East Eats West
Chinese-American Thanksgivings in Atlanta teach the author a belated lesson.
My parents, who were both born in China, came to the United States—my father in the ’40s, my mother in the ’50s—for higher education. They met in Atlanta, married and settled there, and had two American children—my brother and me. In 1979, when I was 11 years old, my mother’s parents left Taiwan and joined us in Georgia. By then my parents had, for the most part, assimilated into American culture; fried chicken was as likely at our dinner table as phoenix-tail shrimp. So when our grandparents arrived, we were gastronomically only half-prepared.
Food was the ruling passion in my grandparents’ lives. Well into their 80s, they still tore into spring rolls like teenagers, and were able to deftly separate the fine bones from the flesh of xunyu—the smoked carp served cold in Shanghai-style restaurants—in seconds. We took my grandparents out to dinner at least once a week, but—although they eventually developed an affection for steak and potatoes—they showed no interest in exploring America’s great culinary variety on these family excursions.
My brother and I liked Chinese food. We just couldn’t understand our grandparents’ inability to tire of it. To us, steamed pork buns ranked equally with Caesar salad, and if you ate exclusively from one category, you condemned yourself to culinary boredom. But our grandparents, when asked where they’d like to go, always replied the same way: ”Anywhere. We’ll eat anything. Cantonese or Shanghainese.”
When our Chinese cousins started arriving in the early ’80s, things only got worse. About once a year, another would appear with a single suitcase and 20 to 30 words of English. My parents housed them in the guest bedroom for a few months, then found them apartments. Five, ten…The supply of relatives—all adults—seemed endless. They studied sciences or engineering (my worst subjects), and most didn’t really speak to me, although some tried. And they were unprepared for the macaroni and cheese that my brother and I loved so much—so our parents maintained a supply of Chinese food for them, inadvertently creating a divide at our dinner table. It wasn’t unusual for my brother and me to eat pizza while the adults had mu shu pork. And while they carried on a conversation in Chinese—about the adjustment to American life, where to buy Chinese groceries, etc.—we talked in English to each other.
Never was our family’s dinner-table dichotomy more obvious to me than at Thanksgiving. Always eager to help, the cousins swamped our kitchen with homemade specialties, doubling the spread and, to the distress of my brother and me, Sinoizing the holiday. The turkey arrived basted in soy sauce—or was replaced altogether by an elaborate roast duck perfumed with scallions, ginger, and five-spice powder. Instead of dressing, there was lao mian, a dish of stir-fried noodles with seafood and vegetables, and chao fan, fried rice with minced meats, eggs, shrimp, and peas. Chinese broccoli supplanted corn souffle. There were spring rolls, fried turnip cakes, and a soup full of meat dumplings in transparent wrappers. All of this went next to the ham, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pecan and pumpkin pies. Guess who ate what.
At the time, I found this fusion of Chinese and traditional American fare self-contradictory. The flavors of Thanksgiving were, to my mind, sacred. You could add cardamom to the sweet potatoes, or substitute apple pie for pecan. But you could not eat lao mian in place of dressing. It was un-American. What right had anyone to misinterpret the foods of Thanksgiving? To smother an American cornucopia with fried turnip cakes?
It was not that I didn’t appreciate the dishes my cousins brought. Their food was beautiful, made with the meticulous diligence and respect for ingredients that immigrants bring to a country spoiled by abundance. To me, it simply missed the point. None of these foods sprang from the story of this continent. It seemed disrespectful of American history to celebrate our good fortune with all the wrong foods. Any other day, these dishes were an important contribution to the country’s culinary life—but on Thanksgiving, it was like thanking the wrong land.
Since then, I have cooked and eaten in many other places: New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Iowa, China, and Ireland (where my husband was born). I’ve found myself alternately defending bagels with lox, Boston baked beans, blood pudding, and grits. I’ve struggled to correct Chinese misinterpretations of western cooking (”simply a matter of boiling large chunks of meat,” a Shanghai man once told me), as well as Irish and American dismissals of Chinese cooking as canned water chestnuts and thick-skinned egg rolls.
I will never eat Chinese food with the zeal and frequency that my grandparents once did (or that my cousins still do). But now that I’ve traveled, and lived, far afield myself, I have come to realize that their passion for the cooking of their homeland was their way of keeping something of what they’d left behind. I know now that those Thanksgivings that once made my blood boil actually had everything in common with the Pilgrims, who arrived with tastes and prejudices of their own, then integrated the flavors of their native country with the foods they found in America.
Recognizing that most people’s culinary likes and dislikes are based in the foods of their childhood, I count myself lucky. Having grown up eating from both East and West, I now feel deprived when I must do with only one, and defensive when either is attacked. And I feel truly connected to both.
Even in Iowa, where my husband and I now live, Thanksgiving is never the straightforward ”American” affair I once thought the holiday demanded. I do prepare traditional turkey and dressing, but also add squash casserole from my southern upbringing. We have Maytag blue cheese (from Iowa) with the cocktails, and colcannon, a dish of mashed potatoes mixed with onions and kale, in honor of the Irish. And although my family is miles away in Georgia, I always serve at least one platter of crispy, homemade spring rolls.