USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘thanksgiving’
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Thanksgiving Tamales

Subject: Traditional foods at Thanksgiving holiday celebrations. Tamales.


“Interviewer: So, you just mentioned that you make Christmas dinner every year?

Interviewee: Yes, I make Christmas dinner and I make Thanksgiving dinner every year… so I started making the turkey on Thanksgiving, so which is why I love Thanksgiving so much now. I always loved it but now it’s like… I have to go every year. I have to go home because I make the fucking turkey. And I also bake all the fu- all the pies. Apple pie and the turkey every year… So, my mom has to make the stuffing. I will not let her like not make the stuffing. My dad, if he’s up to it, up for it, he will make like roasted potatoes with like butter and like herbs, like red potatoes, like particularly. My brother will probably do some sort of vegetable side dish… my sister usually doesn’t help that much, uh, I don’t know why. But my eldest sister, now that she has her own house, she like, like brings mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese.

But… I would like there to be tamales. Tamales are the kind of thing you get like once or twice a year. Um, and once or twice a year, one of those times is going be Thanksgiving and the other one has to be Christmas… So like winter, winter holidays. It’s just like the special occasion of it, you know. They’re not difficult to make…, it takes long, it’s just a process, ya know. We’re just like, it’s Christmas coming up so we’re going to make a lot of tamales, so it’s not like they make them for every meal. They freeze them and then bring them out for this holiday. And they’re just as good frozen…once you’ve reheated them.

Tamales has to be there. There is no way you can’t make more than enough.”

Background Info: Z. Cantú is a twenty-year-old college student majoring in Theater at the University of Southern California. She is from Brownsville, Texas and is bilingual in Spanish and English. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States as teens where they met and started a family. She has grown up with a melding of American and Mexican traditions.

Context: My roommate first mentioned that she enjoys making Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner while speaking about her ethnographic foods course. I asked her to go in depth to her experience preparing and consuming the food on these holidays for my collection.

Analysis: My roommate’s experience with Thanksgiving is especially interesting when placing it within her experiences of growing up in American culture but having parents who grew up in Mexico and did not celebrate Thanksgiving. To her family, Thanksgiving has become a mandatory homecoming, a time to reconnect every year. In this process, the observance of the Thanksgiving holiday has been removed from its American context and has been reworked to be one that defines her parents’ new family and their new life together in a new place. Furthermore, most of the families in the Brownsville area do not celebrate Thanksgiving because it is not part of their national background; in other words, the practice of Thanksgiving is not part of their reinforcement or performance of identity. For the Cantú family, however, the holiday is observed to exert their identity as a family unit that is composed of both Mexican and American heritage.

This is best observed by the food that is literally placed on the Thanksgiving table. There are the foods typically seen at an American family Thanksgiving: turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, for instance. However, the Cantú family modifies their American identity by including tamales at the table. For my roommate, this is a crucial part of the holiday season; the consumption of tamales marking a time of celebration and reunion. Without tamales, the performance of her dual-heritage would be incomplete. Since the food consumed physically represents the diversity of her family, to not include one element would not be fully embodying all parts of herself and her family.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Hanish Family Pie Tradition

Background: Lila is my best friend from high school. She has a tradition with her dad, Jon, and her younger sister, Sydney, to hand make apple pies for Thanksgiving together. They have been inviting me to be part of this tradition for the past 3 years.

Context: I called Lila over FaceTime because she attends Drexel University in Philadelphia. I recorded our conversation and transcribed it below.

“Honestly I don’t know when this tradition started but for as long as I can remember when it’s Thanksgiving time we always go to my cousin’s house in Orange County. Everyone in my family brings something because there are so many people, like first and second cousins. Me and my dad and my sister have a tradition every year to make the apple pies. My dad makes sure that a day or two before Thanksgiving me and my sister are home for the night to make apple pies with him. When we got older it became a thing to invite friends. It’s fun and one of those cute little traditions your family has. I don’t know how it started but yeah. My dad found some recipe online or something but we make the dough fresh every year. We start by skinning the apples… or wait we make the dough first and put it in the fridge. Then we do the whole apples and cinnamon for the filling. Then we make the top crust. For the past year or two we’ve started to make a berry pie too. We’ll make a few apple pies and then a berry pie too. My parents have started to buy extra ingredients so that our friends can take pies home with them to take to their Thanksgiving dinners.”



