Monday, August 29, 2011

Thanksgiving in the Diaspora

When I was teenager in Vermont, Thanksgiving was always a potluck affair. My mother would supply the turkey, stuffing, and her special cranberry-orange sauce, and the guests would bring everything else. She’d invite friends, most of whom were half her age, unattached and with families too far away to visit. They’d contribute such unconventional (and occasionally barely palatable) Thanksgiving fare as millet and zucchini salad, soybean casseroles, and apple pies with whole-wheat crusts made from hand-ground flour. This was the hippie era, after all.

Several decades later, I went to another Thanksgiving feast that promised to be equally unconventional. Six years into our marriage, my husband and I drove down to Orange County in Southern California to spend the weekend with his Iranian relatives. Uncles, aunts, and cousins all turned out for the event.

I didn’t expect the meal to be a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the trimmings. At every dinner party I’d attended in the homes of Iranian friends and relatives up to that point, only Persian food had been served. So I expected the same at this Thanksgiving in Orange County. There would be shirin polo, perhaps, a colorful rice pilaf studded with orange peel, shredded carrots, almonds, and pistachio nuts, a dish that frequently turns up on festive occasions. Or perhaps baghali polo (braised lamb shanks served with dill-and-saffron-speckled rice). Certainly a kebab or two.

Boy was I wrong! This Thanksgiving dinner would have made Martha Stewart proud.

We had a perfectly succulent roast turkey (and in my experience, turkey is rarely perfect but usually a tad dry), bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, rich gravy, green beans, and glazed yams. There was even a homemade pumpkin pie for dessert, dished up with little rosettes of whipped cream around the rim. All lovingly prepared and graciously served by my husband’s cousin, in whose home we were staying, along with her two sisters-in-law.

Strictly speaking, this Thanksgiving dinner was a great deal more conventional than my mother’s long-ago celebrations in Vermont. And yet, apart from the food, nothing about the Orange County gathering felt in the least bit American. Not the way the guests sat formally on chairs and sofas selected more for elegance than comfort, waiting to be served tea in elegant glasses by the lady of the house (who looked thoroughly shocked when I offered to help, as though I’d suggested that her hostessing skills were not up to par). Nor the melodious tones of the Farsi I heard all around me, with its drawn-out vowels and soft consonants.

In Vermont, none of us thought it odd to turn up on Thanksgiving in jeans and work shirts, faded with many washings. After all, this most comfortable of all holidays was not intended to be a formal affair. (And tight clothes make for misery once you’ve stuffed yourself to bursting with a rich meal.)

In Orange County, the Iranian guests arrived all decked out as though for a wedding, the women in stiletto heels with gold flashing at their throats, the men in well-pressed suits and white shirts, with slicked-back hair. In Vermont, we scraped the dirt off our shoes before entering the house. In this Persian home, everyone left their footwear at the front door and walked about in their stocking feet.

One custom the two Thanksgivings shared in common was the way the food was served: buffet style. But as I made my way around the table at the Iranian feast, placing items on my plate, my helpful hosts added more spoonfuls of everything. Left to my own devices, it was assumed, I’d leave the feast hungry, not wanting to appear greedy, and clearly requiring much prodding to avoid such an unthinkable disaster. Being the only “foreigner” present, I received extra royal treatment.

Life in the diaspora always means making adjustments to fit into the rhythm of the dominant culture. It’s a balancing act between embracing new ways and preserving accustomed values, traditions, and family structures. Iranian immigrants in California have especially strong ties to the old country and usually large extended families in the new one. So it makes sense that even a quintessentially American holiday like Thanksgiving would have a Persian flavor in the diaspora.

And what is American, anyway? We are a mongrel nation made up of many different cultures, both immigrant and homegrown. Take my mother’s potluck holiday feasts – I suspect that few Americans would share such memories, where the only identifiable component was probably the turkey.

Thanksgiving is the most adaptable of holidays since it is not linked to any specific religion or ideology. After all, doesn’t every world culture have a tradition of celebrating life, family, and community with a big, delicious feast?

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