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Modern Eating

Thanksgiving: DIY families and traditions

Catherine Stefani shops at Lucca Deli on Chestnut Street. PHOTO: Kathleen Anderson

I loved Thanksgiving at Papa’s house in Little Rock. Papa was my stepmother’s father, but he once told me, “I couldn’t love you more if you were my own blood kin.” 

Papa made Thanksgiving. He was the master of roasted turkey. He also grew the green beans for the casserole, and helped Grandmother peel the red potatoes for her holiday creamed potatoes. Papa played the harmonica. I loved his “Amazing Grace.” And, when he sat at the head of the table, he looked more like an angel than a king. While we held hands, Papa would pray for our well-being. I miss him dearly.

Thanksgiving can be a mixture of nostalgia and a chance to form community. Sometimes “family” is blood kin, but often times in our scattered world, it is not. And, with our DIY families, we often get exposed to things that we become keen to incorporate into our traditions. As I reflected on the content for this column, I thought about my friends who bring international flavors and twists to the best American holiday.

CULTURAL INFLUENCES

Lila LaHood, co-founder of San Francisco Public Press, shares my love of newspapers, food, and entertaining. Lila’s “100 percent Lebanese” as she says, and when she was growing up in Michigan, Thanksgiving was boisterous and delicious with aunts, uncles, and cousins all over the place. Her grandma would make two turkeys — one traditional American with bread stuffing, the other stuffed with hashweh, a Lebanese dish of rice, ground lamb, pine nuts, spices, and olive oil. 

When Lila moved to the Bay Area, she began to invite friends to two days of cooking and eating. Lila prepares American fare with Lebanese accents, including a stuffing comprised of really grainy bread and pine nuts, in homage to her grandma. Lately, Lila has been ordering heritage turkeys from Root Down Farm in Pescadero. Lila can’t host her friends this year because of the pandemic, and regrets stranding those who have no family nearby. 

My Thai friend Teerut Boon, a.k.a. “Kong,” has a remedy for that very dilemma — he is cooking for his staff on Nov. 26. Kong owns Home Plate (my favorite breakfast spot) and the brand-new Baan Yaai (which means “Grandma’s House”) at 2274 Lombard Street. Kong is from Bangkok and is Buddhist. He told me that Buddhists don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but when I pressed him on this, he allowed that he would be preparing dishes of beef and pork marinated in Thai spices on that special Thursday that he calls “Friendsgiving.” Baan Yaai’s Thai Street Food Nigiri —  little cuts of marinated beef or pork on a small form of sticky rice are available for takeout, and you will likely love these little delicacies so much, you’ll want to bring them to your Turkey Day potluck. 

Then there’s the family that embraced familiar American Thanksgiving dishes and added dishes from their Southern China homeland, Toisan. Mary Jung, former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, grew up in the Midwest. Her mother would prepare a turkey the Chinese way: start it at 500 degrees – turn it down 50 degrees every 15 minutes until you reach 350 degrees, then bake for about two hours. This bakes the skin so it is crispy and seals in all the juices. Mary explained that Chinese people don’t stuff the bird. Instead, her mother made a sticky rice dish. Leftover turkey bones were used to make jook soup. And there was the ubiquitous ice cream cake. I teased Mary that I didn’t think the Pilgrims contemplated anything like that at the table. She laughed and said, “yes, but the ice cream shop was close to home and it was open!”  

FOOTBALL AND RAVIOLI

Football is open on Thanksgiving, too, though a space on the couch may not be. My grandparents always had the game on, and now my brother-in-law (a former defensive lineman) makes sure the big screen is tuned to the gridiron. I cannot dissociate the sounds of body armor clashing and whistles bleating from the sounds of pans clunking and alarms tweeting in the Thanksgiving kitchen.  

And so it goes for my friend Catherine Stefani, District 2 supervisor. In her home, the Thanksgiving holiday is Notre Dame football. Her dad, Larry, is an alum, and he took her to games or they cheered on the Fighting Irish in the living room. Catherine passed that bug along to her kids. “We always felt such joy singing the fight song with Dad,” she said, pausing, “Dad doesn’t remember any of this anymore.” The Lewy body dementia is ravaging his brain. I am grateful to Catherine for sharing this deeply personal part of her journey, as I observe a similar disease wipe away the memory banks of my mother. These experiences can make us want to hold onto family customs even tighter. “I will always have the Notre Dame game on for my children on Thanksgiving weekend,” said Catherine, “We will keep it going for Dad.”

Catherine’s other holiday favorite is ravioli, especially when it was made by her nonna, who was from the Piedmont region of Italy (recipe below for her aunt’s sauce). Catherine and I met up at Lucca Deli, a fixture on Chestnut Street for decades, to pick up some fresh ravioli. Lucca has an extensive offering of to-go food — deviled eggs, Caprese salad, and assorted cheeses are just a few choices to round out your pasta selection.

My favorite part of Thanksgiving has always been the expressions of gratitude. At my family Thanksgiving, we go around the table and share why we are grateful. Invariably, tears and laughter fill the room as we reflect on what the past year has brought and what we hope for the future. To us, Thanksgiving is about the gifts that others share with us. These moments sustain us all the rest of the days.

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