Apple and berry pie at the Hanish household, Thanksgiving 2017.


Folk speech
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Thanksgiving game

I asked, do you do anything specific with your family for holidays?:


“I have a really big family so Thanksgiving dinner is always 20 people or so. Every year at Thanksgiving dinner we each write down one “-ing” verb and one noun and put them all in two separate hats. Everyone picks one of each out of the hats and the combination of the two is your ‘Thanksgiving name’ with my grandfather acting as the chief.

When you pick your name you say it our loud and everyone else responds: ‘And the crowd says “ahhhhh”’

For example:

Person 1: I am… whispering three toed sloth

Family response: and the crowd says Ahhhh“


Background: Mae is a 19 year old girl raised in Westwood, CA and currently living in Los Angeles, CA. Her parents are originally from Chicago and Little Rock, and she lived in Princeton, NJ briefly as a young girl.

Context: Mae shared this story with me when she came to my house to celebrate Easter.

Analysis: Holiday traditions are incredibly personal to each family, and even people who celebrate the same holidays can have an entirely different way of doing so. My family, for example, doesn’t play any particular games like this at Thanksgiving, and our Thanksgiving dinner is usually one of our more formal holiday celebrations though it is always light-hearted and fun. Our Christmas dinner, as a matter of fact, is always extremely casual and we typically order Chinese food or have left overs, which you would think would be a more formal holiday. This further exemplifies how much variation there is in celebrations depending on specific family traditions. Similarly, however, my family always has Thanksgiving-themed hats that everyone receives on their place settings. It is really cool to hear what the unique ways that my friends celebrate different holidays with their families.


Thanksgiving Song

What is being performed?
JJ: Have you heard the Thanksgiving song?
AA: No, what’s the Thanksgiving song?
JJ: Well, I don’t know if it’s called that but my family sings it before we eat on Thanksgiving. It
might be called Thank You for the Food.
AA: How does it go?
JJ: (singing) Thank you God for the food we eat. Thank you God for the world so sweet. Thank
you God for the birds that sing. Thank you God for everything. Amen.
Why do they know or like this piece? where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to
AA: Where did you learn the song?
JJ: My mom would make us sing it before we ate on Thanksgiving.
AA: Do you like the song?
JJ: Uhhh, I guess it’s kind of catchy, haha.
AA: It is catchy! What does it mean to you?
JJ: I guess it’s just about giving thanks. It’s nice and it reminds me of my childhood with my
brother and family.

Context of the performance- where do you perform it? History?
This is usually performed at Thanksgiving dinners before eating. It’s a catchy way of giving
grace and is Christian in nature. It could be performed outside of Thanksgiving but my informant
believes it is specifically about Thanksgiving.

I have attached an audio of the song in the Folklore archive. My informant agreed for it to be
used for the folklore archive purpose but wants me to get rid of it otherwise. I think the song is
catchy and have never heard it before. I could see this being an important part of Thanksgiving
for religious families.


Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner with Mac and Cheese

Tradition: An adult male, half Chinese half Texan, brings mac and cheese to his family Thanksgiving dinner every year. The family is a mix of ethnicities: Japanese, Chinese, and Caucasian.

The informant is a half Japanese half Chinese female, age 20.

Informant: For Thanksgiving, we have one cousin (Eric) whose sole responsibility is to bring the mac and cheese. And every year, our aunt asks everyone what they want to bring, and on the list, she’ll write “Eric-Mac and Cheese.” Apparently it’s the best mac and cheese.

Collector: Do you like it? Does your family like it?

