We did not celebrate Thanksgiving in Iran, where I grew up. We had similar celebrations, as most cultures do, with the core idea of having the family and friends gather for a meal. Sharing food, it seems, is central to all cultures and traditions.
Once I came to America, as a refugee, a million years ago it seems, I loved the idea of the non-commercial, non-religious gathering of the tribe. The tribe being the extended family members, who could only tolerate being together for a meal once a year or true friends, who longed to be in each other’s company. Or, in my own case when I was single and did not belong to any circle of friends, lonely drifters who, short of doing a Chinese take-out, would come together at a small apartment, with no room to add chairs to the kitchen table, to eat while standing up. Gossiping and talking politics were the desserts.
Years later, when I managed, against all odds, to become a family man, with a job that paid more than minimum wage and did not involve working the graveyard shifts at a factory and being threatened with violence, I suspected because of my Middle Eastern looks and my religion, I became a serious fan of Thanksgiving.
Of all things Thanksgiving-ish, I liked the turkey and its dark meat. Wide-eyed I witnessed with awe, the rare instances in contemporary America, when the white natives preferred the dark, when given the choice between the dark and white. But that’s Americans for you — complicated and full of surprise.
Over the years, few of us, mostly immigrants, with a few progressive white friends, taken in for good measure, would get together, feeling good about being Americans and moving the festivity from one friend’s house to another, the way the Native Americans must have fled the invading Europeans. Now that we had larger houses, we could add more chairs, comfy or not. In no time, the turkey became curried, the normally tasteless mashed potatoes zesty and garlicky, and the traditional pies were replaced with baklava, gulab jamun, and halva.
I recall happily how in quite a few Thanksgiving dinners, the tables sighed under heavy dishes of Persian jewel rice — named so as the rice is topped with crushed pistachios, almonds and berries mixed with saffron — fried eggplants topped with homemade yogurt and dried mint, a plate of falafels and Indian samosa as appetizers, and on and on. It still pains me to think we’re missing Mexican, Thai, Armenian, and Somali dishes, among others, for our Thanksgiving gathering does not yet fully resemble today’s America.
My admiration for Thanksgiving continues despite its origin — how the generosity of Native American tribes caused the massive genocide of their own people. But history is full of such mistakes and unintended outcomes. Take the World War II. The world fought the Nazism only to watch its noisy return now, in form of sizable crowd of supporters marching in cities in Europe and in Virginia in America. Who’d have thought being a neo-Nazi and a fascist could become cool again?
I have a personal reason to get excited about Thanksgiving. I came to America as a refugee. I did not belong to any tribe or table. Thanksgiving highlights, symbolically, what’s so magical about America — adding a chair to the table.
Whether we prefer dark meat or white, come from the blue states or red, it is frightening to see how the divisive politic, the yelling, and name calling, coming from those in power are dulling the soothing sound of the American symphony. America stands at a crossroad, with signs to two opposite directions, one sign reading Community, the other reading Chaos. Which road we’d take would determine the destiny of America. Now, who wants dark meat?
Reza Jalali teaches at the University of Southern Maine and is a writer. His latest book is “Homesick Mosque and Other Stories.”