Immigrant-owned businesses that specialize in foods rooted in their native country face a challenge when Thanksgiving rolls around: Embrace or skip entirely? Some restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and chefs incorporate hints of turkey, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin flourishes into their foods—a nod, even if a deconstructed one. Others say it’s best to steer clear.
“You are not going to find any pumpkin hummus here,” says Mohammed Qadadeh, the owner of American Falafel in St Louis, Missouri, after he heard about an American restaurateur’s Thanksgiving offering in Chicago establishments (name withheld to avoid possible doxxing from hummus community). Qadadeh opened American Falafel, a fast causal eatery with more than 25 seats, in the vibrant neighborhood known as The Loop, in the beginning of June, after working nearly 20 years as a vice president at MasterCard.
“We’re not going to mess with the turkey, so don’t mess with our food!” Qadadeh, originally from Jordan, adds with a laugh.
Discretion Is The Better Part Of Valor
Despite Qadadeh’s wise refusal to create any Jordanian-Thanksgiving specials, he happily celebrates the U.S. holiday with his family by sitting down to an unadulterated traditional Thanksgiving meal. “We’ve tried the deep-fried turkey, oven cooked, we’ve tried all kinds of shenanigans!” says Qadadeh.
Qadadeh, like many immigrants who came to the United States as young adults, first experienced Thanksgiving simply as a day to give thanks for what you have and eat a mysterious bird that often doesn’t exist in their homelands.
“My professor invited me over for Thanksgiving,” recalls Qadadeh, who came to the U.S. to attend Webster University in St Louis. “She had us go around and say something to be thankful about,” says Qadadeh, adding that he barely spoke English at the time.
“This really brought home the American culture, American values,” says Qadadeh, unlike what he saw on TV shows like Miami Vice and various crime shows he’d watched in Jordan.
Middle Eastern cuisine might not be an ideal tabla for creative Thanksgiving concoctions, but Latin American fare typically is, thanks to many overlapping ingredients like corn and potatoes.
Giancarlo Varela, executive chef of the Peruvian restaurant Tanta in Chicago, owned by the renowned chef Astón Acurio, has already sold out of his special boxed Peruvian Thanksgiving meal for $75.
Varela is not swapping out pollo a la braza, the classic Peruvian roast chicken for “pava,” turkey, but he’s created several subtle fusions throughout the menu. However, he’s contemplating (not committing) to possibly adding a few turkeys to the rotisserie oven’s chickens next year.
Saluting cornbread, Varela is making a layered pastel de choclo with beef and a sofrito of onions, tomatoes and Peruvian chili peppers. “It’s cornbread filled with beef stew,” explains Varela, “but the Peruvian version.”
He’s also tweaked a traditional Latin American dessert with his pumpkin tres leches cake, made with a kabocha squash puree. “It’s almost like a sweet potato,” describes Varela of the flavor, noting that the cake is seasoned with hand ground cinnamon and nutmeg, and then soaked it in infused condensed milk.
U.S.-born and immigrant children alike typically learn the complicated history behind Thanksgiving: pilgrims fraternizing with Native Americans at Plymouth Rock, in all its variations, from fairy tale to historically accurate. But many immigrants who arrive in the United States as young adults, like Varela, experience it first as an American holiday to give thanks; learning its role in colonizing the continent years later.
“What I keep in my mind,” reflects Varela, who has a full understanding of Thanksgiving’s complicated history, “is to give thanks for what we have. That’s why I celebrate it.” Varela will be dining with his mother on Thanksgiving, who will prepare a turkey “Peruvian style” stuffed with beef, pork, onions, garlic and chili peppers. “In Peru, we mix proteins,” explains Varela, “but it makes sense using this inside the turkey, so the turkey is never dry.” Another dish they’ll be feasting on, typically served at Christmas in Peru, is what’s known as Arabian rice—a mélange of rice, noodles, pork, dried cranberries and… Coca-Cola. “It gives it a nice flavor!” laughs Varela, accustomed to the scrutiny given by non-Peruvians about Coke as an ingredient.
