Thanksgiving diversity

Suburban immigrants blend own cultures into an American holiday

 
 
  • Miklos Bende, 35, stands in his store, Bende's Specialty Foods Direct in Glen Ellyn, with some of the deli products that his family manufactures.

    Miklos Bende, 35, stands in his store, Bende's Specialty Foods Direct in Glen Ellyn, with some of the deli products that his family manufactures. Ed Lee | Staff Photographer

  • Thanksgiving's meaning of giving thanks resonates with Rajinder Singh Mago and his wife, Navinder Kaur Mago, of Wayne, who emigrated from India.

    Thanksgiving's meaning of giving thanks resonates with Rajinder Singh Mago and his wife, Navinder Kaur Mago, of Wayne, who emigrated from India. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • The Hedstrom family of Elgin serves Laotian food as well as traditional American food at Thanksgiving.

    The Hedstrom family of Elgin serves Laotian food as well as traditional American food at Thanksgiving. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Rajinder Singh Mago and his wife, Navinder Kaur Mago, of Wayne are immigrants from India. Here they say prayers in a Sikh prayer room called a Gurudwara.

    Rajinder Singh Mago and his wife, Navinder Kaur Mago, of Wayne are immigrants from India. Here they say prayers in a Sikh prayer room called a Gurudwara. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Published: 11/26/2008 12:03 AM

Scholars don't agree on exactly when or where the first Thanksgiving dinner took place. Some say Massachusetts, others Virginia. Most put it at around 1621, but that's disputed, too.

They do agree, however, that whoever came together for the feast that launched an American holiday was celebrating the harvest and offering thanks for a bounty of crops.

Some 400 years later, as immigrants continue to swell America's ranks, many have adopted as their own the traditions of the fourth Thursday of November - often with a twist.

We talked with several suburban residents of various ethnic and religious backgrounds to see how they meld their own culture with a very American celebration.

Filipino

For Filipino-Americans, Thanksgiving is a time for celebrating, but not necessarily with the pilgrims and Indians in mind, says Meluz Abraham, a second-generation immigrant.

"My family does not consider Thanksgiving with the same deeper meaning as American families do," the Rolling Meadows resident said. "But we do consider it a time for our family to gather since it is a national holiday and since Filipinos love get-togethers and eating."

Abraham, her husband, Randl, and their two daughters spend the day with her parents, who came to the U.S. in 1975. The foods they serve are traditional from the Philippines, including pancit, a noodle dish, and fried lumpia, a type of egg roll. "My mom usually likes to make her mussel soup," she said. "This is good for cold days."

Filipinos also like their fish, she said. One year the family had American guests who were shocked to see baked whole fish with the head still intact.

If a guest brings turkey, they'll serve it. "But my family isn't big on turkey," she said.

It's important in Filipino culture to please the guests, Abraham says. A party's success is measured not only by how satisfied they are but also by how many types of food are served.

"As far as I can remember, we have considered Thanksgiving a holiday. When I was little my parents would get together with their friends who have become like family, too," she said.

- Colleen Thomas

Sikh

When Rajinder Singh Mago arrived in the U.S. from India as a young man, Thanksgiving was about as alien to him as, well, American football.

But as a member of the Sikh faith, he caught on quickly to one aspect of the holiday - the part about being thankful.

In Sikhism, "we're supposed to give thanks to God every moment - with every breath of your life," says Mago, who lives in Wayne. "It doesn't have to be a special day."

So Mago's own family Thanksgiving traditions evolved through wanting his children to appreciate both their heritage and that of his adopted homeland.

For years, Mago and other members of the Sikh Religious Society in Palatine have participated in Chicago's Thanksgiving Day parade. Then they serve meals to needy people at different charities around the Chicago area.

The real meaning of Thanksgiving "is thanking God Almighty for all his gifts and then sharing them," he said.

After the giving comes the partaking. For Mago's family, that means sitting down for a traditional Thanksgiving meal with his wife, Navinder, preparing the food and Mago carving the turkey. (Many Sikhs are vegetarian, but Mago is not.) His wife learned to cook the meal from generous local families who hosted them when they were new to the States.

And, after the meal, who knows? Mago might even watch a little football.

- Diana Wallace

Mexican

One never quite knows what's going to be on the table for Thanksgiving in the Chavez household.

Typically, Mexican native Griselda Chavez, her four grown children and their families get together in Aurora to cook up a feast of pork tamales, pork tostadas, sweet tamales made with pineapple and raisins, and "atole," a Mexican hot, sweet beverage.

