Thanksgiving is here, and every year on this holiday, I think back to my childhood when I saw on television and in magazines the incredible and abundant feasts that marked this occasion. I was led to believe enormous roasted turkeys, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry jelly, green bean casseroles, and soft buttered rolls were required fare.
At my family’s dinner table, however, our Thanksgiving included spring rolls, lotus root salad, and chicken curry served with baguettes. Turkey was never a sure thing.
For most of my youth, I obsessed over food. Fervently wishing to be more American, I wanted to eat what I imagined my classmates ate: fried chicken, hamburgers, and lasagna. Caught up in my food fantasies, I didn’t appreciate what my mom made for us until I was in my twenties. Then, all I could do was look back on my memories of those childhood meals and try my best to conjure up the tastes, smells, and textures of the dishes she prepared.
My mom was a very capable cook and could prepare pretty much any Vietnamese dish, from clay pot fish and braised pork to her aromatic and satisfying pho, which we ate on Sundays. Her Saturday night ritual included pulling out our biggest pot, filling it with beef bones and copious amounts of water, and simmering the pot overnight on the stove. She would add the spices the next morning before we left for church, and the scent of star anise, whole cardamom, sticks of cinnamon, and cloves would fill the house, welcoming us back after mass.
Despite knowing how to make all manners of Vietnamese dishes, Mom didn’t know how to make anything non-Vietnamese. As kids, my siblings and I figured out bologna and cheese sandwiches, and we tried our hands at fried eggs (eaten with fish sauce or soy sauce, then, as we grew older, we discovered hot sauce and ketchup). Sandwich bread dusted with sugar and ground cinnamon reigned supreme when we wanted something sweet.
“Mom, please, can you make us some American food?”
With her limited English literacy, I imagined my mom standing in the pasta aisle at the grocery store, scrutinizing the images, trying to decipher what was needed to make spaghetti: sauce in a jar and a sleeve of long noodles. Unlike the intricate Vietnamese dishes that take years to master, my mother discovered how basic and unoriginal spaghetti was, and once she decoded it, we got our wish.
Mom’s version consisted of ready-made sauce poured over browned ground beef, but she never thought it tasted right, so she got into the habit of adding a few dashes of ground cinnamon.
Plus, she didn’t understand how we could eat so much pasta and meat sauce without any fresh vegetables, so she had us pile shredded iceberg lettuce on top.
I copied her way of making spaghetti and that was how I ate it all through middle and high schools. After moving away for college, I prepared it for my roommate, Hillary, during our sophomore year when we shared an apartment down the hill from campus.
“What did you put in this, Hong?” Hillary asked. “It smells funny. Like there’s something in it.”
“What do you mean? It’s spaghetti with meat sauce,” I replied as she surveyed the plate in front of her. “What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know,” she said, poking the noodles with her fork, then tried a bite.
We soon identified the source of the funny smell, and Hillary filled me in on the fact that spaghetti with meat sauce does not, in fact, include ground cinnamon. I was perplexed.
Though it was a hard habit to break, it took me a few years before I stopped sneaking in the ground spice in favor of more basil or oregano as was customary for everyone but me and my family. I was slightly embarrassed, but even though my mom’s spaghetti never quite tasted like what I ate in the school cafeterias, I chalked it up to the difference between restaurant versus home cooked meals.
It didn’t occur to me that cinnamon was not meant to be in spaghetti.
Years later, when I was living in Tunisia, I befriended an Indian gal from South Africa. Charmaine was an excellent cook, and we became fast friends, spending countless hours in her kitchen, bonding over meals. She taught me her recipes and I taught her mine. One day, we decided to make pasta sauce from scratch, so I shared a recipe I’d picked up in my twenties from a housemate in California.
As I stood at the stove minding the pot, stirring the tomatoes and fresh basil together with salt, pepper, and a dash of balsamic vinegar, Charmaine opened her spice drawer to look for something.
“I know you’re sharing your recipe, but I want to add some cinnamon. I always add it to my pasta sauce,” she confessed. “It just doesn’t seem right when there’s no cinnamon to make the flavor more complex.”
I laughed and said, “Yes, please do!”
Here was another person in the world who grew up eating spaghetti the same way I had, and it made me cherish my friendship with Charmaine even more.
My mom didn’t make authentic Italian spaghetti sauce, but somehow, she’d struck upon adding a spice that gave it a warmer, more nuanced taste.
I told Charmaine all about my mom’s cinnamon spaghetti, topped with shredded iceberg lettuce. “Great minds think alike,” she remarked.
These days, my husband and our two boys get excited when they come home to the aroma of pho or braised pork cooking on the stove. Those are their comfort meals and what they often request for dinner. When I rekindled my love for these meals, I changed the narrative around food not just for myself but for my children. From hamburgers and shawarmas to curries and bulgogi, I love that they have embraced the flavors of the different places we’ve lived and visited. My kids don’t feel the need to define themselves based on what they eat.
Countries and cultures have dishes that are distinct and special, but ultimately, food is a source of comfort that can center you and welcome you into a new community. Food is what you make of it, regardless of where the recipe originated. I didn’t know growing up that cinnamon spaghetti wasn’t a thing, and yet it was for my family, which in turn added an unexpected and delightful layer to my friendship with Charmaine.
This Thanksgiving, as I have done for years now, I’m going with what we like instead of what we’re told we should be eating. Roasted turkeys are not, in fact, required fare. Green bean casserole? No, thanks. Pie? Sure! Ultimately, I’ll enjoy delicious food from anywhere, so long as I’m eating it with my family and friends and we’re having a good time together. I hope you are also making memories with your loved ones, regardless of the dishes you choose to bring to the table.
Alison Hong Nguyen Lihalakha is the author of Salted Plums, a memoir of culture and identity. She was born in Vietnam, grew up in the United States, and has spent the past decade living abroad with her husband and children. In Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and most recently the Republic of Korea, she has made friends and explored new customs and cultures while sharing her own. She is featured in VBP podcast episode #43. Connect with her at https://alisonlihalakha.com/ and on Instagram @alisonlihalakha.