Thanksgiving Turkey and Kimchee/Kimchi

Of all of the American holidays we adopted as we became a hyphenated family (Korean-American), Thanksgiving is the one that has evolved into a part of our family tradition. We have gathered for the occasional 4th of July, Memorial Day or Labor Day barbecue, days off of work making it possible but not locked into a tradition requiring scheduling around extended family and in-laws.

There is the story about  Mom roasting a duck because all birds wrapped in plastic look the same or memories of opening a can of cranberries but not having the foggiest idea of what to do with that ruby-colored gelatinous cylinder on a plate. We tried to set an American Thanksgiving table as best we could and then added the real fixings – white rice, kimchee, mandoo, jjapchae, bulgogi and smaller plates of more banchan. Sometimes there was water or sparkling apple cider or barley tea. We learned about pumpkin pie but didn’t complain if there was an unexpected plate of dduk.

Learning about “Pilgrims and Indians” was a part of my childhood experience though I don’t remember much except visiting my second grade classroom. We were moving to the suburbs and Miss Thompson was my teacher. Her classroom was decorated with turkeys made with pantyhose wrapped around wire hangers decorated with construction paper feathers. Moving from Chicago’s Northside to the western burbs was culture shock enough. Walking into a room full of stocking turkeys…well, I think I was just surprised to see pantyhose used as decoration. (Was I the only kid who grew up seeing her mother darn holes in pantyhose with some thread and seal the repair with nail polish?) What I would only later take in was that the feathers included written descriptions of the things my future classmates were thankful for. Turkeys=thankfulness. I get it!

Since then I’ve also learned turkeys=trots, bowls, platters, carving and a whole heckuvalotta work. Our family has never trotted or played football on Thanksgiving, but we know about embracing tryptophans. I have become the Thanksgiving host, and while I haven’t yet mastered the perfect gravy or dressing recipe I’ve tried brining and glazing my turkey (brining, definitely brining). The number of people at our table or tables changes from year to year, the amount of Korean food fluctuates (this year my kids are asking for mandoo, odaeng and curry to accompany the turkey) but there is a comforting and familiar rhythm to the afternoon and evening, starting with a crescendo of voices as family arrive and ending with a turkey-induced quiet and dessert over Black Friday strategies and lists.

We’ve never talked about the pilgrims or the Wampanoag Indians at our Thanksgiving table, but as I have spent quite a bit of time this year sharing bits and pieces of my family’s story – our journey from Korea to America and my journey from Korean infant to Korean American adult – I am reminded that there is a part of our family’s story and that of my Christian faith that resonates with being both the “other” and becoming and being the “hosts”, reluctant or not.

I suppose the way our dinner table looks, expressed on the faces, in the names and in the food, is a reflection of that American history  – “others” alongside the “hosts” trying to to understand one another and find a place at the table or a way to reconfigure the table to include both the turkey and the kimchee and the older American history alongside a more recent history.

It’s not a perfect history, nor is it a perfect turkey, but I am incredibly thankful.


  1. Michelle November 24, 2010

    I love it! I had an outside of my box experience when my family had a Thanksgiving dinner with the youth group that my husband pastored. I am as white as you can get, with all the American traditions in the kitchen under my belt. The youth group was entirely immigrant Korean or born here with immigrant parents. We met in the family home of one of the kids whose parents had managed to buy the nice home in the suburbs, although they were almost never home as they managed the family business. We went to the grocery store and bought all the necessary ingredients to make a traditional tx tky, with sage stuffing, gravy, green beans and of course pumpkin pie. The parents were not home, just us and the kids. I went to work preparing the stuffing. Of course I opened the cupboard to look for the sage, the garlic salt and the black pepper….Well, that was the first time I consciously realized how ANGLO I actually am, in spite of feeling accepted and most comfortable in a room full of people of color (including my family). It never dawned on me that this household would not have the most common ingredient in cooking a turkey: SAGE!

  2. Hannah December 1, 2010

    My mom is a Korean immigrant and our Thanksgivings always have a mishmash of foods as does the general dinners that we have. The one thing that my mom developed a taste for is taking a bit of turkey, some rice, a slice of kimchi and topping it with cranberry sauce. I think this is one of the main reasons that she likes Thanksgiving as much as she does.


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