The First Thanksgiving
JERSEY CITY — Two years ago this month, Mayada Anjari was only dimly aware that a holiday was approaching. After the family’s three-year journey as refugees from Syria, her sons — Hayan, Mohammed and Abdulrazaq — had just started school here; her husband, Ahmad Abdulhamid, was looking for work; and she had a baby girl, Jana, to chase after.
By last fall, the boys (now 14, 12 and 10) had learned about the Pilgrims (and to dislike broccoli), their father was working full time, and Ms. Anjari had memorized the two-mile walk to the nearest store that stocked staples like grape leaves and flatbread and olives. She had cooked for the church group that sponsored the family’s resettlement, and some people in Manhattan had even paid to eat her kabsa (spice-rubbed chicken with scented rice), her expertly stuffed vegetables, and her fatayer, folds of flaky pastry stuffed with ground meat or spiraled around soft cheese.
A new friend who was also Muslim gave her a turkey from a local halal butcher for Thanksgiving. Ms. Anjari cut it into pieces, covered it with water, and simmered it into soup with potatoes, carrots, ginger and cumin. Her family liked it, she said, but it didn’t seem very special to her.
This fall, Jana began prekindergarten, and fans of Ms. Anjari’s food helped her publish a cookbook of Syrian recipes. So she decided to take a test run at making her first Thanksgiving feast.
Like many people who have recently arrived in America from other countries, Ms. Anjari, 33, found the holiday a bit perplexing. At home, she said, family celebrations and feast days are reserved for religious events. “People do things in so many different ways here,” she said: how they dress, how they raise children, how they worship. “I was surprised that there’s a holiday that everyone celebrates.”
Before she even began cooking, there were many mysteries to be solved, with the help of people like Jennifer Sit, her co-author on the cookbook; Mira Evnine, who assisted with the book’s photography; and Dave Mammen, part of the refugee task force at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side.
Were the apples really going to be baked with cinnamon, a spice that Ms. Anjari uses with meat and chicken? Why would you roast a bird whole — how would it get evenly cooked that way? How can macaroni and cheese, one of her children’s favorite dinners, be a side dish? Were the mashed potatoes not going to be seasoned with a little garlic and a lot of caramelized onions, the way she makes them?
“Without it, there isn’t much flavor, no?” she asked, speaking through an interpreter, knitting her expression into a question, as she so often must in her new life.
The family left their home city, Homs, on March 31, 2013, when the daily violence of the civil war had made their lives untenable. They walked across the Jordan border in darkness, were picked up by the Jordanian military and were settled in the small city of Ajloun. They registered as refugees with the United Nations, so the boys could attend school, but the adults couldn’t work legally. Food and money were always scarce.
Working with the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Department of State brings a certain number of refugees each year — most of them families with young children — to resettle in the United States. Only people displaced by violence or the threat of violence (like asylum seekers) can apply; the program is separate from other American immigration quotas and regulations.
In 2016, the year the family arrived in New Jersey, the United States accepted about 85,000 refugees for resettlement, including more than 15,000 Syrians; in 2017, the total dropped to about 52,000. So far in 2018, about 22,000 people have been allowed in, and just 50 of them were Syrian. Despite the continuing civil war and refugee crisis, Syria is one of seven countries from which the Trump administration has forbidden people to enter the United States.
The vetting process for resettlement takes about two years. While Ms. Anjari, her husband and their children were admitted, dozens of their relatives are still stranded in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
With public and private funding, the State Department and nine independent agencies (like Church World Service, which guided the Rutgers group) sponsor and shepherd the refugees through their first year of American life, providing money, clothing, shelter and guidance on everything from groceries to G.E.D.s.
From the day of arrival, food is an integral part of adjustment to a new country.
On the State Department’s list of things that sponsors must provide immediately is a “culturally appropriate” meal for the family. Some sponsors interpret this in religious terms, and provide store-bought halal fried chicken or kosher pizza. But others take the responsibility more literally, going to great lengths to greet arrivals with home-cooked food that is specific to their place of origin, familiar and comforting.
“They already have been through so much when they get here — they shouldn’t have to get used to another new thing right away,” said Ulla Farmer, a member of the Rutgers congregation, who made the first dinner for the Anjari-Abdulhamid family even though she had never tasted Syrian food. (She immigrated from Finland in 1963.)
Working from online recipes and grocery lists, Ms. Farmer cooked a dinner of lamb stew and cracked wheat, and stocked the family’s new kitchen with key ingredients like tahini, yogurt, cucumbers and rice.
“The culturally appropriate hot meal is simply the best federal regulation of all time,” said Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugees & Immigrants Services, a New Haven agency that has resettled more than 6,000 refugees in Connecticut since 1982.
