Metro Detroiters reflect on their families’ Thanksgiving traditions and the dishes that have passed between generations, linking their pasts — often from faraway places — to their present
BY MARK KURLYANDCHIK
When you picture the classic American Thanksgiving table, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie are the essential Rockwellian staples that come to mind. In truth, there are as many variations on the modern Thanksgiving buffet line as there are American families — each one hinting at our unique cultural stories, tracing our lineages across time and manmade borders to our roots.
In my own Russophone household, no other dish is more closely linked with the dual concepts of tradition and celebration than the Olivier salad, a staple on the holiday table that shows up at any excuse for a Russian party, Thanksgiving notwithstanding. Known more frequently throughout the rest of the world as some variation on “Russian salad,” this Slavic potato salad typically includes diced chicken or bologna, but my parents began omitting it some years back for a “healthier” alternative. (Because nothing screams ‘healthy’ like a mayonnaise-laden potato salad.)
That makes this version — complete with my father’s signature addition of diced green apple — a perfect side on Thanksgiving and a perfect foil to incorporate diced leftover turkey into the day after. My own two boys haven’t grown up speaking Russian as their first language like their father did, but a humble potato salad will be sure to remind them of that fact every holiday season.
Stevie Soul Ansara
Beatboxer & senior video producer at Woodward Original
Thanksgiving Recipe: Hashweh (Arab rice / stuffing)
Growing up in an immigrant Middle Eastern household in Redford, local beatboxer and video producer Stevie Soul Ansara didn’t partake in the classic American Thanksgiving stuffing until much later in childhood, when he and his older brothers convinced their mother to make it.
Instead, in keeping with the Jordanian-Palestinian-Armenian Ansara household tradition, hashweh — fittingly “stuffing” in Arabic — was the order of the day, showing up at pretty much every celebration and holiday meal, especially Thanksgiving.
“There’d be a turkey or two, and trays and trays of hashweh,” Ansara says, describing the family Thanksgiving buffet line. “The hashweh was always plentiful. And it sits directly next to the proteins.”
Primarily made up of rice, ground meat, and spices, hashweh is ubiquitous across the Middle East and shows up often as the filling in dishes like stuffed grape leaves and kousa squash. But at the Ansara’s Thanksgiving, it’s served as a hearty side with a dollop of tangy yogurt on top.
“Hashweh is like that warm soul food, comfort food,” Ansara explains. “It’s like a family member, because it’s always there. It’s always been there. It’s there for all the occasions and holidays. Some traditions are easy to carry on. They make themselves real easy. And for us, hashweh was one of those things.”
Co-owner/operator of New Seoul Plaza
Thanksgiving Recipe: Hobak Jeon (Korean Zucchini Fritter)
In Sarah Yi’s parents’ native South Korea, a very important harvest holiday akin to Thanksgiving is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls in October or November. Chuseok, as the holiday is called, lasts three days, enough time for city dwellers to travel home to rural family villages to honor their ancestors. As with any celebration worth its salt, food is central to the festivities.
Chuseok also falls during a busy season for Yi and her family, who own and operate the New Seoul Plaza in Southfield, which includes the popular Daebak Korean BBQ restaurant and adjoining Myomee Dessert Bar. (A third concept, Jinji, was recently converted to a private dining space.)
“Here in America, we don’t get that time off,” Yi says, “so we took the traditional foods and the gathering aspect and moved it to the American Thanksgiving.”
Yi recalls waking early Thanksgiving mornings with her cousins to help prepare the massive feast, where Korean dishes such as kimchi and jeon, a Korean fritter with various fillings, shared space with American classics like roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole. “We would be in charge of going grocery shopping and looking up recipes of how to make the American side dishes,” says Yi, noting that it was her generation that introduced the American dishes to the table. “But we’d look over our shoulders at what our parents were making and learn what Korean dishes go on the Korean Thanksgiving table as well.”
Yi has particularly fond memories of helping her mother and grandmother prepare jeon. “Even though it’s a very simple recipe, it’s very time consuming,” she says. “It takes literally hours and someone has to be there flipping all the little vegetables until they’re golden brown. As soon as you do the first couple batches, you have nothing on your plate, because everybody is walking by and popping them in their mouth. You have to work double time and be yelling at people because you have to save it for [Thanksgiving] dinner.”