Informant: It’s pretty good, I’ve eaten it. I assume that my family likes it. Because he’s demanded to bring it every year. I’m just waiting to see what happens when he doesn’t bring it.

Collector: Where did he learn to make it from?

Informant: I asked him about it, and he said he pulled the recipe off the internet. And he proceeded to forward it to me, so I can make it for myself.

Collector: What do you think it means to you or to your family?

Informant: I think it’s funny that my aunt assumes that that’s the only thing he can make and that we can eat. This has been going on for five years now. So whenever it’s Thanksgiving, I know that there’s something that I can eat–there’s gonna be mac and cheese!

Even though the family has a mix of different ethnic backgrounds, it’s interesting to see that every year, they demand and designated for one family member to bring the mac and cheese to Thanksgiving dinner. I think that this family tradition is reflective of the “melting pot” culture of America, where families come together and share their food cultures with one another.


Chinese Hot Pot for Thanksgiving Dinner

Informant is a 20 year old, Chinese, college student studying at the University of Southern California. Both of his parents are Chinese.

Informant’s Tradition: So for Thanksgiving dinner, originally when my parents were struggling students, they had like a slow cooker. They’d just boil water in a slow cooker, and they would boil meat and add sauces, like a hot pot. Back then, it would just be cheaper stuff, and they would mix it with peanut butter sauces, because they didn’t have the money to get the sesame sauce for normal hot pots. My mom learned to make a peanut butter sauce that I prefer it to the normal store bought sesame sauce now.

Collector: Does your family do this every Thanksgiving?

Informant: Yeah, for Thanksgiving, and sometimes for Christmas too. But usually for Thanksgiving.

Collector: Did your parents teach you how to make it too?

Informant: Not really, but from observing it seems pretty simple. Like I would be able to make it if I wanted to.

Collector: How long do you think they have been doing this for?

Informant: 20 years. They’ve been in the States for around 20 years now.

Collector: What do you think it means?

Informant: I think it’s not only a nice way to like, express our own culture, but also like a way to acknowledge our history, like we couldn’t sometimes afford turkey back in the day. It has meaning because of the significance back then.

Collector: Why do you guys like to make this?

Informant: I guess it’s because we enjoy hot pot more than we like turkey. But also because there’s a history to it, and it’s also fulfilling your own cultural values.

I think that with the “melting pot” nature in the United States, people from all over the world can come to America and make it their home. By bringing their culture with them, and infusing it into American holidays and traditions, people of different backgrounds can make their holiday celebrations the best of both worlds.


Cherokee Yam Cakes

The informant (D) is a married father of two now adult children. D grew up in various parts of southern California, but spent his high school years in Chino, California, in the same house that his mother now lives. He and his wife shared the cooking responsibility about 50/50 while their children were still in the house but now that they have both gone off to college, he has taken over more of the responsibility. D’s father came from Oklahoma many decades ago, before my father was born, and claimed to be “part Cherokee,” though that was never formally proven. I asked D about the so-called “Cherokee yam cakes” that he makes every Thanksgiving. Cherokee yam cakes are best described as yam stir-n-roll (non-flaky) biscuits. He emailed me the recipe when I asked about the cakes.

The recipe is (copied from email):

“2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 T. sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup milk
1 cup mashed yams

Mix oil, milk, & yams.
Add to sifted dry ingredients.
Mix lightly until it holds together.
Knead gently (about 12 times) until smooth
Roll out 1/2″ thick.
Cut into circles.
Bake on greased sheet, 425 F, 10-12 min.

I have always used whole wheat flour, my mom used all purpose flour.
I usually make a double batch.”

I also asked him several questions about the yam cakes. The interview below is verbatim via email.

