MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll hear again from Grammy award winner John Legend. We'll talk about his latest album, "Love in the Future." But first, right about now, we figured you are either preparing, eating or recovering from your Thanksgiving feast. Guess what? We're having a little get together as well. Unfortunately, we're not serving turkey, but we are sharing stories. This is the time of year when many people want to be with family, but they're too far away and so they're sharing the holiday with friends. So we've invited some of our friends over to talk about how friends and family, and perhaps heritage, have shaped their Thanksgiving traditions.
We're calling it our Friendsgiving. And we're joined now by Anupy Singla, who's a writer and author of the cookbook "Vegan Indian Cooking," with us from Chicago. With us in Washington, D.C., Danielle Belton. She's the editor-at-large of Clutch magazine. Fernando Espuelas is managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which is broadcast on Univision America. And NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Welcome back to everybody. Friends, happy Thanksgiving everybody.
FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Hi, Michel.
ANUPY SINGLA: Oh, hey, happy Thanksgiving.
DANIELLE BELTON: Happy Thanksgiving.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Happy Thanksgiving.
MARTIN: So let's get to everybody's favorite part - I mean, who are we kidding? - the food. So Anupy, since you're our resident cookbook author here, what's on your Thanksgiving table today, and why?
SINGLA: Well, we always do a mix of Thanksgiving. We always do traditional turkey because that's my husband's thing, and he has to have it on the table every year. And then we also have the Indian side dishes and also vegetarian because I'm vegetarian, my mother-in-law is, my sister-in-law is as well. So we always make sure we get things like sarson ka saag, we get palak paneer. I don't know if these names mean anything to anyone but lots...
MARTIN: We're hungry. Whatever it is, we're hungry.
MARTIN: Whatever it is, we want it.
ESPUELAS: Two. Two of each.
SINGLA: Wonderful side dishes, spicy and delicious. So we do a combination at Thanksgiving.
MARTIN: Marilyn, I understand that you also mix it up?
GEEWAX: Well, I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and that area had a lot of ethnic groups because people came to work in the steel mills. So there were lots of Polish people and Italians and Hungarians and all that. So it was kind of funny, when I was a kid, everybody had sort of two versions of holiday food. So you might have a turkey with the lasagna next to it, or mashed potatoes with kielbasas next to it. So I sort of have that old-school way of shaking it up. I like to see a mix of ethnic foods like that because that's really the way - you know, how can you have Thanksgiving without manicotti?
MARTIN: OK. So is that the one thing that must be on your table? Is it manicotti?
GEEWAX: Well, no. You know what? Actually, for me, it's more like the pierogies. I'm on the Polish end of that. So, you know, I enjoy having some of those dishes that remind me of Youngstown.
MARTIN: All right. Fernando, what about you?
ESPUELAS: Well, we're - and this could be a total disaster - but we're frying our turkeys for the first time in peanut oil, which everyone has told is very good.
MARTIN: You know, this is all on you, right? If the turkey goes bad, it's all on you?
ESPUELAS: It was my idea.
MARTIN: It's on you, yeah.
ESPUELAS: So, yes, I own it. And then we got a ham from somewhere in Virginia. Apparently, it's supposed to be quite delicious. So for those who - it's actually a backup in case the turkey, you know, crisps into nothingness.
MARTIN: You were born in Uruguay, right?
MARTIN: But raised here, born there.
MARTIN: So is there anything that kind of feels like home to you?
ESPUELAS: Well, I've been here for 38 years. So Thanksgiving is as homey as it gets. And my wife, she goes back many generations in the country, so her family has a whole show.
MARTIN: So basically tobacco is what she needs to have at her Thanksgiving meal.
MARTIN: Danielle, what about you?
BELTON: Well, my parents are traditional Southerners, so we have a very, very large soul food feast, pretty much every major holiday that we can stand it. So we have my mother's famous corn bread dressing, the giblet gravy. We have macaroni and cheese, turnip and mustard greens. My dad makes homemade rolls. We usually eat chicken because my mother hates turkey, and she refuses to cook one.
