Food with a Slice of History

A graduate student’s first Thanksgiving celebration in the United States

Image courtesy of Cala on Unsplash

Thanksgiving wasn’t part either of my childhood or adolescence.  Neither does the idea of making a turkey, which I believe requires considerable talent and skill, tempt me.  I do have a soft spot for Thanksgiving in my heart though and await this holiday with childlike excitement.

The first time I ever heard of Thanksgiving was in a short story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” by the writer O’Henry.  In the story, a homeless man is generously fed, first by two well-off New York ladies and then, by an old gentleman. Both the homeless and the gentleman end up in the hospital, the homeless from overeating and his benefactor from starvation.  I could well relate to the idea of not having much to eat.  In communist Bulgaria, where I grew up, grocery stores had empty shelves and  common folks lined up for staples such as flour, eggs, and milk.

I don’t remember the food shortages bothering me much.  Reading both compensated for the lack of food and distracted from hunger.   Thus, I read a lot.  I appreciated the ironic humor in  O’Henry’s story and the ease with which its prose flowed.  The idea of benevolent people inviting starved strangers to their homes for a lavish feast had a certain fairy tale quality to it.  In my imagination, Thanksgiving was a wondrous celebration at which extraordinary events unfolded.

My very first Thanksgiving celebration in the United States uncannily replicated the scenario of O’Henry’s short story.  My host, a retired lady in her sixties, had decided to invite a malnourished Eastern European graduate student to supper.  The lights in her house were dim but the bird nonetheless was of impressive size, there were generous helpings of canned cranberry sauce, and whoever made the pecan pie had neither spared nuts nor sugar.  I was truly grateful for having company instead of spending the evening alone in my dormitory apartment, as well as for taking a break from my end-of-the quarter paper.  However, most of all, I was thankful for life repeating the scenario of O’Henry’s fictional story, or so it seemed to me back then.

I have celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States for two decades now.  I have tasted dishes whose preparation took twists and turns, and later made for really good stories to be told over and over again.  I appreciate to be part of these stories.  I also appreciate that so many acquaintances and friends have invited me to share Thanksgiving dinner with their families.  Their invitations made me part of anecdotes and photographs that later showed up at other significant family occasions.  Thanks to the generosity of these people I felt that I really belonged.  Now I am hosting my own Thanksgiving dinners.  They depart from the tradition, for I am not making turkey and pumpkin pie, but they are shaped by the culinary trends of the West coast city in which I have lived for two decades now.




On watching my grandmother cook and liking her stories but not her food

1 Comment

  1. Sylvia

    This is such a heart-warming story, and so beautifully written! Congratulations Penwhisk! I can’t wait to read more of your thoughtful work.

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