This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

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The question for Thanksgiving 2020 is not whether it will look like years past. Of course, it won’t. From the concept of a Zoomsgiving to the shrinking size of the bird and number of people at the table, the physical aspects of the holiday are going to be unprecedented. The more fundamental question for the most classic of American holidays is this: Do people want to hold on to tradition as much as possible? Or is this the year to throw everything out—to acknowledge that you never liked turkey—and cook up a new vision of the holiday? 

To get some answers, Bloomberg Pursuits went to Houston, one of America’s most diverse cities. We asked food and drink luminaries there how they planned to celebrate this year and to explain the thinking behind it.

“For a lot of immigrant families here that have felt displaced and are feeling unrest through the pandemic, they’re going to turn to their food,” says Nick Wong, chef de cuisine at UB Preserv. “This year is the year you turn to blood soup and dishes that reflect me and my rice.”

In a year that saw spikes in social activist causes such as Black Lives Matter, Wong also sees food as a form of protest, subtly or not. “I’m second-generation Chinese, but I’m looking at the future, and all these race issues are at the forefront. This Thanksgiving, people will lean into themselves and celebrate their heritage, too,” he adds.

“In general, we’ve gone through this period of lockdown and had this huge awakening and awareness of cultural sensitivities,” observes Alba Huerta of Julep bar. She sees Thanksgiving 2020 as an ideal moment to question traditions, whether it’s at the table or in a larger context. “We used to say, ‘That’s what my family did for so many years.’ This year we are much more aware of the decisions we’re making.”

Greg Gatlin, owner and pitmaster of Gatlin’s BBQ and a Houston native says the city is having an unusual fall, with changing leaves that make it feel almost like a Midwestern town, which heightens the out-of-time feel of the moment. “Houston is so diverse, but so spread out, it exists as a lot of little villages,” he says. “I see people trying to be normal, I see people being renegades , it’s hard to go into a shutdown, it’s like a roller coaster ride.” As he celebrates his Cajun roots, he hopes the holidays will be “as normal as you can make them. People need it.”

Below, Gatlin and eight other notable Houstonians talk about their most important Thanksgiving dish and why it’s important to them—this year more than ever.

—Photographs by Arturo Olmos for Bloomberg Pursuits

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

Anita Jaisinghani, chef/owner of Pondicheri

Dishes: Wild mushroom truffle kofta (Indian meatballs) with braised chickpeas; chai pumpkin pie

“I got over the whole turkey thing fairly early, after I came to the U.S. from India—I’ve never been a fan. The idea that you must have a turkey is nonsense. I personally feel that nothing is more important right now than the climate crisis. So I have been playing around with mushrooms and truffles, looking for things that are interesting without having meat. I ordered a lot of truffles; this is the year to celebrate, because it’s been such a sad year for so many people. 

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“The chai pie we have had since day one—it’s our signature pie. It’s won best pie in Texas. One year, we added a layer of pumpkin custard to the top half; the crust is made from cookie crumbs. The chai layer is infused tea leaves and lemongrass and everything we put in our chai. We started the pumpkin chai pie about five or six years ago for the holidays, and people just love it.

“I have two children in their late 20s, and we always celebrate Thanksgiving—but even more, we celebrate Diwali. We’ve seen a surge in celebrating this year at the restaurant, 10 times more than usual.” 

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

Alba Huerta, owner of Julep

Dish: Arroz and butternut squash chile relleno

“My family and I are immigrants. I’ve been in this country for 36 years. I was 4 years old when I came from Monterrey, in Mexico, to Texas. We have gatherings every Sunday, so we turn Thanksgiving Thursday into a four-day party. It’s like a Mexican wedding. People show up, and it’s a huge feast and pot luck situation. Dinner is usually at midnight, so everyone better drink some coffee.

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“We started celebrating Thanksgiving because, as kids, we would get school off, and my family realized it was something to celebrate. We tried to do all the traditional stuff, and it either didn’t pass the test or we made it wrong. The turkey that we landed on has been fried—my dad has a pulley system and different seasoned oils. People bring their turkeys and we fry them. It gives my dad a job. The table has a caddy with salsa, guacamole, and gravy—our Thanksgiving shareables.

“But the dish that defines Thanksgiving to me are the arroz and butternut squash chile relleno. It’s part of how we Mexicanized Thanksgiving: There’s the squash, but it’s an entryway for the chile rellenos. They’re filled with queso Oaxaca, chorizo, and butternut squash and sit on a bed of rice covered in sauce.

“Although we won’t be gathering in a large capacity this year, the house will smell as decadent as it always does. I’ll serve port and tonic highballs, so they’re beautifully burgundy colored. And a sassafrass tea punch with bourbon, because this is Texas. But I think this year, our Thanksgiving will feel more Mexican than ever.”

