With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, we thought we’d round up a few past Thanksgiving recipes to help inspire your holiday menus. But just giving you a few photos and recipe descriptions would be boring, so we’re each going to tell you a story––stories about memorable Thanksgivings from days past. In between these delightful Thanksgiving memories, we’ll be throwing in a few recipes you might want to try this year. Let’s get started!
“Finding the George Washington Bridge”
By: Judy Leung
I still remember that Thanksgiving over thirty years ago like it was yesterday.
It was our second year in America as new immigrants. My grandmother, who had been in New York by herself for years, worked to get all five of her adult children and their families from China to the United States, and by the time we got here, she was very happy and eager to introduce us to all things American. In due time, we came face to face with hamburgers, pizza, chocolate milk and peanut butter. (Toast with peanut butter has since become my preferred breakfast item, but I remember that no one liked pizza, because we all thought the cheese smelled bad. Those were different times.)
Anyway, the big plan that year was to get everyone to my grandmother’s apartment in Monticello for Thanksgiving. My parents had just bought their first car, an old, raggedy Chevy station wagon that they’d paid $500 for––their very first big ticket item.
As it turned out, the unforgettable memories of that Thanksgiving weren’t about turkey or stuffing, but the fact that it took us four tries to drive across the George Washington Bridge. Driving North on FDR Drive, our eyes were glued to the big green signs over the road––searching for a few familiar words to go by. A couple times, we thought we’d made it across, but then that GW Bridge sign would appear again, and we knew we’d gotten it wrong.
None of us could utter two English words to ask for directions, and as we watched all the other cars speed by, it was like we were on a foreign planet––worried that the old car would break down, that we’d never find our way, and worse––that we wouldn’t make it to dinner on time.
Eventually, by some miracle of navigation, we did make it to my grandmother’s apartment, where we were able to have some traditional Thanksgiving leftovers for a late dinner. These included: a Shanghai braised pork shank, stir-fried leafy greens, rice, and bottles of everyone’s new favorite beverage, Sunkist orange soda.
There was a turkey, of course, but at the time, we had no idea what we were doing when it came to roasting a turkey. We’d never seen a bird that large, let alone cooked one. The poor turkey was a bit charred on the outside and still undercooked near the bone. We’d carve whatever edible pieces we could find, and the rest would go towards making soup the next day.
My memories of that Thanksgiving always remind me of how far we’ve come since then. The road has been tough, but we walked it, and we’re still walking. A shout-out to all immigrant families, wherever you may be! You have my utmost respect and admiration for your bravery and your drive to achieve a better life in this new land we proudly call home.
We have since become much better at cooking our Thanksgiving turkeys, thanks to Bill’s father. Here’s his recipe, which we use every year.
“A Very Hey Arnold Thanksgiving”
By: Sarah Leung
I’m eight years old, and my top 5 concerns in life are as follows:
- Convincing my parents that my six-year-old sister and I are responsible enough for a puppy. (They are less than convinced.)
- Maintaining my position as Posh Spice in the power plays that regularly develop in any and all attempts to reenact scenes from Spice World.
- Figuring out what Andy Buki sharing his goldfish with me at snack time really means.
- Making my sister pay the 75-cent fine she owes on an overdue copy of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie from the “library” (aka the bookshelf) in my room. I was the librarian, you see. #nerdalert
- Coercing every guest at Thanksgiving Dinner to go through the embarrassing exercise of saying what they’re thankful for before the turkey is carved.
It all began a few days earlier, when I’d seen the Thanksgiving episode of that best of 90s Nickelodeon cartoons, Hey Arnold. Long story short, at the beginning of the episode, the characters are in a Rockwellian school play set at an idyllic Thanksgiving table, and they each take turns saying what they’re most thankful for in a vaguely Brady Bunch sort of way.
Of course, eight-year-old me eats this up (kind of missing the point of the rest of the episode…if you’re familiar with it), and I proceed to distract everyone from the food preparation, the football, and the familial chatter to explain that they will be expected to announce at the table that night what they were most thankful for. I poke and I prod, trying to get the attention of my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and parents. I try to convince my sister and cousins that it’s not a dumb idea. My determination even extends to an attempt to take dictation on one of my dad’s yellow legal pads, to ensure that if someone were to forget what they were going to say, I would be there with the right cues to remind them, and thus save the whole endeavor.
Of course, amidst the kerfuffle of me going around alerting everyone of the public speaking portion of our Thanksgiving program, I give no thought at all as to what I’m actually thankful for. By the time dinner rolls around, I’m beaming at my master plan’s triumphant success when I realize it’s my turn. And that everyone else had already taken all the really good answers, i.e. “health,” “family,” “this delicious turkey,” etc. etc. In short, I had no idea what I was going to say.
Not sure what happened next. I probably just started stuffing mashed potatoes in my mouth and mumbled something incoherent…like in those Snickers commercials. Typical eight-year-old me.
