family members, closing our eyes, and bowing our heads in new American gratitude.
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