To Marie Acosta, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without tamales and Indian beans. Sure, turkey may be at the center of the table, but it’s the side dishes that flavor the feast and add meaning to this special dinner.
“One of the best parts about Thanksgiving is that it’s uniquely American and uniquely diverse,” said Acosta, director of the Latino Center of Art and Culture in Sacramento. “How we celebrate it is a celebration of all our cultures.”
Illustrating that point, The New York Times recently published the Thanksgiving dinner stories (with recipes) of 15 diverse families. Entitled “An American Feast,” the interactive article serves as a mouth-watering reminder during a divisive political season that this all-American holiday is a lot like our country – a great big wonderful melting pot.
“People cook what they like, perhaps especially on holidays,” wrote Times food writer Sam Sifton, who spearheaded the months-long project. “And what they like may be what their parents liked, or their grandparents, their great-grandparents, back before their families were in America, before they were Americans. American tastes arc back over generations. But those same tastes also change over time, especially as hearts swell and new families are born. People cook what the people they love like. That fact changes Thanksgiving. It can make for incredible meals.”
The Times’ Thanksgiving collection ranged from Norwegian Blotkake (a cream cake) and German Rotkraut (red cabbage slaw) to Hmong egg rolls and Filipino Bibingka (coconut rice cake).
Acosta’s own family blends tradition with personal favorites.
“We have turkey,” she said. “(As side dishes), we have Indian beans and Mexican tamales. We always have Indian beans because my dad is Native American. It’s the recipe he grew up.”
The tamales come special delivery. Her brother, Harry Acosta, sends them to his relatives via Federal Express from his Southern California home.
“My younger brother Harry makes red chile tamales,” she said. “He is legendary for his tamales. During the holiday season, his friends all want his tamales. They’re wonderful. We serve the beans with their juice over the tamales. They’re so good. Absolutely, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Indian beans and tamales.”
Acosta noted that the Indian beans symbolize more than her father’s heritage. The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was celebrated by the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims together.
In the almost 400 years since then, there were many dark times for American Indians, she added. “Thanksgiving represents both the history we mourn and the history we celebrate, but it’s part of our national DNA. It’s still a celebration as Americans.”
Not everybody eats – or wants – turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Davis cookbook author Ann Evans and her family opted out of turkey in favor of a California specialty – fresh crab.
“Everybody wants to keep Thanksgiving simple and we do,” said Evans, who usually hosts about eight for Thanksgiving. “California crab comes into season right now, so why not? Everybody absolutely loves it.”
Evans’ crab party started a few years ago when no one wanted to cook turkey dinner. For her extended family, hosting dinner had become more chore than joy. On a whim, she cooked crab instead, serving it with melted butter. Both the kids and adults enjoyed cracking the crab and digging out the meat. It became a new family tradition.
“It was the best Thanksgiving ever!” she said. “That’s why we continued. We’ve abandoned the turkey, but we have so much fun.”