My mother said that Oma loved Thanksgiving because she was thankful for her life here, even if she never felt fully American. Both her wholesale adoption of Thanksgiving and her reimagining of the meal are common rites of passage for new Americans, although the holiday as we know it today was created partly as a way to control new and often undesired immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th century.
President Abraham Lincoln began a national day of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to honor battles won in the Civil War, and President Andrew Johnson continued the tradition, though Southern states refused to celebrate the holiday until after Reconstruction, which ended in 1877. The mythology of the Pilgrims as a persecuted Christian minority and their relationship to Native Americans and their harvests weren’t dragged into it until later in the 19th century. Janet Siskind, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, points out:
The explosion of interest in colonial history at this time was due to the fear of immigrants and the cultural changes they might foment. The Pilgrims provided a model of the good immigrant, imbued with religious conviction, a member of a Chosen People, striving to make a life in a new world.
It’s an unusual holiday not just because of the Pilgrim worship, but because it’s a national, mostly secular celebration that is centered around one specific basic meal: turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, said Krishnendu Ray, the chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University. Many religious celebrations involve particular foods, but nationalistic celebrations rarely are so culinarily uniform.
The turkey itself is a particular object of struggle for new Americans, said Ray, who studied 126 Bengali immigrant households and their cuisine for his book “The Migrant’s Table,” and is a Bengali immigrant himself. “Me and the people I study have never cooked a huge bird like that in any form, ever,” he said. “Most of Indian cooking is stove top. It felt like the most alien thing to do and the most difficult thing to do.”
For first-generation immigrants, “this ritual of Thanksgiving was entangled in this ambivalent sense of how to mimic the routine of the culture without ceding to it fully, and turkey becomes the site of this contestation,” Ray said.
The reason they’re taking the risk of making this big, foreign bird is for their children, Ray added. They knew the children would be hearing about turkey at school, and they wanted their kids to be able to fit in with their new peers. Lidia Marte, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico who has studied Dominican immigrants in New York City, found similar patterns: The turkey was cooked solely for the new generation, but it was infused with Caribbean spices, and served along with more typical Dominican side dishes.