My sisters and I arrived in the U.S. on October 06, 1989 to join my mother after two years of separation. We had a connecting flight at O’Hare International Airport from Manila with a final destination of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The flight was a little over 8,700 miles. We arrived in the evening, exhausted, overwhelmed, and excited all at once. We drove another 20 miles to get to our new home in Lake Wylie, South Carolina. The climate felt too cold for my tropical skin. The air smelled different and the sounds were foreign. We were very happy to be with my mother again, yet there was an unfamiliar, sad feeling I later realized was homesickness. I didn’t know it was possible to feel at home and comfort, being with my mother again, but also lost and lonely for being in such a strange place. I had imagined America as the cities I’ve seen on television: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. It was a total surprise to me to be in the U.S. and it did not resemble the U.S. I’d dreamt of all my life. To add to my disappointment, I was uncomfortable with my English. It took time for me to get used to the Southern drawl and for people to get used to my accent. I didn’t know how to glide my vowels to make one syllable sound like two. I just said it like I learned it in school. I found myself having to repeat my words and having to ask people to repeat theirs. I was also exposed to racism for the first time. Nonetheless, I was thankful. I was thankful to be reunited with my mother. I was thankful for the life ahead.
While South Carolina would not have been my choice for a place to live, southern food is something I could appreciate and respect. I remember a few of my favorites from back then: deviled eggs with Duke’s mayonnaise, boiled peanuts, pimento cheese, biscuits and gravy, shrimp and grits done right, salt and pepper fried catfish, and Carolina BBQ pulled pork. To this day, my sister and I reminisce about the times we frequented Bojangles for the chicken and biscuits, KFC for fried chicken livers, and the breakfasts of biscuits and gravy at Hardee’s. Surprisingly, there were also a ton of all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurants. While in college I moonlighted at one called Szechuan Palace, where I had the best egg foo yung of my life. The food of the South is all I want to remember from that life though…I walked away from everything else and didn’t see the need to look back.
There were many firsts for us when we arrived in the United States. One was my first Thanksgiving: November 23, 1989. It was my first time eating turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and stuffing. My mom and stepdad cooked our dinner. It was a traditional Thanksgiving meal, and just right. As always, then and now, I longed for rice during this meal. I remember thinking that roast turkey was just “okay.” I would prefer a pan-fried pork chop or grilled steak paired with rice and soy-lemon dipping sauce anytime. But I also understood tradition and went with the flow.
The Thanksgivings I’ve hosted for my family included a roasted turkey with all the traditional sides, prime rib roast, a side of poached salmon, and rice. However, pre-dinner nibbles and cocktails are my favorite things to prepare. They get the guests in the right mood. I have prepared elaborate charcuterie and cheese boards with homemade paté and pickles. Crab dip, tuna tartare, and cheese fondue are also some of my specialties. But my real favorites were the dishes I learned from the south. This year my contribution to Thanksgiving will be deviled eggs with various garnishes, pimento cheese spread with garlic toast, bread and butter pickles, pickled shrimp, and stuffed mushrooms. And to drink? A cranberry mimosa sounds perfect!
No matter where I am, or whether I’m eating turkey and stuffing, prime rib and mashed potatoes, Peking duck and rice, or peanut butter and jelly, one thing remains the same about Thanksgiving: it’s a day to be grateful for the people in my life. It feels good to give thanks. Thank y’all for reading.
Please enjoy the pre-game recipes.
– Chef Mayet