Thanksgiving, Filipino Style: Blending Cultural Traditions During Thanksgiving

Illustration by Valerie Valdivia

My first memories of Thanksgiving came from primetime TV. My parents immigrated to Orange County from the Philippines in 1967, and Thanksgiving was the holiday that was most foreign to them. My sisters and I yearned for the experience friends talked about after the holiday weekend. We were sure our favorite shows would provide the key.

During our elementary school years, we learned from Greg, the oldest of the Brady Bunch, about pilgrims and Plymouth Rock when his school project had him film his family re-creating the hardships of the first Thanksgiving. We mastered the traditional menu from methodically watching several seasons’ worth of “Happy Days” and “Eight is Enough” holiday specials.

Thanksgivings depicted in 1970s and ’80s programming contrasted sharply with our Filipino ones, which were basically Thursday dinners—the same steamed rice and stir-fried meat dish we had every meal. We loved Mom’s cooking, yet we still fantasized about the traditional Thanksgiving feast. When we educated our parents about the details of the meal, they didn’t quite understand and responded by cooking more elaborate Filipino foods such as lobster and crab instead of everyday dishes like adobo chicken or pork pancit noodles.

When I was 11, my sisters and I persuaded my parents to order a Thanksgiving meal kit from Albertsons. Dad brought home the huge cardboard box containing the frozen, precooked “instant Thanksgiving,” and we gathered around it breathlessly. We felt the excitement of opening Santa presents on Christmas morning. Mom pulled out each item one at a time. We oohed and aahed at the sight of every container. My sisters and I recognized the more familiar components like the turkey, green beans, and gravy, but the rest of it confounded us.

How do we serve the congealed cylinder of cranberry sauce that plopped out of the can? (Whole, wiggling on a bed of lettuce.) Why was one set of potatoes orange and the other white? (Maybe they added orange food coloring to differentiate the sugary and buttery versions?) And why wasn’t the stuffing inside the turkey like it was on TV? (Who knew? But it took forever to get the frozen chunks of stuffing out of the foil tray and into the frozen bird.) Mom was the most perplexed; why would we put the turkey in the oven whole? Why wouldn’t we chop it into pieces and marinate it in sauce to make it flavorful?

“Nooooo!” We begged our mother to spare the turkey. “On TV, it’s always in one piece. Then Dad has to carve it at the table while it’s still on the plate.”

“What?!” she said, incredulously. “Cut it at the table and not in the kitchen? And why would your dad cut it? He doesn’t even know how to cook.”

Mom made sense, but we held out for the full Thanksgiving experience. She was still complaining when she caught us clearing the formal dining table. In our home, as in many Filipino households, the dining table was never used for meals. Every meal was eaten quickly and unceremoniously at the kitchen island, either sitting on a barstool or standing, with the TV blaring in the background.

“We have to set the table,” I said with the authority of dozens of Thanksgiving special episodes.

“Why are you covering the table with blankets?” Mom asked.

“Because we don’t have tablecloths.”

That night, my sisters and I beamed with pleasure as we introduced our parents to a proper Thanksgiving dinner. They acquiesced and dressed for the meal. Dad wore a business suit and tie. Mom wore a blue evening gown with flowing sleeves and a plunging neckline. My sisters and I put on our fanciest outfits: white satin flower girl dresses from our aunt’s wedding the previous year.

The Thanksgiving “of our dreams” was a big letdown. Mom was right; the turkey was dry and flavorless compared to our usual Asian main dishes. The jiggly cranberry tube remained a mystery. Our dresses were itchy and uncomfortable. Finally, the extra work of clearing the junk off the dining table, spreading sheets, and setting plates and silverware wasn’t worth the effort for a dinner that lasted half an hour. Our family desperately tried to stretch the length of the meal by eating more slowly than usual, but the food was so unappealing and the room so quiet without the TV on, we were ready for it be finished.

“Do we need to do anything special at the end?” my dad asked.

I replayed several episodes in my mind and said, “I think we should say what we’re thankful for. We were supposed to do it at the beginning, but we forgot to.”

“I’m thankful for my talented and creative daughters,” Dad said as he raised his glass and clinked it with Mom’s.

That first Thanksgiving occupies a special place in my memories, because my sisters and I did it. We orchestrated a dinner just like the ones our friends talked about, just like the ones we’d seen on TV. Well, almost like them. Once we got back to school, we could finally tell our friends in Cypress about our turkey, the one that we got at the grocery store on Valley View Street where all families shopped instead of the Asian market in Cerritos. Of course, we returned to Filipino food the next Thanksgiving. But setting a table and saying what we’re thankful for became lifelong traditions.

In the years since that meal, my sisters and I married white men whose families have observed traditional Thanksgivings for generations. Through decades of spending the holiday with my husband’s family, the finer points of Thanksgiving have been revealed to me. I’ve learned recipes for Grandma Betty’s beloved green bean casserole (opening three cans: green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and fried onions), a myriad of Jell-O salads, and, at last, real cranberry sauce (using fresh cranberries). Not only can I roast a perfect turkey, but I also know how to brine, bag, beer-can barbecue, or air-fry it. And thanks to years of watching Martha Stewart and the Food Network, I can tablescape like a pro. 

For the past decade, my parents, now in their 80s, have no longer been able to host our holiday meals. My sisters and I are finally in charge. Every year, we prepare a turkey and all the fixings, because it’s Thanksgiving after all. Also, because it’s our Thanksgiving, we order trays of childhood favorites from the Filipino takeout places like Kainan Sa Kanto (English translation: The Restaurant on the Corner) in Stanton or Filipino chains like Jollibee and Red Ribbon in Anaheim. We gather our families in the formal dining room of our parents’ home, the place where we were so determined to fashion a Thanksgiving like everyone else’s. 

As I look around our table and watch the kids sucking meat from crab shells, dipping lumpia in bowls of vinegar sauce, and downing it with green bean casserole and cranberry sauce, I know that little about this is traditional. That’s OK, because our Thanksgivings have become better than anything we saw on TV.

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