MARTIN: Wait a minute. Wait, you don't have a turkey?
BELTON: We do not cook turkey in my house.
MARTIN: You do not have turkey?
BELTON: We tried turkey a few times.
MARTIN: I'm not sure you can - I think self-deport might have to - I think you're who they're thinking of when they say self-deport.
BELTON: My mother's a...
MARTIN: I don't think you should have disclosed that. I'm sorry.
BELTON: You know, she's a rebel. She refuses, you know, to be chained by the turkey lobby that says you have to have turkey on these major winter holidays. She is a chicken lover. She's going to eat chicken 'til the day that she dies. And so we have chicken.
MARTIN: You know, I actually have a relative whose wife is similarly anti-turkey. So he actually goes out and buys a cooked turkey from somewhere else.
BELTON: Oh, wow.
MARTIN: And, you know, I can't speak on that. I can't.
ESPUELAS: What are you doing?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're hearing from some of our friends about their Thanksgiving traditions. It's our friendsgiving. With us are Danielle Belton, editor-at-large of Clutch Magazine, Fernando Espuelas, host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show" on Univision, Anupy Singla, author of "Vegan Indian Cooking," and NPR senior business reporter Marilyn Geewax. You know, we all talked a lot about heritage and how, you know, our respective heritage informs what we think of when we think of Thanksgiving. So I just - why don't I sort of start - again, you know - Anupy, let me start with you on this one because - did you grow up celebrating Thanksgiving kind of in the way that we think of?
SINGLA: Well, I came to this country outside of Philadelphia when I was 3, back in the 1970s. And so my parents had no idea what Thanksgiving was. And so every year, Thanksgiving would roll around, and I'd feel a little slighted and lonely because we didn't have anything going on. We really did everything about three weeks before for Diwali, our festival of lights. And then come Thanksgiving, everybody was doing something with their families and we were not doing much at all. So my best friend down the street, Sharon Flynn (ph) adopted me. And so I would go to her house for Thanksgiving, and we would do everything that was traditional around Thanksgiving.
And I had the best time and the best memories from that. And I always told my parents, let's do something else that would kind of celebrate our time here being Americans now. And so then we started getting our Indian friends together. And we would all do a big dinner with the turkey, but also with the Indian sides to celebrate both aspects of our heritage. So it ended up being a wonderful holiday, but it was a little bit lonely in the beginning trying to get balanced and acclimated and all of that.
MARTIN: So you were lobbying for the Thanksgiving with your parents. What did they say? Or how did you get them on board?
SINGLA: Well, I think they got on board more because as they gained roots in this country, they found more friends. And they had more - you know, it was just another reason to party, really. I mean, Indians love to party - any excuse. And so it was just a fun way to get together with our friends. And then our friends that are Indian-American really became our family here because our family is thousands of miles away in India. And so they became our family. And so we wanted to celebrate. It became natural to celebrate the key holidays - the Indian as well as the non-Indian holidays together. And that's basically how it developed.
MARTIN: Fernando, you don't have any memory of not celebrating Thanksgiving, I take it?
ESPUELAS: I don't actually. No, not at all.
MARTIN: Do you remember your mom talking about it or obsessing over the turkey? This seems to be like a rite of passage whether you're born here or not born here.
ESPUELAS: Well, we...
MARTIN: Your first turkey is, like, a big deal.
ESPUELAS: Yeah, I do remember that because we don't eat turkey in Uruguay. So for her, it was like a gigantic chicken, and, you know, what do you do with it? So there was -we tried. We tried. We went down the path of - we didn't know much about the pumpkin that came out of a can, and what would you do with it? But we had all of the elements. It took a few years to put them together in a way that seems somewhat traditional.
MARTIN: You know, I wonder sometimes whether the holiday, that's the only reason why we need people to come and revive the holiday 'cause when you take a step back and have to create it a new, it makes you think about what it really is.