Me: Where and when did you learn the recipe?
D: When I moved out of my mom’s house, I asked to copy the recipe. I moved out in 1983, back in in ’85, and back out in 1990 when [my wife and I] got married. I may not have got the recipe until 1990 but I don’t remember.
Me: Do you know where she got the recipe?
D: I never asked where she got the recipe. I assumed it was from my dad, but never asked [my mom] about that.  I know it was the one “add-on” to a Thanksgiving menu we had every year:

Rock Cornish game hens
Wild Rice dressing
mashed potatoes and gravy
He got the menu from Playboy magazine!
Me: For what occasions do you make the yam cakes now?

D: Thanksgiving, though I made some also around Christmas last year, for the first time ever.  I think we missed Thanksgiving actually too for the first time but made some later, [my son] asked for them. I like to make a large batch so I can keep eating them for a few days.

Me: Why do you continue to make these yam cakes instead of something else for those occasions?

D: I don’t know of anything else like them- they’re so mellow and satisfying. They seem to settle your stomach if you overindulge in rich foods. Will and I used to credit them with making it possible to eat more after you thought you were full.

Me: What do the yam cakes mean to you?
D: Makes me remember my family  and family holidays when I was a kid, makes me proud of my unconfirmed  (1/32?) Cherokee heritage, makes me proud to have a good yummy recipe that nobody else makes and everyone always seems to like. Plus I think they’re pretty healthy and they’re easy to digest.
The fact that D calls them “Cherokee” yam cakes instead of just “yam cakes” tells me that small detail really does mean a lot. I have known D literally since I was born and do not remember him ever NOT saying “Cherokee yam cakes” when he was talking about them. As he mentions, the Cherokee ancestry has not been verified. I think this remains to be so important because being Native American (even a teeny bit) would connect him to the earth in a different way than the rest of his immigrant ancestry does (his mother is from Friesland, a Dutch province). The yam cakes really are unique and do settle an over-full stomach and are good hot or cold. It seems that though the naming is highly symbolic, the practical reasons to eat them are also important.
Additionally, the nostalgia factors into the importance of these cakes, both for D and his children.
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Thanksgiving Tradition: “Trashcan” Turkey

Informant: “It’s from the Florida Keys, I don’t know how old it is. I don’t think it’s that old. It might only go back to like the 50s and 60s. But, it’s a way to cook food for a bunch of people quickly and easily because the trash can turkey is all about 2; a 20 gallon trash can, metal of course, a 20 pound turkey, and 20 pounds of charcoal for 2 hours and anybody who has ever roasted a turkey on thanksgiving knows that doing one in the oven takes a damn sight longer than 2 hours. But in the trashcan oven you can do it in 2 hours and it comes out really good. It holds in the moisture and the bird comes out pretty tender and every time I’ve ever done it, it comes out good. But basically what you do is you take the bird and you have to stand it up, sort of, and so in the true red neck fashion that started this whole thing, you use a jack stand from a car, you know like you would jack up a car and then put a stand underneath it so it will stay there. So, you take one of these things and cover it in tinfoil and basically set the bird on top of it so he is sitting there sort of with his wings up and his legs down and this thing is sort of up the cavity of the dressed bird. So anyways, then you set that on the ground, on top of another piece of foil, and you set the metal can over the top of the bird and then fold up the corners of the foil, and in some cases, they say you seal it up with sand. And then, you take your 20 pounds of charcoal and then you spread it around the bottom of the can and take half a dozen or so briquettes and set them on top of the can and you use a charcoal lighter, and because you don’t actually expose the bird to the charcoal lighter flame, you don’t get any charcoal lighter taste in the bird. So, you cover the briquettes, you light them off and then, just like you would a charcoal fire in a grill, you let it go. And, of course, that stuff burns pretty hot and gets the inside of the can really hot and it roasts the bird and, you know after that, after about 2 hours, maybe a little longer, but around 2 hours, the charcoal is pretty much all reduced to ash. There may be some red cinders inside it, but it’s mostly ash at that point, you’ll take the can off and the can is freakin’ hot so be careful, and then be careful not to get any of the ask on the bird, but you will find the bird inside golden brown and really moist and so there you go redneck trashcan turkey.”


Interviewer: “And who did you learn this from?”


