The pies are in the oven as I write. The squash is pealed; the rolls wait to be warmed up. There will be turkey and stuffing and appropriate beverages. We will have homemade apple sauce and chana masala with naan. We will pause and give thanks for all the … wait … What? “Chana something or other with … ” For pete’s sake, what is that?
“That’s what the Indians are bringing,” said my wife.
I thought the Indians brought venison and some hope for an alliance with the Brits who toughed it out over a long, cold winter. But this Thanksgiving is going to be different. The Indians are coming. Not the “native” American kind, but the more recent ones – the ones who actually DID come from India hoping to find opportunity here. They are vegetarians. Their food is … well, it is different from ours. Russell Peters would say it is more “flavorful”. Peters tells a wonderful story of his own family and how, one night, they became “Canadian”. This had nothing to do with passports or visas or work permits. It had to do with food. Peters is a comedian, so you probably have to assign the same amount of veracity to his story as you would when you hear a preacher recount a family story. There is apt to be a bit of exaggeration. Even so, it suggests something important about today – this holiday we folk whose ancestors barged into the Americas celebrate.
There was a piece in the paper earlier this week about a Korean family, the parents of whom endured the Japanese Occupation during WW II. Marie Myung-Ok Lee tells of growing up in northern Minnesota. As the Korean War played out and lines were drawn in the sand (the 38th Parallel), her parents fled the north, and in 1953 were able to come to America. When visas expired they endured the threat of being deported; but the people in the town where they lived petitioned the government. Marie’s father was an anesthesiologist – his services were desperately needed in their community. In 1965 her parents achieved US citizenship. There was bullying and taunting. Every now and then someone would drive by their house and yell out “Chink!” No matter. The opportunity to live freely, to have a job, to educate their children – all of this made the elders so grateful that they were determined not only to give back to the community, but to celebrate America’s “Thanksgiving” the right way. It was turkey, cranberry sauce, all the fixings of what has become the traditional (and historically inaccurate) menu for the day. (“Eat Turkey, Become American.”)
But chana (also known as “chole”) masala with naan? Where does that fit into the menu? Cumin seeds and chopped fresh ginger and serrano chiles and garam masala and chickpeas (garbanzo beans?) – DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT THIS IS GOING TO DO TO THE STUFFING? Are we even going to be able to TASTE the turkey?
I should clarify. My wife did not exactly say “The Indians are coming.” What she said was that we were going to share Thanksgiving with my son’s in-laws. My youngest child fell in love with a girl of Indian extraction. She is beautiful, with long, thick dark hair, a temperament that combines seltzer with hot chile pepper, and parents and a brother and sister-in-law who are amazingly wonderful people. They are all coming to our house for … food. For thanks-giving. To celebrate life (a new granddaughter). To sit at the table with us and tell stories of how hard they have worked and how the food in the northern part of India is different from that of the south.
Our families are not joined only by a marriage. Now there is a baby. For unto us a child has been born and that makes me a grandfather(English) / dada (in Gujarati). We will say a Christian grace; but there will be those at the table who are Hindu in their spiritual leanings; and there will be some who shy away from anything “religious” at all. At our table there will be a little boy – another of my grandchildren – who is also mixed-race (White/African American).
We have become a 21st Century Family. Our roots extend off into the depths of our personal histories and come to blossom in saris and neckties, in rap and Christian ritual. I thank God for the people of color who have brought me the little boy at my table. I thank God for the ones who came from the East believing they could work hard in this land and make a life for themselves and their children; they are responsible in part for the baby girl who will be with us at our meal.
I know that many of the native peoples in this land hold this as a day of mourning for all that my ancestors did to them – the promises broken; the waters poisoned; the forests decimated; the air polluted; the beasts slaughtered. There is so little I can do to undo the injustices they have suffered for generations. But I can make this commitment: to be grateful for the peoples of the world and to be faithful to the people around my table. I can commit to remembering when someone accuses immigrants of taking our jobs and our social service dollars – we white folk ought to be the last ones complaining about such things. I will commit to loving and honoring these children and the varied traditions that have brought them under my roof today.
The food at our table on this Thanksgiving will have some heat to it. It is going to be a bit more carbohydrate-heavy than usual, what with all those garbanzo beans. But this is where we become “Americans”. When people so different from each other find ways to dine together, to share life, to make promises and keep them.
The Indians are coming … Indeed. And how they bless us!