Some years, however, one of her three daughters might decide to bake a turkey with a new recipe recommended by someone.

"We always celebrate by making dinner and giving thanks, but what we eat has changed as we got older and other family members have come into the family," says Crystal Chavez, 21, the youngest child.

Most Latinos she knows take the same "hybrid" approach to celebrating Thanksgiving as they combine their own traditions with American customs, she said.

Other families, however, celebrate the holiday "the American way," says Jaime Garcia of Elgin.

When he and his parents emigrated from Mexico City to Chicago in the 1950s, they had never heard of Thanksgiving.

So that first November, when Garcia's father came home from work with a turkey, his mother cut it up, boiled it, and dressed it with Mexican mole sauce, made with chili peppers, spices, ground nuts and cocoa. "She made it the way she knew," says Garcia, now 60.

By the following year, however, the family had learned about Thanksgiving through commercials on TV and parishioners at their church, and began to celebrate it with a baked turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and "everything else that goes with it," he says.

- Elena Ferrarin

Jewish

According to Geneva resident and businessman Fred Margulies, American Thanksgiving is a reinterpretation of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, which is referenced in the book of Leviticus.

"American society has secularized it, but it's the same idea of celebrating the bounty from God and nature," Margulies says. "The theme is that at the end of the harvest we stop and reflect and thank God. One of the most basic of human desires is to express gratitude to God."

Margulies says he has been with other Jews on Thanksgiving who express thanks for being able to live in America where they are welcome, especially in view of past persecution in Europe.

As far as feasting, the food is the same. Geneva resident Candace Goldstein says Jews who keep kosher, separating meat from dairy, will have a kosher meal on Thanksgiving. Goldstein and her family have a kosher turkey, which is a turkey slaughtered according to an ancient ritual by specially trained, observant Jews.

"The artery is severed," Goldstein says. "It's meant to be painless and less scary for the animals."

- Nancy Gier

Hungarian

Miklos Bende, a second-generation Hungarian, and about two dozen family members gather annually under one roof to celebrate Thanksgiving.

The traditional meal usually consists of turkey, sweet potatoes, a cranberry dish and Hungarian-seasoned stuffing.

"It's more of a European-based stuffing spiced the way we make stuffings," Bende says. "My mom makes her own."

The adults also usually have Hungarian wine and liquor.

For the past several decades, Bende's family has been proudly celebrating Thanksgiving the way many Americans do, while adding a slight Hungarian twist to the menu.

"It's a very warm event," says Bende, one of the owners of Bende's Specialty Foods Direct in Glen Ellyn. "Everyone gets together and it's very casual for us."

Although Bende, 35, was born in Chicago, his parents left Hungary in 1956 and moved to the area. The family first opened a store in Chicago, then Vernon Hills. The Glen Ellyn shop opened in 2005.

Now, 50 years later, Bende's family has grown and three generations reside here.

Although some ethnic spices make their way into Bende's family's Thanksgiving dinner, the majority of the holiday is spent just like a typical American's - including the whole shopping aspect.

"We have kind of adjusted to how Americans celebrate," Bende says. "We've acclimated to the way it should be."

- Hafsa Mahmood

Laotian

There'll be turkey and stuffing on Dounangchay Hedstrom's Thanksgiving dinner table this year - sticky rice stuffing and turkey salad, that it is.

The two dishes are Lao favorites, said Hedstrom, who was born in the Southeast Asian country and now lives in Elgin.

"That has become our tradition and the kids look forward to the traditional food and the Lao food," she says. "We used to eat whatever was on the table, but then the kids would say, 'No, we can't have that, we have to have this.' So then I had to learn how to cook it all."

But the dinner also includes her mother's sticky rice stuffing as well as Larb - ground turkey, herbs, spices and seasoning served on a bed of lettuce.

"We create our own feast to include what we eat and our diet," Hedstrom says. "It is a new tradition but at the same time it is special enough that we reflect our background by adding our food."

Hedstrom says the tradition began about five years ago when the eldest Hedstrom children, Vanessa, 20, and Dustin, 17, asked for a Thanksgiving meal replete with a giant turkey, stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.

"Families used to get together because it was a holiday, but as the kids got older they learned the significance," says Hedstrom, who said her family will enjoy Thanksgiving at her sister's home in Rockford with about 50 other people. "Now it is not just dinner. It is a chance to get together and be thankful for everything that we have. It has become significant and we understand why we have Thanksgiving."

- Larissa Chinwah