Growing up as a young, ethnically-Indian American in New York, Hindu religious doctrine seemed an all-too-easy “Idiot’s Guide for Living”: by sincerely setting out to fulfil my familial and social duties as a daughter, sister, niece and cousin, I would earn good karma as I paved my way to salvation. From a comfortable distance, this basic tenet of my faith seemed easy to me compared to my Jewish friends who had to memorize the Torah in time for their bar and bat mitzvah or my Catholic cohort who reported enduring weekly “fire and brimstone”-flavored preaching from the pulpit.
But it wasn’t until years later, upon reading the New Testament for the first time, when I noticed that the concept of fate, which is ubiquitous in Hindu teaching and Indian philosophy, also has its place in the Christian Bible. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he mandates...
“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon, or a Sabbath day- (Colossians 2:16).”
According to Paul, fate dictates that all believers accept and fulfil their principal duties, ignoring the distinctions among us – since ultimately Believers are united in their love of Christ.
Besides inspiring his readers with a sense of confidence and reassurance that they are in exactly the role which destiny desired for them, the apostle Paul raises a conundrum still practically-speaking relevant in 2011, particularly around America’s holiday of feasting and expressing gratitude: Thanksgiving Day.
In a country, according to the recent 2010 Census, populated by misleadingly simple communities-by-color (12 percent black, 5 percent of Asian descent and 16 percent Hispanic), the prototypical Thanksgiving feast where the Pilgrims broke bread with their Native American Indian neighbors, the Wampanoag, at Plymouth to celebrate the colony’s first successful harvest has faded into the collective memory, faintly lingering as the memory of a cartoon drawing in an grade school history textbook or animated cartoon introducing the holiday’s origin to young children.
The original Thanksgiving feast of duck, waterfowl and autumnal vegetables like squash and corn (rather than the turkey, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes which emerged in later, revisionist versions of the historical event), is rarely replicated today, even amongst the most loyal holiday revellers (who I, incidentally, count myself among). So what does a Thanksgiving feast look like in this day and age where the U.S. Census Bureau overlook the national, religious and ethnic diversity even within the population demographic analysis?
For me, Thanksgiving feasts have evolved over the years, as I have expected they have for most the people I know: according to the company I keep that day and determined by the identity and community my host most identifies with in that moment in time. During most my childhood, Thanksgiving was spent with my maternal side of the family which meant enduring an exhaustingly-exotic meal with the people most intimately entwined in my life. We were a Normal Rockwell painting gone awry, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and their mystified children struggling to eat crispy turkey with silverware (most dinners, we ate our naan and curry, even rice, with our right hand), ignoring the glistening cranberry sauce still shaped like the can it came from and dousing the otherwise banal mashed potatoes with salt and black pepper.
Only years later did I realize that we, my nuclear family, endured this annual “feast” out of respect for my aunt and uncle’s goal for fulfilling the American Dream; Thanksgiving Day was but one pit stop on the way to emerging and establishing themselves as authentic, and by that I mean financially successful, Americans.
Quiet patience in my childhood was rewarded in adolescence: during the years of pimples and driving tests, SATs and Friday nights spent at the local mall, we began celebrating Thanksgiving with the paternal side of my family, a branch which pioneered cross-ethnic and bi-religious marital unions: a mini microcosm of the direction America was quickly evolving towards. These Thanksgiving feasts offered a lovingly-roasted turkey, biscuits so fluffy they immediately deflated in a moist mouth, and cornbread so sweet it’s no wonder its main ingredient is the foundation of most fast food. And, yet, these prototypical dishes only took up a quarter of my plate: the rest was a mess of heavily-buttered naan, my mother’s spicy mixed vegetables, and chicken curry glistening with ghee. In honor of the subcontinent from which my family migrated and with respect towards the New World in which we thrived, combining the cuisines of two cultures seemed only natural.
Last Thanksgiving my husband and I found ourselves in Lausanne, Switzerland, visiting my brother and his wife, both hell-bent on honoring the “true” Indians with a lukewarm, first attempt at cooking an Indian feast consisting of hardened pita bread, a mushy spinach side dish and a lentil daal which tasted in keeping with its burnt-yellow hue. My husband and I quietly piled our dishes in the sink and fantasized of the tried-and-tested Movenpick vanilla ice cream thawing in the fridge.
But as Thanksgiving dinners over the years have evolved, the concept of giving thanks has as well, manifesting itself in different forms. At my Aunt Kathy’s house in Stonybrook, Long Island, we scribble our thanks on scraps of paper for the youngest guest to read aloud and for the rest of us to guess the author. At my brother’s Swiss home, we link hands in a minute of silence before breaking bread. More recently, we took turns articulating what we’re grateful for, each of us nodding in unison, supporting each other’s graciousness and the diversity of blessings bestowed upon us.
This year’s Thanksgiving feast remains a mystery as I am now a steadfast pescetarian visiting Venice, Italy, with my husband. We’re skipping the obligatory family visit to frigid locations such as rural PA, Long Island’s North Shore, and the Swiss countryside; instead, we are escaping to southern Europe where I am more likely to indulge in pasta peppered with prawns followed by pistachio gelato than pickled yams and pumpkin pie. But, as ever, I will express thanks for the company I keep in a corner of the world known for its life-affirming cuisine at which I arrived as a result of the wonderfully-migratory nature that describes living in the modern world.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings.”