One of the greatest contributions of the Arab world to the Western world is the gift of Arab food. This is especially true in the US, where the national menu has grown as a result of the arrival of immigrants from all around the world.
One of America’s most important food holidays is Thanksgiving, which commemorate the 17th century encounter between European pilgrims and Native American tribes who shared food at traditional dinner that took place after the fall harvest to give thanks for the bounty of food during the past year.
The origins of the modern American Thanksgiving can be traced back to 1619, in Charles County, Virginia, when the pilgrims there gave thanks for the arrival of 39 new English settlers. It was reinforced in American history books with the story of the occasion in 1621 when the Pilgrims reputedly shared a harvest meal with the local Wampanoag and Patuxet tribes to bolster a protective alliance against a hostile tribe, the Narragansett.
In the years that followed, Thanksgiving was celebrated in America in various ways until in 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday. The date chosen was the fourth Thursday of November each year. This year it falls on Nov. 25.
In celebration, millions of American families traditionally gather around a table at Thanksgiving to enjoy a family dinner with a turkey as the centerpiece, based on the notion that wild turkey was one of the foods shared by Native Americans and pilgrims all those years ago.
Centuries later, the tradition continues but was slowly transformed as the nation’s immigrant population grew. Each group of immigrants added elements of traditional cuisines from their homelands to the Thanksgiving dinner menu, an act symbolic of the way in which these people from other countries embraced their new, American way of life.
Arab immigrants from the Middle East were no different, combining their own traditional foods with American dishes to create a unique Thanksgiving dinner experience.
The concept of Thanksgiving dovetails nicely with Arab culture because nothing empowers peace and understanding more than when people of different backgrounds and faith share a meal. This simple act opens the door to familiarity, understanding and friendship; all of the ingredients that lead to peaceful co-existence.
As an Arab and Palestinian in the US, food has always been a part of my family’s celebration of all American holidays, including Thanksgiving. Like all loving mothers from the Arab world, my mom was an expert chef who slaved over a stove for hours in Chicago, in the same way she had alongside her mother over the tabboun in Bethlehem, Palestine, where she was born.
Arabian food is not a fast food that is rushed onto plates to satisfy a hunger for carbs. It is an art form, and the Arab family dinner table my mom prepared for Thanksgiving was spectacular. It included a Turkey but that was merely the link to the American tradition and it was garnished with a bevy of Arab food recipes.
I remember the tables from my mother’s Thanksgiving dinners so vividly because each one was so memorable. The menu included grape leaves (wariq duwally) and zucchini (mashi) stuffed with rice, diced lamb and spices.
But that was just the beginning of the meal. The turkey was stuffed with rice and diced lamb, not bread. We also had hummus and homemade bread. There was molokhiya and okra, baba ghanouj, and tabouli salad.
The dessert menu was extensive, too. We would have a tahini dip with sweet syrup that we could eat with sesame seed bread. Before Thanksgiving, my mother would spend days mixing crushed walnuts and pistachios with sugar and spices to fill the maamoul and the qatayef.
The way in which immigrants put their own spin on the traditional US Thanksgiving dinner is symbolic of how they embraced a new way of life
She could easily have replaced the Turkey with roasted lamb but chose not do so as a matter of respect for American culture. She and my dad loved their Arab culture but they also loved America.
They would share stories of growing up in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem, where my dad’s family lived until the Israelis evicted them in 1948. Our Arabian Turkey dinners would bring all those memories to life in lavish tales filled with details, including the names of their aunts, grandparents, cousins and ancestors. The conversations would continue and memories would be shared for hours after those Thanksgiving dinners in our crowded home, accompanied by wistful sighing for the reality of the experiences they had left “back home.”
Politics and discussions about the Arab-Israeli wars were always on the agenda but the atmosphere and the food put it in a less emotional context. There was no hate. We grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Chicago and my mother would often share Arab food with our Jewish neighbors; they especially loved the falafel, diced lamb, and slivered almond-stuffed kubbeh.
My mother and father came from prominent families with many sisters, brothers and cousins, so they always made enough food at Thanksgiving to feed an army. Even with all the relatives over, there was always enough left over for the next few days.
I am sure that every culture enjoys a similar experience, with food bringing everyone together to rejoice in their family, their fortune and their lives.
Those Arab and American dinners are beautiful memories that give true meaning to the spirit of Thanksgiving.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com. Twitter: @RayHanania