Informant: “My redneck parents. (laughs) My parents retied to the Alabama coast or what my father affectionately refers to as, he lives in LA, Lower Alabama, or otherwise known as the Redneck Riviera. So on the Alabama coast, apparently they learned about it from some other retired friends of theirs who apparently spent quite a bit of time in the Florida keys and they learned about cooking the turkey in the trash can and of course I didn’t believe this at first but my dad came over and showed me and I found, how about that, it actually works.”


Interviewer: “And you like this folklore because the end result tastes good?”


Informant: “Oh yeah, and its easy, its really easy. All you’ve got to remember is 2. 20 pounds of turkey, 20 gallon trash can and 20 gallons of charcoal for 2 hours.”

The informant is a middle-aged man, who grew up in East Windsor Connecticut with his parents and two sisters. From there he attended the University of Connecticut and then lived in France for about a year and then in Montreal for about two years. From there he moved to California where he lives today. While the informant was in college his parents moved to Georgia and then to Alabama where they currently reside. Both the informant and his parents enjoy cooking.

Every year the informant’s parents visit him and his family, occasionally the informant will travel to Alabama, usually around either Thanksgiving or Christmas. The informant learned this folklore when he and his family visited his parents in Alabama. The informant’s father had learned the recipe from a friend and practiced the technique to use for Thanksgiving. The informant then decided to continue using this technique for Thanksgiving back in California because, as was stated in the interview, the end result tastes good and doesn’t take nearly as long to cook as other turkey recipes.

Because I have had the opportunity to try a “Trashcan Turkey,” I appreciate this lore. It is interesting to see this lore in action because it is literally a trashcan with charcoal on top of it (see images below). In addition, there are a few requirements to cook the turkey properly. Most importantly, there needs to be a place where the turkey can cook; this is usually over a small pit of sand or dirt. Also, achieving the proper cooking conditions can be difficult because rain or excess wind can blow out the flames and prevent the turkey from cooking. In addition, if you have pets, you need to make sure they stay away from the flames.




Saying Thanks

Every Thanksgiving, the informant’s family goes around the table while each person says what they are thankful for before they eat the meal.  The informant records all of the thank yous on tape, and he says that many people who have shared Thanksgiving with the family have brought the tradition home with them and adopted it as their own.

The informant said he liked to do it, first of all, because it made all the kids nervous, but also because it got everyone involved.  Each person would have their own version of a thank you from his sister in-law who would read a pre-written 4 page one to the kids who year after year would repeat “Thank you for the food.”

He got the tradition from his in-laws and started recording them, but then the traditional meal moved to his house so he could control it a bit more.  The thank you is also a bit of an initiation for new members of the family because everyone has to say something.

I asked if he ever plans to watch them, and the informant replied, “Oh yeah, some point I will.”

The tradition of saying thank you brings the family together, and it gets everyone to really think about their lives in the past year.  It allows people to say the things that are normally too cheesy to say in public.  For the children, the Thanksgiving where they say they are thankful for more than the food also represents a rite of passage where they are now adult enough to say something more meaningful to them.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Thanksgiving Ham

In the following, my informant recounts how her family traditionally has Ham on Thanksgiving rather than the more traditional Turkey:

We always have Ham for Thanksgiving, always, I mean, yeah, its not a Thanksgiving without ham. Turkey? Not turkey. We’ll have some turkey,  but we always have ham because my great, my grandma, or my Nana on my dad’s side, she cooked the best honey baked ham, oh my gosh, and um , we loved it when we were little, and, so each Thanksgiving she would make it for us, and we’d always have that.

The fact that my informant and her family continue to celebrate Thanksgiving with ham rather than turkey, even after, as she informed me, her grandmother, who made the ham, has died, shows that they do it in remembrance of her. My informant told me that for her family Thanksgiving is a way of not only celebrating the family currently there, but the family which either is absent or has died, and eating ham is a way of remembering not only her grandmother, but all the family members she once shared a Thanksgiving with.