As she grew older, Yi noticed that her culturally mashed-up Thanksgiving experience wasn’t uncommon among other first-generation Korean-Americans her age. “If we had a Friendsgiving, we would always have kimchi or one or two Korean dishes at the table,” she says. “And even now, people post photos of their [Thanksgiving] tables and all my Korean-American friends have japchae or kimchi or galbi on the table.”
Co-owner of Qualita Global LLC
Thanksgiving Recipe: Turkey with Oaxacan Mole Negro and Sweet Corn Tamales
For husband and wife Luis and Ana Negrete, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate the new family they’ve found since immigrating to Michigan in 2006 from Toluca, Mexico.“We didn’t come here for a big company,” says Luis, who runs a quality assurance company for the automotive industry with his wife. “It was Ana and me, alone, on our own.”
The Negretes arrived just before the Great Recession took hold and even considered moving back to Mexico during the darkest days of 2008 and 2009. More than a decade since, and now with two kids in tow, Thanksgiving has filled the lonely void for the couple.
“Thanksgiving since I came here became a very important holiday,” Luis says. “But it’s not because I spend it with my family. My mom is in Puebla. My brother is in Monterey and another in Canada. So I always spend it with the closest of my friends.” The Negretes usually gather with three or four families to celebrate the holiday. “It’s like rain or shine we have to get together because that is now my family,” he says. “Some of them are godfathers to my kids and we are godparents to theirs. So Thanksgiving for me is still spending it with family but with a new family, the one you choose.”
Luis, a gastronome who previously owned the defunct tapas restaurant La Dulce, is not personally a big fan of turkey; still, he and one of his turkey-loving friends recently landed on a recipe that celebrates both the American tradition of cooking the bird while paying tribute to their native land.
“Mole and wild turkey is very traditional in Mexico,” Luis says, adding that the classic preparation includes boiling and then saucing it. It can be accompanied with rice and beans, “but here we have stuffing,” he says. “Mole with a corn tamale, it goes super nice.”
With their daughters now 6 and 7, it’s become even more meaningful for the Negretes to reflect their own heritage onto their adopted American table. “For me it’s important to grind into my kids the traditions of where we are and who we are and our origins. It’s super important that they get those two cultures and understand them. I don’t think we’re Mexican or Americans anymore. We’re a mix of both things and this dish really talks to everyone eating it.”
Chef-owner, In the Business of Food & Gabriel Hall
Thanksgiving staple: Louisiana-style Bread Pudding with Praline Rum Sauce
Louisiana transplant and multi-hyphenate chef/food business consultant Ederique Goudia won’t open Gabriel Hall (her New Orleans-style restaurant with business partner and Gabriel Hall Brass Band leader Dameon Gabriel) until next year. But she imbues the Southern flavor of her roots into most everything she does, especially at Thanksgiving.
“One of the virtues of Creole culture and cooking is ‘want not, waste not,’” explains Goudia, who also runs the Upcycling Kitchen for nonprofit Make Food Not Waste.
Goudia’s bread pudding — a staple of her family’s Thanksgiving spread — speaks to that zero-waste philosophy. “It started by taking the leftover ends of French bread we would cut off,” Goudia says. “Of course in Louisiana, we use French bread a lot every-day making sandwiches and po’ boys and things like that. So any of the leftover scraps or the ends, we hold or freeze. And we use that in making a dessert.”
Back home in the small town of Wallace, La., Goudia’s families grew pecan trees on their property, so the praline sauce for the bread pudding — or just about anything else — was made of freshly grown pecans. And though she’s more than 1,000 miles from her familial home, for Goudia, bread pudding with praline sauce made in Detroit still triggers fond memories of Thanksgiving in the South.
“Thanksgiving was a time to go see family we wouldn’t see on a weekly basis,” Goudia recalls. “I always enjoyed Thanksgiving and hanging out with my family. But for the Black culture, that’s also the day before Bayou Classic Weekend, which is a football game between two historically Black colleges that takes place every year. That whole weekend was a beautiful tradition of having Thanksgiving and spending time with the family then going to the city to enjoy the step show and football game. That’s why Thanksgiving is probably still my favorite holiday.”
What are your favorite holiday traditions and recipes? If you make any of these recipes, please comment below and let us know how they turned out!