Mr. George is a passionate advocate for what he calls the CAHM (he even wrote a song about it), and his enthusiasm has percolated through the agency. For Congolese and Rwandan arrivals, volunteers have made chicken moambe, a braise with tomato, onion, peanut butter and rich red palm oil, a basic ingredient in those countries and for many, the taste of home. For an Eritrean mother and children, an Ethiopian family who had arrived earlier supplied a meal with injera, the soft, spongy flatbread that is a staple in both countries.
Fereshteh Ganjavi, who arrived from Afghanistan in 2013 and now works at Integrated Refugees, said the meal is particularly powerful for refugees who arrive after years of exile from their home country. Her welcome dinner included a traditional pulao of lamb and rice with raisins, and green tea spiced with saffron and cardamom, a brew specific to the mountainous Hindu Kush region that stretches across northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We were living in a camp before entering the U.S., and I had almost forgotten the taste of our own food,” she said.
Dima King, who arrived in the United States last year, is seeking asylum because of the anti-gay persecution and legislation that have taken hold in his native Russia since 2013. He is cooking his first Thanksgiving dinner this year.
“I understood it right away as a celebration of new Americans and Native Americans,” he said. Holidays that celebrate a good harvest are universal, he said, but Thanksgiving also honors the practice of treating strangers with generosity, charity and humanity. “Of course, that is a holiday I want to cook for.”
Mr. King is a graduate of Emma’s Torch, a nonprofit restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that offers professional culinary training to resettled refugees; he is soon to start a job as a line cook at Temple Court, a chic restaurant in the financial district.
Still, he said he is intimidated by roasting a whole turkey (a skill that is rarely taught in culinary school) and will likely attempt a smaller cut. But he has fully envisioned the dessert: a pumpkin pie with meringue topping.
“I’m definitely going to use fresh pumpkin,” he said. “I’ve learned to be very comfortable with vegetables.”
Even for trained and accomplished cooks like Mr. King and Ms. Anjari, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner can seem rife with unfamiliar flavors and methods. The multitude of soft, starchy dishes (like mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing and pie), the sharpness of cranberry sauce and the sheer size of a turkey strike many first-timers as peculiar.
Ms. Anjari, like most Syrian women, has been cooking since childhood, and thinks nothing of whipping up dinner for 60 people. She immediately set about making the Thanksgiving dishes her own.
She approached her first whole turkey as if making kabsa: Starting with whole-milk yogurt, she added grated onion, tomato paste, shards of cinnamon and nutmeg, turmeric and black pepper, and rubbed the mixture all over the skin.
She put the bird in one of her lightweight round tins — a heavy roasting pan with handles is not part of her cookware collection — covered it tightly with foil, and let it cook at high heat; then lowered the oven, removed the foil and let it brown. Finally, she toasted slivered almonds in clarified butter (the Middle Eastern version, called samna, is prized for its lush, tangy flavor) and scattered them over the bird for a rich, crunchy garnish.
She had already taken some brussels sprouts for a trial run, roasting them plain with salt and pepper until slightly caramelized. “Little cabbages!” she said with pleasure, slicing one open for the first time.
Now, with the oven occupied by the turkey, she shallow-fried the sprouts on top of the stove, and dressed them with a fundamental sauce from the Syrian canon: tahini and yogurt mixed together and spiked with fresh garlic.
Working quickly, by hand and without measuring, she mixed a batch of the butter-rich dough she uses for ma’amoul, classic date-stuffed cookies: It would be used to line a pan for her first apple pie.
In Syria, she said, she routinely made batches of the same dough using 25 pounds of flour and six pounds of sugar. All the women of the family, including her mother, three sisters and countless in-laws and cousins, would gather to share the painstaking work of pinching, filling and pressing.
Peeling apple after apple without even looking down at her hands, her phone pinging with messages from relatives who remain in the Middle East, she said that cooking alone had been a hard adjustment. “That’s when I miss home the most,” she said.
Ms. Anjari brought her recipes to this country not in book form but in memory. She had never seen a cookbook before arriving in the United States, she said. Hers is called “The Bread and Salt Between Us,” an expression in Arabic that connotes mutual respect and the beginning of an alliance or friendship.
Finally, she sat down to taste the food, surrounded by her children and a crush of friends, interpreters, sponsors and assorted cookbook helpers. As a cook, she understands both that making Thanksgiving dinner is part of the passage to American life, and that mastering it gradually is a fine approach.
But this year, the appeal of sweet potatoes — even mashed with butter and salt — continued to elude her.
“Next time,” she said, like many a Thanksgiving cook, “I’ll make them better.”
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Julia Moskin, a Food reporter since 2004, writes about restaurants, chefs, trends and home cooking. She investigates the best recipes for kitchen classics in her video column Recipe Lab and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @juliamoskin • Facebook
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