ESPUELAS: Well, she used to make a salad, which is barely a salad, that is very Uruguayan called Russian salad. And it's potatoes...
MARTIN: Oh, that makes perfect sense. Russian salad from Uruguay. It's very Uruguayan. Absolutely. Yeah, I totally...
ESPUELAS: Well, when you hear the ingredients...
ESPUELAS: It's not really a - I'm doing the air quotes - a salad. It's potatoes and peas and carrots and so much mayonnaise, you could, you know, essentially - well, you need to kind of take some aspirin afterwards to make sure that your heart does not stop. But it's delicious, and it made the really dry turkey edible. It was like a coating.
MARTIN: Danielle, that sounds like potato salad?
BELTON: Yeah, that does.
MARTIN: That's potato - that's actually very black, Fernando.
ESPUELAS: That's great.
MARTIN: We're just sharing with you, that it's just actually it's very black. It's a black thing. Jill Scott even did a whole song about it. What about you? Do you remember talking to your folks about Thanksgiving, like what it's really about?
BELTON: Oh, my goodness. Well, for my family, the holidays are just an excuse to be with family and just to love one another. So they really didn't talk so much about the historical context of Thanksgiving 'cause they were so negative about that side of it. But they just loved Thanksgiving in general 'cause they just love holidays. For them, it was a time for the family to get together, to really bond, to create these, like, elaborate, gigantic meals, an excuse to make four sweet potato pies and then eat them within the span of three hours, you know, just because they were there.
You got to watch football. You know, just, for me, the fall holidays were really where my mother, like, came out and shined. She loves to decorate so much, and she loves to just create these excuses just to have, like, these festivals just within our house just with our family. So for me, I don't remember a time without Thanksgiving. I've always loved the holiday. I'm always sad if I can't get home to St. Louis to be there with them for it. So I'm - I just - I wouldn't know what life would be like without it.
MARTIN: Well, you were saying - but there's something I wanted to pick up on that you said that there was sort of negative about the politics of it? Could talk a little bit about that?
BELTON: Well, my parents are very politically minded. And I'm very much into history. And so they weren't necessarily all that fond of some of the connotation between - you have the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims and the Native Americans and what eventually happened to the Native Americans at the end of the day. And so we still have this holiday that kind of commemorates it when, you know, most Native Americans aren't even in the places traditionally where they used to live. And historically, - I mean, it's basically been a form of genocide, so, you know. It's kind of depressing.
BELTON: It's a bit of a downer to kind of bring up...
ESPUELAS: And I thought it was just the turkey.
MARTIN: Yeah, I know.
BELTON: ...To bring up on Thanksgiving, so we tend to focus on the family part.
MARTIN: Marilyn, what about you? Do you remember...
MARTIN: ...What you talked about or what your folks talked about?
GEEWAX: The big thing in my family was, you know, it one of those big sprawling Catholic families where I have dozens of cousins, and we always got together with the cousins. And I kind of think of Thanksgiving as cousins day, you know, because you do get to see your immediate family, you know, obviously, pretty frequently. But when it comes to that extended family, that's the thing that really can just really warm your heart to be able to share that time with all of the aunts, the uncles, all the people that you grew up with and shared these experiences. And the economy today, we all tend to disperse. People go where there are jobs, and some people end up on the West Coast or the East Coast.
But when you come to Thanksgiving, it's a chance to get together again with your cousins and remember what you did as children, and to see their children growing up. For all of us to really get to grow old together. It's funny when we pose for pictures together, we're like this giant baby boom crowd that's now starting to, you know, get a little grayer, a little wider, this and that. But we still really love each other and care about each other's families. And it's really, to me, that's one of the most meaningful parts of Thanksgiving is that you really have a chance to explore those roots and see your wider family.
MARTIN: Well, that kind of leads me to the last thing I wanted to ask each of you, which is the original census of the holiday. I think one of the things that people love about Thanksgiving is that it includes everyone.
