One Family’s Different Approach to Thanksgiving Dinner

Article and Photographs by Lynn Chawengwongsa

I did not eat homemade pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. I did not stay at home watching Charlie Brown deny the existence of the Great Pumpkin. Nor did I stand by the oven inhaling the salty aroma of poultry that wafted through the air.

Instead I sat in the backseat of my parents’ minivan bound for a Long Island shopping outlet. Holding a Delta Airlines bag to my mouth, I entertained myself with the idea that I could someday discover a cure for motion sickness. Ten more exits to go on the Long Island Expressway, according to my sister, until I would finally be relieved of the malaise that gripped my head. It wasn’t so much that I resented the distance those exits represented as my belief that driving the entire length of the L.I.E. would not keep me from resenting my parents’ nonchalance toward Thanksgiving Day.

For the Thanksgiving feast, the Chawengwongsa family fuses together Thai and American tradition.
For the Thanksgiving feast, the Chawengwongsa family fuses together Thai and American tradition.

While I was growing up in Flushing, Queens, Thanksgivings in my home were hardly ever the picturesque scenes of gleeful faces marveling at the ceremonious carving of a glistening turkey. My parents did not bring out the special silverware or the blue-trimmed fine china my mother had tucked away in the back of our kitchen cabinets, nor did they ever think to place a cornucopia at the center of our dinner table. Thanksgiving was simply a culinary affair to them. For my parents, adopting American culture brought the obligation of celebrating Thanksgiving. Every year, with some reluctance, they created a humble feast, no more, no less.

Living next door to a Jewish couple and down the street from Malaysian and Indian families, my parents learned that families could cultivate their own Thanksgiving traditions. My mother’s aversion to the taste of turkey spurred my father to create a baked chicken stuffed with ground pork and vegetables. By preparing the rest of the menu, my mother could preserve the traditions of her homeland, both for her sake and for us. She could infuse small doses of Thai culture into the lives of her American children, all while cooking the foods she and my father savored in their hometown of Bangkok. At some point, well into the evening, American classics such as mashed potatoes and biscuits were plated and placed alongside such ordinary Thai dishes as lahp (minced pork salad) and papaya salad.

Though the food remained the same each year, a Thai-American menu bolstered by my father’s infamously salty chicken, Thanksgiving was never predictable. Sometimes, my mother played the dutiful nurse at Jamaica Hospital, volunteering to work on Thanksgiving in hopes of getting Christmas off and thus evading the hassle of trudging through mounds of snow that threatened her five-foot frame. Other times, my mother stayed home in Flushing to cook, even preparing the chicken in the afternoon because my father had not yet awakened. On rare occasions, my parents were jovial, joking about politics and gossiping with the friends they had invited over. During less crowded years, my father’s fragile temper often burst, his annoyance at a few missing metal skewers manifested in words as loud and sudden as a whistling tea kettle.

It didn’t matter to me how muted and bland my Thanksgiving appeared to my grade school classmates when I told them how I spent the long weekend. I saw no difference between my Thanksgiving and theirs; I, too, plopped heaping scoops of mashed potatoes onto my plate and spent the day with relatives. Despite all the dysfunction and frenzy of my family, the Thanksgiving meal my parents created could rival anyone’s. Yet when I walked into the kitchen on Thanksgiving Eve this year, the difference between reveling in the Thanksgiving spirit and going through the motions of the holiday became clear.

One dish was glass noodle soup.
One dish was glass noodle soup.

The table was laden with large bowls topped with empty dishes, my mother’s way of trying to prevent the food from getting cold and hard after hours of sitting. By the edge of the table lay my father’s pork-stuffed chicken, a disfigured mess covered with plastic wrap. While I was away at school, my parents prepared the food in impromptu haste and my family celebrated Thanksgiving without me. My parents had decided to reschedule the festivities this year in an effort to take advantage of the Thanksgiving Day sales on Long Island that would require an entire day’s worth of time.


I could do nothing but accept my exclusion. So I sat in the kitchen with my oldest sister and my mother, sampling everything from a modest menu of spring rolls, lahp, glass noodle soup, macaroni and cheese, and my father’s chicken. With my father slouched on the couch in front of the television and my other sister sound asleep upstairs, I needed little effort to keep to myself.

Although everyone was home for this Thanksgiving celebration, I realized the food was the only thing that mattered at our Thanksgivings. Year after year, my parents have unintentionally reduced a celebration of family, of thankfulness and appreciation, to the mere task of producing food. The faint traces of the Thanksgiving spirit that had lingered in earlier years were now entirely gone.

The day after Thanksgiving, I sat alone in the kitchen eating leftovers and store-bought pumpkin pie on a chipped dinner plate. I imagined women sloshing drinks into their glasses, men tossing a football, a table set with the finest china and my parents’ feast. I imagined what it might feel like to truly celebrate the meaning of Thanksgiving.