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Indian Americans Gear up for Scaled Down Version of Thanksgiving Holiday

Indian Americans Gear up for Scaled Down Version of Thanksgiving Holiday

  • With the surge in cases nationwide, large home gatherings are replaced by small, intimate family dinners and virtual celebrations.

For the past 25 years, the Baichwal family of Wappingers Falls, New York, has been celebrating a grand Thanksgiving feast with their extended family and friends. There’s a perfectly set table, a beautiful centerpiece and a sumptuous spread – turkey, a butternut squash soup, the traditional sides, stuffing and the fixings and a variety of pies and ice creams – and the constant banter of family and friends. 

This year will be different. The menu won’t change much, but there won’t be the animated chatter at the kids table, or heated political discussions at the bar, no recipes will be exchanged and no goody bags will be made for food that’s leftover. It would be “a scaled down version, catering to our family of four,” says ESL teacher Sucheta Baichwal. She started celebrating the holiday since she came to the U.S. in the late 1980s. 

Similarly, Kinnelon, New Jersey-based veterinarian Malathy Rao will keep this year’s festivities limited to family. Her brothers won’t be visiting from out of town, but her kids and their partners will be home. “Thanksgiving is all about being with your loved ones and feeling grateful to them,” she says. Celebrations at the Rao household began almost 50 years ago, when her mother, Viju Rao, began cooking the traditional meal. Viju Rao recalls being in two-minds about celebrating the holiday. But adds that she was aware that, in the U.S, oceans away from the family, she had to try a step harder to give her children their own memories. “So in our own little way, with a few friends who are like a family now, we started celebrating this beautiful festival.”

All across America, families like the Baichwals and the Raos are adapting to the new “normal,” and heeding to the government and CDC mandates with the surge in CONID-19 cases. This year, large gatherings with family and friends are replaced by virtual feasts and happy hours or intimate family dinners. To make these virtual celebrations seamless, the video conferencing service, Zoom, has lifted its 40 minutes limit for free calls on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving dinner at the Baichwal home in Wappinger Falls, N.Y., in 2016. Top photo, The Rao family of Kinnelon, New Jersey, at their annual Thanksgiving dinner in 2018.

In Dallas, Texas, Preeti Shah wants to make the most of this opportunity. The IT professional and mother of two teenagers, is planning a virtual Thanksgiving feat with her family spread across the country. Although they wont be together in the same room, they will have the same menu and the same table scape, decoration and cutlery. “Just like I would do when I host every year, I spent a great amount of time organizing the logistics this year as ell,” Patel says. The only difference is this year, she ordered a few common things for the family so it could feel like they all are “celebrating at the same table.”

Some like Meena Gulati are preparing for a “somber” Thanksgiving. “No kids visiting from out of town, no friends, no neighbors …it will be just us,”the New York-based notary says. “I can’t wait for things to get normal and have everyone over and celebrate.” 

Adding Indian Flavor to Thanksgiving Fare

With all the uncertainty, anxiety and stress of this year, Indian Americans are trying ways to cope up with the situation, especially during the holiday season, which began a few weeks ago with Diwali. One of the ways they find comfort is through food.  

Vice President-elect Kamala Devi Harris, in a Facebook post, shared a recipe of her cornbread dressing. “During difficult times I have always turned to cooking,” she wrote. “This year, I wanted to share one of my family’s favorite Thanksgiving recipes with you. I hope whenever you’re able to make it in life, it brings you as much warmth as it has brought me—even when separated from those I love.”

Many like Nashville, Tennessee-based chef and entrepreneur Maneet Chauhan and cookbook author and entrepreneur Anupy Singla of  Chicago, Illinois, are making the most of this downtime by experimenting with new flavors and blending Indian sensibilities with traditional American flavors to celebrate a holiday that began over 400 years ago. 

This year, Singla is hosting a dinner at her home in Chicago with her family.  Although there is no tandoori turkey, the sides will have “a desi touch – whether it’s just rice or my pumpkin biryani or Brussels sprouts or mashed potatoes — all come alive with a dash of garam masala.” For deserts, she will add chai masala to the pumpkin pie and the banana bread — “to give it some flavor and an Indian touch.” Along with the Thanksgiving meal, the leftovers also play a big role in my family. “We have a tradition of shredding the leftover meat — be in turkey or chicken — and making samosas and parathas out of them.”

Similarly, Nashville, Tennessee-based chef Maneet Chauhan posted a video of some Indian-inspired vegan sides for Thanksgiving. On the menu were Cranberry Panch Puran Chutney and Sweet Potato coconut Chaat, “the perfect Thanksgiving sides.” Like every year, Chauhan will celebrate Thanksgiving with her restaurant families at her three Nashville establishments — Chauhan Ale and Masala House, Tansuo and The Mockingbird. And for the home feast, she will Indianize the traditional Thanksgiving turkey and meal, by making a cranberry chutney and a tandoori turkey. “Despite the limitations, one must not forget to have fun, eat, be together and be thankful,” she says.

And then there are people like Padmini Raman of San Carlos, California, who goes one step further. Raman, a vegetarian, cooks a tofu turkey each year and serves both conventional American side dishes as well as a full Indian spread with beans poriyal, masala aloo, rasam, sambar and rice. “It’s a true blend of both cultures,” she says.

Expressing Gratitude, Giving to the Needy 

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Anand Baichwal of Wappinger Falls, N.Y., principal at ARB Pharma Advisors, carves the turkey at Thanksgiving celebrations at their home in November 2017. 

One of the important components of the Thanksgiving holiday is expressing gratitude and giving to the needy, which is of extra significance this year. “I am of the belief that one should be thankful everyday,” says West Windsor, New Jersey-based entrepreneur Rinku Kapoor. “I am thankful all the time, but this year has forced me to pause and think of life in an entirely new way.” This year, she is making it a point to express her gratitude to each and every person “who contributes to my life, some of whom I forget to appreciate and acknowledge.” 

For many, the day signifies going out of the way to help the less fortunate. Volunteering in soup kitchens or donating food to the homeless is also a common trend seen in the community this year. 

Each year, members of  CH3, the youth group of Children’s Hope India, a New York non-profit, participate in the annual turkey distribution where clothing, turkey and trimmings are provided to underprivileged children in the local communities.

Volunteering  or donating at food banks, soup kitchens and local pantries has not been limited to the holiday season this year. From the East Coast to the West and in between, Indian Americans have organized various food drives and donations to help the unprivileged and the front line workers since the pandemic hit in March. 

At the Journey’s Crossing Church in the Washington D.C. metro area, members of the community have been hosting a food drive for the past six months to help the underprivileged. “We have supplied groceries to at least 15,000 families in the area. And that lasts for about three to four days for people, a family of four,” Dr Suresh Gupta, one of the organizers told ANI, He said the food drive is conducted to tell people that the Indian American community is “a giving community,” he said. “We are here to help them in these tough times.”

Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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