“Two Roast Chickens”
By: Bill Leung
Growing up in upstate New York with immigrant parents, the holidays were always an interesting time. In addition to traditional Chinese holidays, we always celebrated western and American holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. But early on, when my sisters and I were young, there were still quite a few missing links when it came to Western holiday origins, traditions, and of course, food.
I vividly remember one Thanksgiving dinner conversation many years ago. My parents had invited a few friends over for Thanksgiving dinner, and a discussion began about how the Thanksgiving tradition began. One of my father’s friends said something like, “Yep, the American soldiers were on the battlefield and were literally starving to death when over the ridge appeared a flock of turkeys! They had those turkeys for dinner, thus saving their lives, and that’s why Americans eat turkey every year!”
As children, we learned to listen and not speak unless spoken to. But I had to respectfully disagree. My response went something like this:
“Uh, not quite, uncle. It was the Native Americans who helped the pilgrims farm and hunt. They celebrated after the harvest with a big meal of turkey and pumpkins and were very thankful, which is why the holiday is called Thanksgiving and we eat turkey.” I probably got a stern look from my parents for that one.
Similar to Judy’s early Thanksgiving experiences, we would have turkey, rice, and stir-fried vegetables for dinner. I felt like Peppermint Patty in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, when Charlie Brown serves toast, pretzels, and jelly beans for Thanksgiving dinner. “Where’s the mashed potatoes? Where’s the cranberry sauce? Where’s the pumpkin pie???”
When I was 11 years old, my civil engineer uncle took me to his workplace the day after Thanksgiving to see a NYC fire station being built in Chinatown. A friend in the office trailer asked my uncle what we did for Thanksgiving, and my uncle muttered, “We had two roast chickens.” I think the guy took pity on me and offered me his slice of pumpkin pie, neatly wrapped in plastic.
When I shoved the first bite into my mouth, I immediately fell in love with it. Needless too say, as my sisters and I grew up, we got more involved in the kitchen and would help to prepare more traditional Thanksgiving dishes for the holiday.
As history tends to repeat itself, our girls now take the lead when it comes to cooking Thanksgiving dinner and experimenting with new sides and desserts every year. Whenever we have pumpkin pie, I always silently thank that guy from the office trailer! Here’s one of our favorite pumpkin pie recipes.
House Flushing Apartment We Go”
By: Kaitlin Leung
When the family up and relocated to Beijing a few years ago (i.e. my parents, and eventually Sarah), things were understandably a little bit weird. School breaks and holidays relocated from the suburbs of New Jersey to the crowded streets of Flushing, Queens, where my grandparents and my mom’s aunt and cousins live.
Fall breaks were spent shopping in Long Island and cruising the New World Mall Food Court. Train rides and the Chinatown bus between Philly and New York became a regular occurrence, to the point where I could leave class at 3:50, sprint to the subway, runt through the train station, buy a ticket, and make it onto a 4:12 train with a surprising level of punctuality.
In spite of all this, when the first Thanksgiving without the family rolled around, I was feeling a bit depressed about the turn of events—this would be our first Thanksgiving without being all together, and it didn’t help that Sarah and the parentals had each other in Beijing, while I was left in Flushing to scrounge up a traditional meal as the sole qualified person to do the job.
So it was that I coordinated with my grandma to buy a turkey in advance and prep it with salt, pepper, and garlic. To my cousins, I allocated some side dishes. And in Philadelphia, drowning in self-pity and longing for the gourmet experience of a Thanksgiving at home, I hatched the rather hairbrained idea to make 2 pies, completely from scratch, carry them onto the train to New York, and THEN carry them on the subway to Flushing.
In my cramped apartment kitchen, I whipped up a wheat-flax-seed pie crust for pecan and sweet potato pies. Both, were, to, my surprise, 100% perfect specimens. If that’s not something to be thankful for, I’m really not sure what is. What I did not anticipate, however, was the fact that by the time I arrived at the train station, I was sweating from balancing my pies, a backpack, and an empty suitcase (for taking home leftovers and Black Friday spoils, obviously), and by the time I arrived at my grandma’s apartment, I was just about ready to collapse before I had a chance to prep the stuffing for the next day’s feast.
Despite some operational fumbles, though, dinner went off without a hitch. We had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, gravy (which I made for the first time! Normally my only job would be to add the pepper while my dad handled the heavy lifting), Cantonese roast duck risotto (it was a Chinese Thanksgiving after all), and, yes, pie with ice cream.
Was it weird? Yes. Was it kind of awesome and, as cheesy as it sounds, something to be thankful for? Definitely.
And for our last recipe, here’s our Leftover Thanksgiving Turkey Congee. No matter where we are in the world, if we have a turkey carcass after Thanksgiving dinner, this is what we do with it the next day!