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

Greg Gatlin, owner and pitmaster of Gatlin’s BBQ

Dishes: Deep-fried turkey  and pork loin stuffed with dirty rice (spicy sausage, garlic, peppers, and Creole seasoning)

“We’ve been doing the fried turkey with dirty rice stuffing for about three years. Dirty rice is Cajun. It speaks to some of our Louisiana roots, from both my mom and dad. My mom’s side, they do the dirty rice. On my father’s side, they are a lot more into barbecue. They had a bunch of acreage; they raised hogs and chickens. But I was born in Houston. The meal combines both of them.

“When my grandmother was alive, she would roast the turkey, and my uncle would do the fried turkey, and then we would cook up the ribs. It was a table. We have mostly done smoked turkey, but sometimes you can get tired of barbecue, so we look at other stuff.

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“We’ve always served dirty rice [at Gatlin’s] since back in 2010, when it was something different for a barbecue restaurant—it was only at Cajun and seafood places. It’s one of our staples.

“For Thanksgiving at the restaurant, we are seeing a lot more people ordering whole briskets, racks of ribs. But they’re still ordering turkey, although I’m getting a lot of turkey breast for smaller celebrations. We have more than 65 turkeys on order. But brisket is the top seller—they’re moving. I think it’s a mix of people having adjusted to cooking at home, and then the others who are like, ‘Hell no, I’ve cooked enough, get that fried turkey!’”
 

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

June Rodil, master sommelier and partner of Goodnight Hospitality

Dish: Caviar spread

“My mom and I immigrated here from the Philippines in the mid-’80s, and she married into a family with the sweetest, most wonderful MeeMaw (great grandma) of all time. She was super White, super American, and made everything from scratch. As a Filipino kid who had no idea what the shenanigans were all about, I can never forget my first Thanksgiving with her. We make her dressing every year, and it’s got a little of everything in it: corn bread, shredded chicken, mushrooms, onions, celery, eggs, water chestnuts.

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“As someone who is not so great at cooking but is determined to make Thanksgiving extravagant, we always have a ridiculous caviar spread to nosh on while the rest of the meal is cooking. We do everything from smoked trout roe to breaking the bank with golden osetra with traditional accoutrements: egg whites, egg yolks, creme fraiche.

“But we also always have random stuff like Bugles with smoked trout roe. Sour cream Pringles are cool, but you have to pair them with a fishy caviar—more subtle caviar needs something like a blini. Surprise ingredient is a flour tortilla. We always have gin martinis and Champagne, from Crystal to Krug, plus white Burgundy. 

“Thanksgiving is a gluttony for all things. I started doing caviar because it’s never going to taste like Meemaw’s Thanksgiving. Plus, by the time everyone has had Champagne and caviar, no one really cares if I’ve left salt out of the dressing, or if there’s another food catastrophe.

“The one thing that reflects my Filipino heritage is a pot of white rice. My husband thinks our rice cooker is going to burn our house down, but if you’re Filipino, you always have the rice cooker on so the rice is warm.”

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi, chef at Kata Robata

Dish: King crab at Crown Seafood

“I cook every day at work and at home. On Thanksgiving, I want to relax and eat great fish. Some people are surprised that a sushi chef wants to eat fish on his day off, but I love seafood.

“Since many restaurants in Houston are closed on Thanksgiving, my wife and I like to go to Chinatown. At Crown Seafood, we order steamed live spot prawns, sautéed live lobster with special sauce, live king crab—if it’s still swimming when we get to the restaurant, we’ll probably order it.

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“We’ve been going for four or five years. Chinatown gets crowded on Thanksgiving; you have to plan to go after dim sum service. I don’t know what this year will be like, though.

“Yes, I have made Thanksgiving dinner before—turkey and green bean casserole. I like the food, especially pumpkin pie. My chef friend and my customers give me pumpkin and pecan pies for the holidays. I eat them for breakfast and the next day. But for my main Thanksgiving meal, I want to have my seafood.”
 

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

Dawn Burrell, founder of Pivot 

Dish: West Indian-style braised greens

“At the onset of Covid, I began working as the culinary director for I’ll Have What She’s Having, a local woman-focused organization. I started interactive classes as a community for working professionals. I also have a prepared meal service, Pivot; the dishes are chef-driven and crafted from experiences that changed my life, like my grandmother’s salmon croquettes. There are a couple hundred people in the program. The food comes with vignettes about why I make what I’m making.

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“My Thanksgiving spread is ever-evolving, but it’s comforting to keep the core traditional during these trying times. I grew up with braised greens. My mother makes classic versions, with smoked pork or smoked turkey wings, depending on who is eating it. It’s my all-time favorite.

“I served an elevated version at my last restaurant, Kulture. What I love about greens is their versatility. They impart whatever flavor profile you like. My greens are cooked in the style of callaloo, braised in their own juices with a splash of coconut milk and ginger and a scotch bonnet pepper. I don’t have West Indian roots, but I really enjoy the food culture, and I study it. And this has become a new staple on my holiday table.

