Claudette Ndayininahaze, an immigrant from Burundi who has lived in Portland for six years, celebrates Thanksgiving with her family, but fish is on the table instead of turkey. The fish reminds her of sangala, a fish that lives in Lake Tanganyika back home, and she serves it with rice, beans, vegetables, and sometimes banana. There’s no pumpkin pie because desserts are not a part of her culture.

Ndayininahaze, who works as a “cultural broker” for The Opportunity Alliance in Portland, doesn’t completely embrace Thanksgiving, but she makes a special meal, and sometimes invites people over, because “it’s a holiday and we need to do something.”

“It’s so hard to relate to, to be a part of,” she said. “I don’t even eat turkey.”

As holidays go, Thanksgiving is as all-American as it gets. Families all across the country sit down to plates overflowing with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, and count their blessings. But what’s it like when you’ve grown up in a culture that is unfamiliar with – maybe even disdains – the taste of turkey and has never heard of pumpkin pie?

Claudette Ndayininahaze chats at a pre-Thanksgiving potluck in Portland on Sunday. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

For immigrants, it’s a matter of fitting in and learning about a new culture. For couples who have brought two cultures together through marriage, it’s about blending cultures and cuisines every November.

DINNER IS SHARED

Last Sunday, a group called Welcoming the Stranger, which matches mentors with asylum seekers to help them integrate into their new communities, held a Thanksgiving-themed potluck at the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland for the second year in a row. The Thanksgiving holiday was not formally discussed, but the large gathering – about 150 attended – celebrated its spirit.

As people came in, they used colorful pens to trace their hands on the table coverings, creating cartoonish turkey outlines, just as millions of American schoolchildren do every year.

Congolese chicken moambe was one of the offerings at the potluck, which included ethnic and traditional Thanskgiving dishes. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Mentors brought classic Thanksgiving dishes, while newcomers brought African dishes. Generous helpings of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce lay on plates next to Congolese chicken moambe and a South African vegetable dish known as chakalaka. African doughnuts were served next to a slice of pumpkin pie.

Gyne Minouka sat at a table with her husband, Alban, and their 6-month-old daughter, Gloria, and gingerly took her first bite ever of pumpkin pie. Her brow furrowed and her eyes looked off into the distance as she lingered over the taste. “It’s sweet,” said Minouka, who is Congolese but came to America by way of South Africa. “It’s good. It’s a bit better than apple pie, for me.”

At Hope House in Parkside, a place that takes in asylum seekers until they find jobs and housing, program coordinator Carolyn Graney has been matching its 13 residents – all happen to be from African countries at the moment – with families willing to share their Thanksgiving meal. Graney discussed the holiday at a house meeting, and found explaining it to be “kind of tricky.” Lots of cultures gather together around food, she noted, but the Thanksgiving story of Pilgrims and Indians has become a hot button in recent years as the Pilgrims have come to be seen by some as invaders and occupiers. So Markowitz skipped the history lesson and stuck with the idea of giving “thanks for community and family and all the good in the world.”

“We focus more on the present and less on lore, which can be kind of loaded, I think,” Graney said.

Talking about food was much easier – up to a point. The residents could relate to sweet potatoes and other vegetables, but when Graney tried to explain what gravy was, things got complicated.

“People looked very confused when I talked about the juice of the turkey,” she said. “Then I explained a sauce made of broth made of flour.”

That was even more confusing – a sauce with flour in it? But overall, Graney said, the newcomers were “definitely excited to have the chance to experience Thanksgiving.”

“It feels good to be invited into the homes of local people here,” Graney said. “It’s just another step of expanding their community here and making them feel more of a part of Portland.”

WE GATHER TOGETHER

Even after families have lived here a generation or two, the Thanksgiving table can still represent a coming together of cultures. In other cases, marriage brings different cultures and cuisines together.

Marcia MacDonald’s eclectic family Thanksgiving celebration is a result of her marriage to a Caribbean man. She met her husband, Desmond Williams, in St. Kitts. They married on the island, then moved back to Maine in the mid-1990s. Today they live on a farm in Buxton with their two almost grown children.

Williams, a vegetarian, had no idea what Thanksgiving was all about when he married MacDonald. But because he likes to cook, he has long contributed Caribbean foods to their American holiday tables, in part to expose the children to both sides of their heritage. A typical Thanksgiving meal includes turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, as well as rice and beans, roasted snapper, coconut dumplings and squash fritters. Saltfish cakes are a Thanksgiving favorite, too; they’re made with salted cod, an ingredient with deep roots in New England and the Caribbean.

