You’ve seen it on American television shows and heard a lot about it, but what exactly is American Thanksgiving?
Sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving every year on the last Thursday of November. This year, Americans living in Singapore will join their family and friends living stateside by partaking in Thanksgiving festivities on November 23.
But how did Thanksgiving get started in the first place?
The First Thanksgiving
The story of Thanksgiving goes back to 1620, when the pilgrims sailed to present day Plymouth, Massachusetts from their native England—via a short stint in Holland. They hoped that the New World would allow them to openly practice their puritan religion, without the strict regulations to which they were subject back in England.
The pilgrims survived their first Massachusetts winter thanks in large part to the generosity and expertise of the Native Americans, who taught them how to grow local crops like corn, pumpkins, and squash. Squanto, a Patuxet man from Cape Cod, taught the pilgrims how to fertilize their crops and adapt their farming techniques to the New England climate.
With enough food from their harvests, the pilgrims extended their gratitude to the Native American people by hosting the first Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving and Food
Since that first Thanksgiving feast almost 400 years ago, American families have adapted and reimagined the traditional Thanksgiving dinner spread. A typical holiday feast might include a roasted turkey or a vegetarian Tofurkey, a bread-based stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, a green bean casserole, marshmallow-covered yams, and pumpkin pie.
But those are just the basics, and many family Thanksgiving meals are much more elaborate. In his last year in office, U.S. President Barack Obama and his family had nothing short of six kinds of pies at their Thanksgiving meal at the White House! And when I was growing up in Hawai‘i, my grandmother made sure to include at least three kinds ofpies in our family feast: the classic pumpkin option, an all-American apple pie, and the quintessentially Hawaiian haupia—a coconut-milk based pie that is a perennial local favorite.
Most people from Hawai‘i—much like the pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay Colony—have roots in countries and places far from their adopted home. With the exception of the Native American and Native Hawaiian people, the same is true for all Americans. Every one of us comes from some other place.
American Thanksgiving food is a reflection of those places that we come from, and the food cultures that we bring with us to the United States.
Last year, The New York Times published a feature showcasing American Thanksgiving recipes from 15 families across the country. Much like my grandma’s haupia pie—both thoroughly American and Hawaiian at the same time—the recipes that these families shared celebrate their unique cultural background while also showing us what it means to be an American.
In one profile from the Times, Diane Yang from Junction City, Wisconsin shared her family’s twist on turkey stuffing. The daughter of Hmong refugees from Saigon, Yang’s family stuffing recipe includes traditional Southeast Asian eggroll ingredients—including kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, fish sauce, cilantro, carrots, cabbage, and vermicelli rice noodles. Each year, Yang’s family eats their Hmong-inspired Thanksgiving turkey with American-style mashed potatoes and gravy.
Read more: The Times Thanksgiving family recipe profiles
Read more: Yang’s Hmong eggroll stuffing recipe
Read more: Chocolate haupia pie recipe
Thanksgiving in Popular Culture
Voracious eating isn’t the only tradition we Americans associate with Thanksgiving. In popular culture, the holiday is often cast as a backdrop for annual family drama and political dueling.
During the last U.S. election cycle—with Donald Trump’s unexpected victory just two weeks before the Thanksgiving holiday—a proliferation of viral articles cropped up across American media about how to survive Thanksgiving dinner with family members who share differing political views on the election—or how to avoid attending dinner altogether.
One Vogue writer admitted that she was dreading attending Thanksgiving, and suggested that fellow Americans stay mum about politics in order to keep the peace on Thanksgiving Day. But a writer for the Times took the opposite approach, offering up a primer on how to argue effectively with family members who voted for the opposing candidate. And one online tipster went so far as to suggest that anxious Thanksgiving-goers practice their facial expressions in the mirror before meeting family members over dinner.
On American TV, Thanksgiving has often been portrayed as the holiday where families have difficult and heartfelt conversations. Last month, Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari won an Emmy award for their Thanksgiving episode of Season 2 of Master of None, the Netflix TV series. The half-hour episode explores issues of race and identity across 30 years of family Thanksgiving dinners at the childhood home of Denise (Waithe’s character).
Waithe’s Emmy win is historic—she’s the first black woman to win the award for best comedy writing. Waithe and Ansari, who co-wrote the “Thanksgiving” episode, are changing perceptions of what American TV protagonists should look like—and they’re changing our perceptions of the American families who gather around our Thanksgiving tables.
We might not all look like the family from Norman Rockwell’s classic Thanksgiving painting Freedom from Want—and we certainly don’t all eat like them—but we each deserve a spot at the table.
Watch: Master of None “Thanksgiving” episode (Netflix Singapore)
Watch: Lena Waithe’s Emmy acceptance speech (Los Angeles Times)