- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nothing says Thanksgiving like … pastitsio?

“For Thanksgiving, my mother actually did a turkey, which was a pretty big step for her, but everything else on the table was Greek,” says Michael Psilakis, the chef behind New York’s Anthos restaurant.

For his family, pastitsio, a lasagnalike dish of noodles and eggy Greek bechamel sauce, was just as important as the bird.

Thanksgiving called for a similar blending of cultures in the Korean household of chef David Chang, who dubs the famous pork buns, ginger scallion noodles and ramen of his Momofuku restaurants “American” food.

Thanksgiving was almost a potluck,” Mr. Chang says, remembering the dozens of relatives who tottered in with heaping trays of short ribs called kalbi-jim, the pickled cabbage called kimchi, and the noodle dish chop che. “We would have Korean dishes that were traditionally cooked on celebratory occasions and your Thanksgiving go-to classics. It was a feast.”

Americans come from more than 125 nations, according to Census Bureau figures, and more than 299 million people - or 97 percent of the population - claim ethnic roots. So it’s only fitting that on this iconic American holiday people draw on the melting pot for inspiration.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Thanksgiving was appropriated as a way to Americanize new immigrants, says Sandra L. Oliver, editor of Food History News and co-author of “Giving Thanks,” a history of the holiday.

“There was considerable effort put into teaching these kids about the Thanksgiving holiday - it was done in the schools - and attributing all kinds of virtues to the sainted Pilgrim forefathers, really elevating them beyond their significance,” Miss Oliver says.

“There are pictures of these little kids kitted out in Pilgrim hats, no matter who they were. It met with some success. Kids are really good about going home and saying, ‘We have to have turkey on Thursday.’ ”

The founders probably didn’t count on the ingenuity of newcomers, many of whom did adopt the holiday, but in their own way.

Marcela Valladolid, author of the cookbook “Fresh Mexico,” grew up crossing the U.S.-Mexico border every day, leaving her Tijuana home before dawn to attend school in San Diego. She says she absorbed both cultures “100 percent” and so has her Thanksgiving celebration.

“We don’t segregate it,” she says. “It’s not like the turkey is American and then there are tamales. There’s chili in the turkey.”

Miss Valladolid glazes her turkey with an apricot, tequila and chili sauce and serves it alongside roasted chipotle acorn squash and brussels sprouts in morilla cream. She says the feast was inspired by her cross-border experience but also is a way to make the holiday truly inclusive for everyone in the family.

“My father barely speaks English,” she says. “This holiday is very new for him. He started celebrating Thanksgiving when he married my mom. Try to sit down and have Thai food for the first time. It’s intimidating. And I imagine that was the way my father felt the first time he sat down in front of a big fat turkey.”

If Miss Valladolid sees ethnicizing Thanksgiving as a way to bring the family’s older generation into the new tradition, others see the reverse: a way to preserve and communicate culture to the next generation.

At New York’s Tabla, Bombay-born chef Floyd Cardoz is known for merging Indian spices and sensibilities with American ingredients. After more than 20 years in the United States, he does the same at his Thanksgiving feast.

Mr. Cardoz brines his turkey in a pungent solution of fresh ginger and bay leaf, then dry-rubs it with black pepper, chilies, fresh garlic and crushed bay leaf. “I rub it all over the bird and under the skin too,” he says. “It makes it more flavorful.”

His stuffing spikes a cornbread base with Goan-style pork sausage, redolent of vinegar, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. The homemade cranberry sauce has touches of ginger, black pepper, cloves and cinnamon. “So it’s a little more interesting than plain old canned cranberry,” he says.

He also makes sure there’s lots of heavy, Indian-style snacking on items such as samosas and spiced potato dumplings before the meal and that there are plenty of Indian specialties as well, such as rice pulao and a Goan pork stew full of pork belly, shoulder, liver and chili.

“By putting our beliefs into a meal, it ties my past with my kids’ future,” says Mr. Cardoz, whose sons are 12 and 16. “At some point, when they have their kids and they’re doing their Thanksgiving tradition, maybe there will be something from India in there, and it will bring them back. It ties up the generations when you do this.”

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