Thanksgiving In Your Pocket
In and around Detroit, a bright blue mobile truck has been selling handmade Argentine empanadas. Silvia Parra, a native of Argentina, launched her company this past spring despite the pandemic. Her empanadas are a half-moon of baked dough, stuffed with savory filling like beef with onions, ham and cheese, or humita, a ground corn mixture, among others.
Parra offers traditional flavors but she’s accustomed to improvising for local taste buds. She’s already made a BBQ pulled pork empanada and she’s game for turkey empanadas for Thanksgiving. “It’s going to be like Thanksgiving in your pocket,” says Parra.
Immigrant-owned businesses in a quandary about what to serve on this new, unknown holiday of Thanksgiving, often make the logical choice. They offer customers traditional Christmas and New Year’s fare from their homeland on Thanksgiving.
Christmas And New Year’s Come Early
Vanessa Gonzalez and Christopher Garrido, owners of Gurrido’s Bistro in Detroit’s suburb Grosse Pointe Woods, are offering dishes typically reserved for Christmas and New Year’s in their native Venezuela. In addition to their prime rib roast with Venezuelan seasoning, they’ll offer hallacas and pan de jamón for Thanksgiving.
“We dream about them all year,” says Gonzalez of hallacas, which have a banana leaf wrapped exterior filled with stewed meats, corn flour cooked with annatto seed. Gonzalez concedes hallacas do resemble tamales, but notes they are labor intensive to make, often involving the whole family over a three-day weekend. “It’s much more work than any other tamale out there,” asserts Gonzalez.
Their big hit has been pan de jamón, ham bread, a whopping two and a half pound loaf of bread with a texture like a sourdough brioche hybrid, filled with ham, bacon, raisins and Spanish olives.
And of course arepas, the classic Venezuelan snack sandwich made with a corn-based flour, are always on the menu. Gonzalez has been toying with the idea of a turkey arepa, but it has yet to materialize.
About an hour’s drive west in Ann Arbor, Mich, Pilar’s Tamales has been churning out seasonal tamales for nearly 20 years, which includes Thanksgiving tamales.
For the past several years, owner Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers, originally from El Salvador, decided to do the opposite of many immigrant food entrepreneurs. Her Thanksgiving tamale—turkey with Oaxaca style mole sauce, pineapple, prunes and a giant green olive—has been pushed back to Christmas. “Because everyone’s eating turkey during this time,” explains Nolasco-Rivers, “a month break from thinking about turkey.”
She offers her customers two seasonal Thanksgiving tamales. One is a sweet potato yam tamale, the other is a slightly sweet dessert pumpkin tamale, which she describes as “pumpkin pie without the crust.”
Finding Another Way To Celebrate The Day
Qadadeh, quite content to let the native-born Americans have their holiday, celebrates Thanksgiving one other way: supply those in need with his food.
Qadadeh’s food will be distributed through Welcome Neighbor STL, a community-fueled organization founded by Jessica Bueler, which initially supported local resettled refugees through supper club dinners. “Now with the coronavirus,” says Bueler, “we haven’t been able to do that. So I’ve been so excited to partner with Mohammed and American Falafel, because we’ve been able to work together to make that part up again, and help people in need during this really important time.”
Individuals have purchased or donated money for American Falafel meals on Welcome Neighbor STL’s website, so far 107 meals have been purchased to be served for Thanksgiving. While St Louis’s unhoused might not receive a turkey drumstick with mashed potatoes and gravy, they will feast on an authentic Jordanian meal, including lentil soup, a seasoned grilled chicken breast on kabseh rice with sautéed peppers topped with almond slivers, tzatziki and baklava.
Since the Midwest’s COVID cases are spiking, Qadadeh and Welcome Neighbor STL will continue their partnership, funded by local individuals, to feed first responders every Wednesday and Sunday through mid-December.