Stewed turkey, empanadas, fried fish: How Baltimore-area immigrant families make Thanksgiving their own

Published on: November 24, 2022 6:00 AM EST

A child, man and woman stand behind a dining room table with a variety of Thanksgiving foods.

Garry Bien-Aime remembers celebrating his first Thanksgiving when he was 8 years old. The year was 1984, and his family had just settled in Miami from Haiti three months earlier.

Bien-Aime, his six siblings and their parents gathered around the dining room table of the duplex they shared with another Haitian family. The centerpiece of their dinner was the turkey, which their father had gotten from work. The giant bird entranced the entire family.

“My brother said, ‘That’s a big chicken, I’ve never seen a chicken that big in my life,’” recalled Bien-Aime, who now lives in Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood and serves as president of Komité Ayiti, a nonprofit that advocates for the Haitian community in the Baltimore area.

Instead of roasting it whole, Bien-Aime’s mother prepared the turkey by cutting it up into small pieces and stewing them with thick slices of onion. She served it with traditional Haitian fare — black rice, a delicacy made from djon djon mushrooms, and salade russe, a bright pink dish featuring beets.

One of Bien-Aime’s brothers brought platters of food to their neighbors to share. One American couple tried to decline, explaining they had their own meal. The brother persisted, in Bien-Aime’s retelling: “We have to share. That’s part of our Haitian culture, it’s part of our celebration.”

Although American Thanksgivings can be traced back about 400 years to the days when Pilgrims were colonizing native land, and the holiday is not commonly celebrated in other parts of the world, many immigrants have folded the holiday into their families’ traditions. Bien-Aime said the meaning of the feast — a celebration of family, thankfulness, kindness and sharing — resonates with immigrant families.

“I think Thanksgiving, as an American tradition, has brought a lot of people together,” he said.

The Baltimore Banner asked three immigrants about how their families make the celebration uniquely their own. Turkey seems to be ubiquitous on dining tables, but it shares the spotlight with other dishes that taste like home. Family reunions are joyful, but the gathering may also be a bittersweet reminder of loved ones who live far away.

Angelo Solera never celebrated Thanksgiving before coming to the United States from Spain. Now, it’s a holiday he looks forward to spending by eating good food, listening to music, drinking and dancing.

“Who doesn’t like a whole lot of food?” said Solera, founder and executive director of Nuestras Raíces in Baltimore. “It’s definitely something the Latino community embraces very well. It’s more about the family gathering than anything else.”

Solera’s Thanksgiving meal will be shared with his girlfriend’s family, who are originally from the Dominican Republic. Their table will be heavy with turkey, empanadas, potato salad, fried pork, macaroni and cheese and flan, he said.

“Most Latino families will do that, by the way,” said Solera, “They’ll have the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy. Most add rice and tacos and empanadas and tamales, depending on what country they’re from.”

A woman with glasses and a dark dress gives a thumbs up. On a table in front of her is a variety of food, served in large aluminum pans.

Although the U.S. holiday’s “history is not their history,” Solera said, many Latino families will take on American Thanksgiving customs as they adjust to their new country’s culture.

After dinner, the family will gather for bachata and merengue.

“Most American families eat dinner and watch football,” he said. “Latino families — probably dancing and drinking.”

After Zo Tum Hmung’s Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, his family will not be dancing, but hosting a prayer service.

They’ll be praying for the Chin people who remain in Burma (now known as Myanmar), who face persecution for being a majority-Christian ethnic group, said Hmung, the executive director of the Chin Association of Maryland.

“[We] pray for our people inside the country, so that we’ll have human rights and democracy and religious freedom,” the Ellicott City resident said.

Gathering with family and enjoying life in the U.S. is a blessing, he said, but Thanksgiving comes with mixed feelings because they’re still thinking of their loved ones far away. Many members of the Chin community in the Baltimore area are refugees who fled Burma in fear of their lives, said Hmung, who originally came to the United States as a student in 1995. He estimates there are about 4,000 Chin residents across Maryland, concentrated in Howard, Frederick and Baltimore counties.

Hmung’s five children are “Americanized,” he said, and prefer to eat typical Thanksgiving foods, such as turkey. But members of the older generation, such as Hmung, prefer the taste of traditional Burmese and Chin fare. On Friday, Hmung plans to host a Thanksgiving feast for his wife’s side of the family. He’ll be making turkey, Burmese fried fish and a Chin-style chicken soup with onion, tomatoes and garlic.

To this day, Bien-Aime prefers to stew his turkey, as his mother did in Miami 38 years ago, instead of serving the bird whole.

This year, Bien-Aime’s family is celebrating at his Nigerian brother-in-law’s home in Howard County with a crowd of extended relatives. Each family will contribute food to the internationally-flavored feast. Some dishes will be Haitian-Caribbean, others Nigerian, Senegalese or American-style, he said. In addition to the Haitian jerk turkey and black mushroom rice, there will be Nigerian pepper soup; red snapper with couscous; thiakry, a Senegalese yogurt dessert; and Haitian-style upside down pound cake, among other dishes.

The celebration will be particularly special, given the COVID-19 precautions that have been top-of-mind since the start of the pandemic.

“Now we have the opportunity to see each other, hug each other and to kiss each other because now we have a little freedom to be close,” he said.

Reporter’s note: I wanted to write this piece because I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ Thanksgiving feasts. I haven’t been able to celebrate Thanksgiving with them since 2018 because of work, school, other obligations and travel costs. I won’t be going home to Missouri this year either.

Every year, without fail, Mama and Baba work all day to make enough food to feed a small army. A gigantic roast turkey always shares the spotlight with pork and homegrown cabbage dumplings. Platters of Stove Top stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce (from the can), ginger soy-glazed salmon, wood ear mushrooms, stir-fried tofu and vegetables from the fall garden harvest round out our Chinese American banquet.

The holiday is not just a family affair. International students, co-workers and church friends have all sat around my parents’ dining room table on past Thanksgivings. Typically, the following weekend is a marathon of feasting, as we visit the homes of friends and relatives for more celebratory dinners. Over the next week, the turkey will be meticulously broken down by my parents in a labor of love. They will shred cold turkey and dress it with minced garlic, soy sauce and vinegar. They will boil the bones and roll out homemade dough for noodle soup in turkey broth.

Food, family and acts of service are central to Chinese culture, and that’s what makes this American holiday a perfect one for my folks.