Williams forgoes the turkey on Thanksgiving, but happily eats the vegetarian stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

The blended meal feels more important than ever in today’s political climate, MacDonald said. “We’re sort of in a hostile world for anybody who’s not from here,” she said.

Faveur Mabika, 2, bottom right, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, eats turkey at a holiday-themed potluck dinner Sunday at the Irish Heritage Center in Portland. Behind him are Manuela Afamado, 27, and her son Paulo Pombola, 2, immigrants from Angola. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

TURKEY HERE, JAB CHAE THERE

Asian cuisines, like those in Africa, don’t include turkey, so where does that leave the Thanksgiving meal?

Kim Lully and Sonny Chung, owners of Yobo, a Korean restaurant on Forest Avenue in Portland, celebrate in Massachusetts with Chung’s family, eating the traditional turkey and all the fixings alongside a Korean feast. The family starts eating at noon, buffet-style, and is still going at it several hours later, a little turkey here, a little jab chae there. “You just kind of nosh all day long,” Lully said.

Cindy Han, who works at Maine Public Broadcasting, says that even on Thanksgiving turkey is not readily embraced by Asian moms – in part because it can’t be eaten with chopsticks.

“My mom, as many Asians, thinks that American meats are usually too tough and dry and big, and so she was against turkey.”

Ophelia Hu Kinney, president of the board of the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine, has had a similar experience. “My mother is not a fan of turkey,” she said. “And since she’s the head chef in the house, there will be no turkey.”

Han, who grew up in Ohio and Maryland, said her childhood Thanksgivings were typically a big Chinese feast of as many as 20 favorite Shanghainese dishes, such as stewed duck, peas with shrimp, and dumplings. They ate around a big table outfitted with a lazy Susan.

“It was delicious, and we had no complaints about the meal,” Han said. “It’s just when you’re in school and everybody’s talking about the turkey they had, and the teachers would ask who had mashed potatoes, you kind of felt left out.”

Han married a Korean-American man who grew up attending churches in Ohio, where the cooking was done by “Midwestern church ladies.”

“He experienced an Americana kind of Thanksgiving, although it was the ladies from church who were making it rather than his parents,” Han said.

Their children “totally love” turkey, and they want and expect a traditional American Thanksgiving. Han’s husband cooks the turkey, and she makes all the sides, among them a nod to their Asian heritage: a sticky rice dish with bits of meat and vegetables that doubles as a stuffing.

For Ophelia Hu Kinney, whose parents immigrated from Southern China, childhood Thanksgivings in Chicago were shared with other Asian families from places like Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. Their homelands may not have gotten along politically, but thrust together in a new place, the families set aside those differences and focused on what they had in common, Hu Kinney said.

Thanksgiving was a potluck-style Chinese dinner that often started in the early afternoon and lasted until the wee hours of the morning, ending with karaoke and card games.

Diners at the potluck used markers to trace their hands on the table coverings, creating cartoonish turkeys – just as millions of American schoolchildren do each year. Staff photo by Meredith Goad

“What I remember the most is the visceral sensation that my family was not alone,” Hu Kinney said, “and that might be the most universal part of the Thanksgiving feast – the feeling that wherever you come from, you end up kind of cobbling together a family wherever you land.”

Today Hu Kinney and her wife, Hayli Kinney, are like most married couples – they spend Thanksgiving with one set of parents one year, the other set the next. Last year, they went to the San Francisco home of Hu Kinney’s brother. Her mother cooked all of her Hunanese specialties in Chicago and flew them to San Francisco in her suitcase. Hayli Kinney wanted pumpkin pie, so they searched all over San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day until they found one – they call it the “miracle pie.”

“My mother was very perplexed as to why it was so important to find this pie,” Hu Kinney said.

This year, the couple will spend the holiday with Hu Kinney’s in-laws, who have lived in Maine for generations. Just as Hu Kinney’s parents insist on Chinese food for Thanksgiving, her in-laws have “very strong opinions about what they think Thanksgiving should feel like and taste like.”

With one exception: They forgo the traditional green bean casserole and ask Hu Kinney to bring her “special” green beans – lightly steamed and then sauteed in olive oil or chili oil, with a little soy sauce and lots of garlic.

Hu Kinney says when she thinks of the future and how her wife and children will celebrate their own Thanksgivings one day, “in my imagination it’s a pretty blended meal.”

“The meal is ultimately just what I think is going to comfort everyone around the table and give them joy,” she said.