“This Thanksgiving will be really meaningful because my mom suffered a stroke, so to be together is a cause for celebration. This year, people should do whatever makes them feel warm, because this is not a warm year. It’s a crazy year.”

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

Arnaldo Richards, chef-owner of Picos

Dish: Tamales (chicken, beef,  pork, sweet currant) and coconut pineapple for dessert

“I’m Mexican by birth and by heart, even though my last name is Richards. At Thanksgiving, we do turkey and side dishes, but we also incorporate a lot of dishes that we do in Mexico. Thanksgiving, it’s an all-day affair for us. No, it’s a weeks-long affair! We had a Thanksgiving planning meeting this year, that’s how big it is.

“Tamales are the Thanksgiving breakfast—there’s nothing better than to have some Oaxacan tamales with poached eggs on top. But we also do sweet tamales at night: pineapple coconut, which we call piña colada, and one with currants.

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“We’ve been doing tamales for years at the restaurant. Every year it becomes bigger and more elaborate. Last year we did 6,500 dozen orders for Thanksgiving and holidays. We do so many, we have a refrigerated container outside the building and special ovens that steam them.

“It’s a family recipe. I started tamales [at home] when my kids were little, because they’re delicious but also my heritage, and they’re good luck and fun for the kids. We have two different styles: One is wrapped in corn husk, but we also do ones wrapped in banana leaves, which are from the deep south of Mexico—they’re my favorite. The corn-husk ones can be chicken with green sauce, pork and beef with red sauce, [and] there’s also a chicken mole tamale. We’ll make seven or eight dozen for Thanksgiving at my house.

“For Christmas, we did a tamale-stuffed turkey one year. Maybe we will do it for Thanksgiving next year.”

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

Nick Wong, chef de cuisine at UB Preserv

Dish: Vietnamese-style roast duck with sticky rice, cellophane noodles, and mung beans stuffing

“Thanksgiving this year is going to be different for me, as I would guess it is for a lot of folks. If these were normal times, I’d fly home to California to see my family and cook the usual spread: turkey, gravy, prime rib, mac and cheese—the whole nine.

“But this year, I’m going to attempt a tradition I had when I lived in New York and worked at Ssäm Bar and couldn’t go home for the holidays. One of my best friends, Mindy [Iyoff], would invite me over to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family. One of the dishes we would have is a stuffed roasted duck that her dad would bring. The duck was always good, but the most memorable part for me was the stuffing inside: it’s mung bean, chestnut, sticky rice, cellophane noodle—all really savory, with soy sauce and fish sauce. 

“I’m going to roast a duck just so I can have the stuffing. I’ll most likely be eating duck fried rice for the entire week after. I’ll modify Mindy’s dad’s recipe; he uses chestnuts, but I’m in Texas, so I will make it with pecans.

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“It’s loosely based on a Vietnamese dish. It’s that immigrant thing you hear about for the holidays—both Mindy’s parents are Vietnamese—a mashup of traditional foods that you’re used to eating but Americanized. Sticky rice and mung beans become a stuffing.

“I grew up with a hybrid Thanksgiving. My uncle had a Chinese diner. They made turkey and gravy, but it was for me and my brother, who were very westernized. But we also had sticky rice and dumplings on the side, as celebratory Chinese dishes, and that’s what I appreciated as I got older. Maybe on Thanksgiving, I’ll do a Zoom call with Mindy, and her mom can judge my stuffing.”

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

Chris Williams, chef-owner at Lucille’s

Dish: Green bean casserole

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I started the nonprofit Lucille’s 1913, which delivers meals to Houstonians in need. To date, we’ve delivered over 65,000 meals to our community. This Thanksgiving, we’ve set a goal of delivering meals to 1,000 Houston families. This is for neighborhoods that aren’t even forgotten. You have to be talked about to be forgotten.

“With all of the uncertainty going on in the world, we’re going to keep the meal traditional in hopes of providing some comfort this holiday season. My great-grandmother Lucille’s business [Lucille B. Smith created the first hot roll mix, among other innovations] was born from the same reason I started my nonprofit: We saw an opportunity to serve the community.

This Thanksgiving, Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Tradition

“Thanksgiving has always been a big holiday for me, and the spread isn’t complete without Lucille’s green bean casserole. It’s been a part of my family’s holiday meals for over 50 years.

“This year, I’m channeling her creative spirit and changing things up a bit. She used a canned mushroom base, Velveeta cheese, canned green beans, canned asparagus—everything was canned. Mine is fresh green beans, fresh peas, fresh asparagus, and dried chanterelle and morel mushrooms with three cheeses, béchamel sauce, and homemade dehydrated onions. I can’t do it for the nonprofit, or even for the restaurant, because of the cost of mushrooms, but it’s been a tough year for my family.

“I never cook for Thanksgiving, ever, because my Dad is such a great cook. He used to work for my great-grandmother in the ’50s, so normally I let him, the master, handle it. He’ll still do a Cajun fried turkey, with giblet gravy. Lucille’s hot rolls are always, always at the table for my family.”

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