MARTIN: It's not sectarian. Obviously, many people are people of faith, and of course, their faith traditions are tremendously important. But Thanksgiving is the one national holiday that everybody has a right to participate in. And I think that that's one of the things that I think we so love about it. But it is about thanks-giving. So, Marilyn, why don't we ask you, what are you thankful for if you don't mind my asking?
GEEWAX: Gosh. I mean, I think that sometimes we can become so negative about the overall economy because we see these problems, and yes, there are a lot of people out of work and many people have been foreclosed upon. We've had a lot of problems. There's no question about that. But yet, when we look around, you see the pictures from the Philippines and from other places where people really are poor, poor. And you think about the wealth that we have in this country that you can put a wonderful meal on the table. You can get to a grocery store. The great majority of Americans will be able to enjoy some decent enough meal. They'll be able to spend time with family.
And I think that we just aren't thankful enough for what an incredibly blessed lives we live here. We really have access to clean, safe food. We have access to each other. I'm not worrying about, am I suddenly going to be in prison because I said the wrong words or whatever. I mean, we have a chance to really be with each other and to sit down at the same table. And even if the table isn't groaning under as much food as you might like, boy, look around the rest of the world and you realize that - I feel like I don't even bother to buy Powerball tickets. I already won. I feel like every day I wake up that I get to be in this country at this time that I feel so fortunate to have as much as we have, this abundance that we forget to really stop and look around and how really incredible our lifestyle is.
MARTIN: Anupy, what about you? If you don't mind my asking, what are you most thankful for?
SINGLA: Well, I'd say I'm most thankful for my girls and for my family and the fact that I have a career where I've been able to juggle things so that I can wake my girls up in the morning, even though I'm always screaming and yelling at them to get ready for school. But, you know, I can drive them to school, and then I can work at my other job. And then I can go and pick them up as well. And in that time that we spend together, I spend a lot of time talking to them about how family is so important. At the end of the day, money is just money. But having a family is the most rewarding and the reason to think that you're actually so rich.
And so they really believe that in their hearts. And I also love the fact that, you know, before any electronics and this crazily, you know, plugged-in world, they are really ready to spend time with their family first and foremost more than they are opening up their DSI's or logging in or whatever that might be. And after Thanksgiving, the first thing they always ask me, and I think it's so beautiful, is mom, the homeless guy on the corner, do you think we can take a plate for him? So I'm really most greater of that. The things that I think are really important in life are the things that my girls are picking up on and really talk about at school and talk about with their friends. So family is the most important thing at the end of the day.
ESPUELAS: My iPhone. No, no, no. No. My family, as well. I have a great wife who, for whatever reason, has put up with me for 20-some odd years, and two great kids and extended family, which is really quite awesome.
BELTON: I'm going to be boring and also say family because our family's always been - it's been just us for such a very long time, the five of us. And now we have my sister's son, my nephew. And for a long time, I felt like our holidays were growing stale 'cause you had three adult children with our aging parents just kind of going through the holiday motions. But now that we have our nephew with us, you know, my little Alexander (ph), it's just - it just puts a whole new energetic spin on everything 'cause it's getting to re-watch traditions that we love and that we've cherished and held dear for so long come alive through someone else's eyes. It's been a really magical thing to watch.
MARTIN: That's wonderful. Well, needless to say, I am thankful for all of you, as well, of course, my family. But they would never let me forget it if I didn't say that, so of course my family. Absolutely. So thank you all so much for joining us. Danielle Belton is editor-at-large for Clutch magazine. Fernando Espuelas, managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Marilyn Geewax, NPR senior business editor. And with us from WBEZ in Chicago, Anupy Singla, writer and author of the cookbook "Vegan Indian Cooking." Thank you all. Happy Thanksgiving. Happy friendsgiving to all of you.
BELTON: Happy Thanksgiving.
ESPUELAS: Thank you, Michel
SINGLA: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving.
GEEWAX: Same to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.