I should like Thanksgiving more than I do, the closest most Americans come to eating contests: I love soporific, carb-heavy foods and half-assedly cooperative cooking, my favorite ways of bonding with loved ones. My immigrant family takes the same pragmatic stance towards Turkey Day as towards all rituals of state or faith: we have the day off, and travel is expensive, but permitted by our schedules, so—colonial subtexts or no—we get to one place and eat there. But despite dragging my parents to a few real Thanksgivings over the years—and having together seen countless movies—we do our own thing. We pick a menu democratically, each contributes as much or as little time to the shopping, cooking, and cleaning as they feel compelled; sometimes we bring people or lobby for a schedule that allows us to double-party as needed or to skimp on airfare and drive-times. Pragmatism gives to and takes from the Holiday.
Our menus might be very traditional or not at all; the Thanksgiving menu is as close as most white people get to what Americans euphemistically call “soul food,” or what Southerners call a “meat and three”: an “unsung” protein doctored laboriously, which is cost-effective but only worth the effort if you’re feeding a small army, and a deceptively large assortment of self-similar and buttery sides, nutritious but bordering on being candy. In our house, the protein is usually something low-key; some years it’s turkey, but often garden-variety chicken (because who has the time). One year, my then-wife and I volunteered to take protein duty and did a Turkey Pipián, a pumpkin-seed variant of mole from South México; another year, we just made Korean barbeque lettuce wraps from pre-marinated Korean grocery-store meats. A year will come that we’ll eat straight-up turkey burgers and laugh it off. We make buttery, sweet sides, but not that buttery, and not that sweet, by American standards.
We place less emphasis on the protein or the vegetable sides, however, than we do on the Italo-Argentine homemade pastas on the menu almost every year. The dish we’ve made the most has been Gnocchi de Semolina, a gritty cornmeal-like lump of fresh pasta made from coarse durum wheat, somewhere between a dumpling and a noodle, an unsung cousin of polenta that has never been hip or gourmet.
(Most years, this option gets my only emphatic vote. I often ask for it or help make it on my birthday, when I’m in town for that. When I apply for Italian citizenship, I hope I’ll be asked how many different kinds of Gnocchi I have made with my bare hands, to which I could today answer “three” without exaggerating.)
In this unwritten family tradition—eating the humblest Northern Italian peasant fare on a high holiday—there is a little quiet resistance to the core meaning of American Turkey Day, that festival of conquistador gloating, settler colonialism, and consumption. Turkey was a bedrock protein of the Iroquois Confederation and the other First Nations, and so turkey overpopulated and became easy to pluck from the Commons when those regions had been stripped of their previous inhabitants.
From a very young age, I understood this to be the occasion being celebrated. I only have one indigenous family member, by marriage, born in the same county of Argentina where Argentina’s current president and I were both born, on land that was in 1776 still densely populated exclusively with indigenous people. On his birthday, he likes to eat armadillo stew, and his favorite fish has no Spanish name. What would a real American Thanksgiving menu be like?
My family eats the least triumphalist meal imaginable: a sensible portion of bathetic meat and “end of the month pasta,” as Argentinians (and Italians) call it, the pasta you make when you barely have an egg or two left, and pantry ingredients, to get you to the end of the month.