Thanksgiving About Gathering of Traditions, Essayist Says

November 23, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

BICH MINH NGUYEN, Professor, Purdue University: We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving, how Wampanoag Indians shared their harvest’s bounty with hungry Mayflower pilgrims. As a kid, I imagined a big buffet, with cornucopias, and pies, and dried corn, everyone sitting around the same table.

My family and I had fled Vietnam in 1975, just before the fall of Saigon. We settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I grew up wanting to be as American as the story of Thanksgiving. I, too, wanted to sit at the table.

For immigrants, it can be hard to figure out how much of that Thanksgiving story is myth. In school, I was encouraged to draw pictures of the feast at Plymouth plantation.

At home, my Latina stepmother, a political activist, said the idea of equality wasn’t so simple. The pilgrims actually viewed Native Americans as savages to be eradicated. Yet the myth remained powerful, and so my family would assemble the makings of a typical Midwestern Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, of course; along with mashed potatoes, gravy and stovetop stuffing; yams, baked with marshmallows; cranberry sauce, straight from the can; green beans, mixed with cream of mushroom soup and topped with fried onions; and pumpkin pie.

But we also had my grandmother’s fried spring rolls and fresh summer rolls stuffed with noodles, herbs and shrimp. We had my stepmother’s tamales and tortillas, too. But with such a hodgepodge, I wondered, how did my family fit into America?

It was years before I learned that Thanksgiving has always had a changing menu. After all, there were no sweet potatoes and pies at that first dinner in 1621. There was turkey, but also venison, eel, cod, and even, I recently read, swan.

During much of the 19th century, oysters on the half-shell were must-haves, as well as succotash, mincemeat pie, and custard pie, items that have pretty much disappeared from the holiday board.

Dinners vary by region, too. Oyster-stuffing is popular on the East Coast, but, growing up in Michigan, I never heard of it. And that green bean casserole? It was born in 1955 in Campbell Soup’s test kitchens.

Back at home in Grand Rapids, I’m helping my grandmother make spring rolls for our Thanksgiving meal. Like my family, like this day itself, the dinner is about the gathering of different traditions, though I didn’t realize it when I was growing up.

In a way, we had a place all along at the holiday feast, where spring rolls and tamales can be served side by side with roast turkey.

Thanksgiving is about the hopeful ideal of America: cultures converging, always evolving and changing, bringing an abundant and ever-richer variety to the national table.

I’m Bich Minh Nguyen.