“Who’s made cranberry sauce before?” Chef asked this morning as he started to demo today’s recipes for cranberry sauce and candied yams ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. My arm shot up. Homemade cranberry sauce is my jam, pun totally intended, every year at Thanksgiving, make it fresh, ditch the canned jiggly stuff. “One person?” He asked incredulously, wondering out loud if we should be doing this recipe, or at least, how popular it might be. “And then there’s the yams,” he continued later, “Sometimes people mash these up a bit then cover them with marshmallows…” he said with no small trace of eyeroll in his voice, incredulous that one would do such a thing to a sweet potato, not his favorite, he’d already admitted. “Mashed with pineapple,” I interjected, laughing, “It was my mom’s signature holiday dish.”
It’s not that I hadn’t already taken in the demographics of the classroom I was in, overwhelmingly Latin, Asian, and black. It’s the demographics of Oakland, the East Bay, the whole Bay Area, and it’s what makes it so great to live here, and Chef highlighted that by surveying the Thanksgiving experiences of students in the room, many not reporting the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and pie of the Betty Crocker stereotype Chef referenced in describing the yams with marshmallows, and he’s totally not wrong about that.
We bantered about food traditions, “American” and not, “traditional” and not and based on the dialogue, I live somewhere in between, neither strictly Betty Crocker Thanksgiving nor replete with seafood dishes, which is a totally seasonal menu and on the tables of many folks in lieu of what the Indians and Pilgrims did not sit down together to eat, and we covered a little of that culinary history, as well.
I didn’t get to share that bringing yams and pineapple with marshmallows to the Thanksgiving table the year after my mom died was a delicious way to honor her and bring her to the table, even if only in spirit. I didn’t get to share that my best friend is Puerto Rican and nearly as long as I’ve done Thanksgiving with her, my menu includes pernil and arroz con gandules, and I kind of hate taking turkey home when there’s delicious roast pork left over. I didn’t get to share that sauted pears with bacon and mustard vinaigrette has become one of my regulars, and we always make sure there’s a Brussels sprout dish, neither of which are on the “traditional” menu, and I didn’t get to share that both for the sake of our health and also simply to suit our palate, we never go for the added sugar in every dish often characteristic of American food, or as Chef observed, younger folks prefer everything a little sweeter, and I agree with him on that, too.
As Chef Sean Sherman noted in his 2018 Time article, I, too, have a solid foot in the Betty Crocker traditions of White People Thanksgiving, and I’ve also had the privilege to branch far out beyond that and adopt plenty of new traditions over the years, and it’s the balance between the two that makes my experience complete. I find no contradiction in acknowledging the dark history of this holiday and the false narrative we are politicized with while also celebrating the spirit of family, food and how it brings people together, and gratitude. Chef Sherman summed it up well: “There is no need to make Thanksgiving about a false past. It is so much better when it celebrates the beauty of the present.”