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Perspective: Why funeral potatoes will be on my Thanksgiving table

How are families incorporating different ancestral traditions into this holiday, which, while celebrated in other countries, has a distinctively American flavor

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

One Thanksgiving, I went to a friend’s home for the turkey feast. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the dining room and a dozen beautifully made side dishes were arrayed on the table, but one stood out to me.

It wasn’t the turkey, but a different dish — one topped with cornflakes and melted cheddar cheese. When we sat down for the dinner, I knew immediately what I was looking at: funeral potatoes.

Yes, we were eating funeral potatoes for Thanksgiving.

The family explained to me that not only did they include the Latter-day Saint and Utah classic in their meal, but they also served mooncakes and scallion pancakes, a homage to their Japanese heritage. My friend’s mother had this idea when she first was married: Thanksgiving wouldn’t just include the traditional fare; she would make food that reminded her of her home and also of where her family now lived.

Hearing my friend’s mother speak about her multicultural background and how it influenced what her table looked like, I was intrigued. How are families incorporating different ancestral traditions into this holiday, which, while celebrated in other countries, has a distinctively American flavor?

I came across the traditions of South Carolinian Sarai Monterroso, who told the Greenville News that she wakes up at 6 a.m. to prepare the feast for her family. While she roasts a turkey, Monterroso forgoes traditional sides and includes Mexican rice, salse verde and potato salad. For dessert, she makes two types of flan, tres leches (three milk) cake and pineapple cake.

Monterosso said via a translator, “I thought it is something beautiful, to dedicate this day for a time for people to get together to give thanks.”

Nathalie Etienne said in Black Foodie, “Just like many other American families, our family celebrates Thanksgiving by preparing the staples, although with a Haitian twist. In my household, turkey, ham and greens are guaranteed to be served, but there are a few more items that my brothers and sisters just can’t do without.” Etienne listed five dishes that she has at Thanksgiving including fritay — anything fried, like turkey or yucca or plantains. About fritay, she said, “I can’t imagine a Haitian Thanksgiving without it!”

For these families and others, Thanksgiving takes on a multicultural tone. Alongside the traditional turkey and stuffing, families enjoy foods that remind them of family or home or their ancestry. In some ways, this take on Thanksgiving better represents what America is: a country firmly rooted in pluralism and diversity.

Interfaith America founder and CEO Eboo Patel employs the metaphor of America as a potluck nation rather than a melting pot. He writes, “Potlucks respect diverse identities by enthusiastically welcoming the gifts of the people who gather. They facilitate relationships between people by creating a space for eating and socializing and surprise connections. And they cultivate in people the importance of not just the individual parts and the connections between them, but the health of the whole.”

Patel’s metaphor encapsulates what happens at Thanksgiving tables across the nation. While some stick close to the “traditional” dishes, others veer off and reimagine the holiday for their family. And when we think about it, “traditional” dishes aren’t authentically traditional either. At the first Thanksgiving meal, there weren’t pies, and it’s possible turkey wasn’t on the menu either. Unless you’re eating venison and corn on Thanksgiving, you’re probably not eating what the Pilgrims and Native Americans were eating.

The concept of what Thanksgiving is today developed over time, just like each family develops its own unique understanding and expression of the holiday. I have fond memories of my late grandfather expressing gratitude for our family and for our life at the beginning of the Thanksgiving meal — it was a tender tradition, one that many families have, but it was also unique because we made it that way.

There’s something beautiful about that juxtaposition: The ubiquity of gratitude with the diversity of cuisine on our plates. Imagine if we were to take that perspective and expand it into all areas of our life. Where we saw diversity, imagine if we saw it as creating unity rather than division. Like Elder Quentin L. Cook said, “Unity and diversity are not opposites. We can achieve greater unity as we foster an atmosphere of inclusion and respect for diversity.”

But right now Americans feel more divided than ever.

There’s no shortage of contention in our homes and in our communities, but there’s still something about the holidays that changes the atmosphere — if only slightly. Perhaps it’s because we remember that our neighbor whom we see as our enemy is really just our neighbor. Or maybe it’s because we recall that the holidays are a time to invite people over and not just find ways to keep them out.

Whatever the reason, Thanksgiving and the holidays remind us that we aren’t that different from one another, and as we eat in our homes across the country, we are united by our sense of gratitude, and our fondness (or tolerance for) somewhat dry turkey.

This year, alongside the turkey, stuffing and cornbread, I’ll scoop up a serving of funeral potatoes. I know it’s cheesy, but this Utah classic means something to me — it reminds me of the industriousness and resourcefulness of Utahns.

This Thanksgiving, I hope you heap up a serving of whatever food has special meaning to you too.