Gary Pereddo says he wasn't sure what Thanksgiving was about except that it had something to do with Pilgrims and meant he had a day off school. But Pereddo celebrated his first Thanksgiving yesterday since moving to America from Ecuador a year ago.
By early in the evening, however, he knew Thanksgiving is a day for eating a special meal and getting together with loved ones -- thanks to some Ecuadoran friends in an apartment building on Kalorama Road NW who decided to show Pereddo a Thanksgiving "the American way."
The meaning of Thanksgiving was familiar to Joseph Franklin. But his Thanksgiving yesterday was a first too -- the first time the unemployed construction worker had to spend it in a food line for the homeless. Franklin ate a turkey dinner in the cold in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, courtesy of the Community for Creative Non-Violence.
"I think it's kind of sad, you can't find no job," said Franklin, a husky man of 26 with a round boyish face. "Some people here don't want to work, but others just can't find no job," he added, surveying the crowd of men, women, young and old, who came out for the food giveaway. "I would like to be able to provide for myself, but it's kind of nice for somebody to care about you."
And though neither Franklin nor Pereddo was with his immediate families yesterday, like many Washington area residents, both were able to share in the spirit of the day.
In many ways, yesterday's Thanksgiving celebrations mirrored the many faces of the Washington area -- its families having dinners and reunions, its homeless, its rich and its poor, its growing international community.
"It's good to know something new," said Pereddo, 20, who is studying at George Marshall High School in Fairfax County, as he watched his friend Mercedes Silva Teran baste a 10-pound turkey yesterday in Teran's apartment in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, where many of the area's Latino families live. Pereddo met Teran and her two sons and daughter through a Ecuadoran folk dance group.
Teran said she has lived in the United States for 15 years, but only began cooking a traditional Thanksgiving dinner three years ago, after checking recipe books and querying friends to find out how this typically American meal is prepared. Each year it has become a family project to go to the supermarket and pick out the turkey.
Teran says she sometimes feels like cooking typically Ecuadoran food, like roast pork with rice and corn, on the holiday. "But my children who attend American schools don't want it," she said.
But over on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, which is lined for blocks with stores that sell Vietnamese food, jewelry and clothing, preparations were under way for Thanksgiving celebrations with a distinct homeland flavor.
"Vietnamese people don't much like turkey, so they eat duck or chicken," explained Khun Luong, owner of the Saigon Market, where customers were buying up such items as bean threads and sweet rice yesterday afternoon.
Luong said his wife were preparing roast hen.
But Loc Lee, a former Vietnamese army captain who now works at an engineering firm in Vienna, said it would be turkey for his family -- cooked in their new microwave oven -- because that's the food Americans eat. Lee said he learned all about Thanksgiving in an orientation class on American life that he took when he first arrived here in 1975.
Lee said many Vietnamese families do not eat a traditional bread stuffing, but stuff the turkey with sweet rice or vegetables instead. Leftovers are made into turkey soup, he said, not turkey sandwiches. For dessert, he said, there would be ice cream and fruit, although his family also enjoys pumpkin pie. "It has a nice color," he said.
As Lee did some last-minute food shopping at the Saigon Market, about 1,000 people, some homeless and jobless, some who said they had no other place to go, arrived at the Calvary Baptist Church at 755 Eighth St. NW for a free turkey meal and dessert of sweet potato pie.
As James Briggs, a homeless man who said he frequents the park area near the Ellipse, dug into what he said was the first full meal he had had in several days, he began to grow sick.
"I was eating too fast and got cramped up," Briggs said as he nibbled a bit more slowly on some turkey. "This is great," he added, with tears in his eyes.
The holiday spirit was apparently very much alive in Southeast Washington yesterday, according to Marvinna Craney, a 67-year-old grandmother who said she would never have gotten to her meal at the church without the kindness of a cabdriver.
"I had to come from Anacostia and didn't have no way to get here. A friend of mine gave me a ride to the 11th Street Bridge, then a cabdriver took me the rest of the way. He didn't charge me anything," she explained.
An additional 350 of the city's poor or homeless lined up for a free dinner at the Zacchaeus Community Kitchen at Sixth and L streets NW, one of the city's oldest, largest soup kitchens.
When the facility closed at about 1:30 p.m., many of the men spent the rest of the afternoon sitting amidst the piles of garbage and broken liquor bottles on the steps of boarded up buildings across the street.
Mitch Snyder, director of the community group which organized the Lafayette Square dinner, said he noticed a decline in the age of the people who showed up for the food.
"There are a lot more young people, Vietnam veterans who have given up looking for a job and minority youth. There are people who would have thought you were crazy last year if you told them they would be eating in a soup kitchen this year," Snyder said.
Although the need is greater, he said more food is being donated than ever before by those in the city who are more fortunate.