December 2, 2021

Adding their own flavor to holiday

3 immigrants from area talk about how they celebrate Thanksgiving

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

The Rev. Eunice Sunae Kim of Cortland’s First United Methodist Church loads groceries for Thanksgiving into her car Thursday outside of ALDI in Cortland.

Turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce. These are some of the standard elements of a typical Thanksgiving dinner. We may not eat all of those things, we may not eat any of those things, but we can all agree that these are generally considered the basic building blocks of a Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving itself can prove an unusual enough holiday to newcomers to the U.S., and traditional Thanksgiving foods even more so.

What, for instance, is a recent immigrant to make of cylindrical glob of cranberry sauce that plops out of a can?

Here is how three immigrants to the U.S. who live in the greater Cortland area celebrate Thanksgiving, and what they eat for dinner.

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If you’ve ever been to the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, you might recognize Bong and Marin Sen of Groton from their food stall, Khmer Angkor Cambodian Foods.

Originally from Pailin Province, Cambodia, Bong and Marin came to the U.S. by an indirect route — by way of United Nations refugee camps in Thailand (where one son was born) and Indonesia (where another son was born). They arrived in the U.S. in 1982, and their third son was born here in the U.S.

Bong said there were many things that were new to him here, and Thanksgiving was definitely one of them. Also, the idea of eating turkeys.

In Cambodia, he said, turkeys had a different status.

“We think of turkeys as pets,” he said. “I don’t think anybody eats them because they’re so ugly.”

But here in the U.S., on a holiday that was brand new to him, at the home of a family friend in Ithaca, he was served turkey.

Bong was hesitant, but he ate it, and he found he liked it.

Today, his family celebrates with a 20-pound turkey, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and homemade cranberry sauce as well as cheesecake and apple and pumpkin pies for dessert. But that’s just the American-style part of the meal.

Then there’s the food from back home: Alongside the turkey, his family also serves traditional Khmer foods, such as roast duck, or pork, beef or shrimp in a coconutbased curry sauce cooked in a hot pot.

“I know how to cook everything because I cooked for 25 years at Cornell,” Marin said.

Her daily cooking also mixes Khmer-style cuisine with local ingredients, such as cha kreung — a spicy minced-meat stir fry with lemongrass and eggplant and a lot of garlic — that she makes with venison her neighbor gave her.

Travis Dunn/staff reporter

Marin Sen of Groton prepares to mince vension while making cha kreung, a spicy Khmer stir-fry. Marin and her husband
Bong are the owners of the Khmer Angkor Cambodian Foods stall at the Ithaca Farmers Market.

Her cooking, she said, has helped her make many friends in the U.S.

“At Thanksgiving, my table is all full,” she said.

In Guatemala, Thanksgiving is like Christmas

Ruth State, owner of Rincon Hispano on Main Street in Cortland, came to the U.S. about 30 years ago from Guatemala. Over the years she’s adapted to the American culture. One of the things she’s adapted to is having essentially the traditional American Thanksgiving with all the trimmings — a turkey, stuffing and of course dessert.

State said her sister-in-law is often the one cooking the meal.

“She puts a very delicious meal on the table,” State said.

This year she’ll have several family members from Guatemala joining her around the dinner table, bringing the number of people feasting to 20. She said her family has been coming for visits for about a decade now, although not always on Thanksgiving.

One thing that’s the same in Guatemalan culture and American culture is a turkey is usually part of the holiday meal. “You usually do turkey for Christmas in Guatemala,” State said.

It’s the one staple on the Thanksgiving table she is most looking forward to.

But while some fill the turkey with vegetables (a common practice in Guatemala culture) or stuffing, “we like apples,” State said.

“Pie,” Sofia Sosa said beaming as she talked about her favorite Thanksgiving food.

Sosa, State’s niece, has her heart set on eating apple pie, it’s one of her favorite kinds. However, if it’s not there, just about any pie would do.

Sosa is looking forward to seeing some of her aunts, uncles and cousins.

“Thanksgiving here is like Christmas in Guatemala — friends, family and food,” State said.

Well, minus the gifts, Sosa added.

‘A spiritual and physical blessing’

Thanksgiving in America has similarities to its Korean counterpart, Chuseok, said the Rev. Eunice Sunae Kim, of Cortland United First Methodist Church.

“It’s the same as American Thanksgiving,” Kim said. “It’s a holiday and families get together. Where grandmom and granddad live, we all get together and we make dishes two or three days ahead. It’s a big, big celebration.”

Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Kim has lived in the United States since 1987.

In that time, she married Hyun Joon Kim, a pastor at Red Creek Westbury United Methodist Church and Sterling United Methodist Church, and raised her daughter, Jenny Hyunae Nam, 30, who works for Nespresso in Manhattan.

As a Christian, Thanksgiving has a spiritual meaning:

“God’s blessing over my life and my family, the blessing of my church, the blessing of my congregation … and the blessing of the whole world,” she said.

Thanksgiving is also a time for her to reflect on those who are in need and who can’t afford to celebrate the dinner, she said. This sentiment is also shared in South Korea, where Christianity is one of the largest religions, Kim said.

The meal that Kim’s family shares is her reflection of America: a combination of various groups.

Her American foods include turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and salad. South Korean foods include japchae, a stir fry noodle dish; jeon, a fried meat or vegetable dish; and bulgogi, thinly sliced marinated beef or pork. Part of this combination is from her daughter’s upbringing in America and being around American food while carrying over traditional food from South Korea.

One difference she did note between Thanksgiving and Chuseok was how the families interact with each other.

“Overall, in American society, between families, I see conflicts, more conflicts than South Korea,” she said.

Politics are brought up during Chuseok but she wasn’t sure if arguments over politics were similar to how they are in America.

Additionally, it is a tradition at Chuseok for the daughter-in-law to make the food under the supervision of the groom’s mother. The custom, which was more common when Kim was younger, has become less typical today, which Kim attributed to equality increasing between men and women.

Those issues though don’t distract her from the spirit of Thanksgiving.

“Thanksgiving is always in Christ’s spirit,” Kim said. “The more we give thanks, the more happiness comes. It’s not only a physical blessing but a spiritual one, too.”

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Staff reporters S.N. Briere, Travis Dunn and Colin Spencer contributed to this report.