Remixing Thanksgiving traditions to celebrate ‘on your own terms’

The Turkey and Sh*t menu included clever, Philippine-inspired takes on Thanksgiving staples. (Photo by Anna Goren)

A Filipino-American Thanksgiving Pop-Up dinner last week was just one example of the countless cultural variations on the tradition of giving thanks. 

This year my Thanksgiving will involve a deep fried turkey and sweet potato latkes. It’s my personal nod to the rare temporal miracle that overlaps Hanukkah with Thanksgiving this year.

Meanwhile, somewhere in North Seattle, Monica Feliú-Mójer is working on her pavochón, a Puerto Rican Thanksgiving tradition of cooking a turkey (pavo) using the traditional style of preparing pork (lechon) in the island territory.

And down in Rainier Valley, Nam-Phuong “Ti” Nguyễn and her Vietnamese-American family will be eating mashed potatoes and stuffing alongside duck and egg rolls, giving offerings to their ancestors before the meal.

Given our fragmented identity as Americans, and how new most of us really are on this continent, it’s no surprise that a ‘traditional’ holiday like Thanksgiving looks very different for different families across Seattle.

Nowhere was this more evident that on a rainy Monday night last week on Beacon Hill. Inay’s Asian Pacific Cuisine, was bumping with music and bodies rotating between early and late seatings of a pop-up dinner designed by Geo Quibuyen, aka Prometheus Brown, and his wife, Chera Amlag.

Chera Amlag and Geo Quibuyen in the kitchen at Inay's during the Pop-Up restaurant. (Photo by Anna Goren)Chera Amlag and Geo Quibuyen in the kitchen at Inay’s during the Pop-Up restaurant. (Photo by Anna Goren)

When my friend and I showed up at eight, the early crowd was still working on dessert that looks at first glance like pumpkin pie (turns out it was mango).

Arriving guests piled into the back bar, and no one seemed to mind that things were running late. It was hard to tell just who was who — the kitchen crew, wait-staff, and guests moved about the place with the ease of a weeknight throw-down with friends.

The scene was about as far as you could get from a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner.

Quibuyen — known to me as one half of the hip-hop group Blue Scholars, and to most other folks in the restaurant as ‘Geo’ — dreamed up ‘Food and Sh*t’ along with his wife as a monthly pop-up restaurant. Pop-ups are temporary supper-club style prix-fixe dinner, often run by chefs on their off-nights or by people who want to throw a huge dinner for one night without running a full-time restaurant.

Though it might seem like a lofty project to pull off alongside his already influential work as an artist and activist in the Filipino-American community, Geo insists that it’s just an extension of a family meal.

“It seemed like the next logical step from what my wife and I have been doing for years,” said Geo, who brings along family members and friends to help out in the kitchen while the grandparents babysit his own kids for the night. “If we weren’t doing this here, we’d be doing it at home”.

Geo, who has lived in Beacon Hill on and off since 2002, saw the event as an opportunity to both celebrate the holiday and raise funds and medical supplies for an upcoming trip to the Philippines.

After doing a test run with Adobofest, a summer cook-off with competing recipes of the Filipino classic, chicken adobo, Geo and Chera decided to give the pop-up idea a shot with help from their friends at Inay’s, a beloved Beacon Hill spot known for its fried catfish and inimitable Friday night drag shows.

The ‘Turkey and S*hit’ dinner was inspired by the immigrant Thanksgiving, with a combination of American classics and Filipino staples. With everything from Turkey lumpia with cranberry sauce to pandesal stuffing and taro mashed potatoes, the menu playfully reminded diners of the multiple stories and identities at play during a holiday like Thanksgiving.

Lumpia, fried egg rolls typically filled with pork ,are stuffed with turkey and served with a spicy cranberry relish, a play on sweet and sour sauce. (Photo by Anna Goren)Lumpia, fried egg rolls typically filled with pork, are stuffed with turkey and served with a spicy cranberry relish, a play on sweet and sour sauce. (Photo by Anna Goren)

The pop-up’s website describes the meal as a reflection of the American immigrant experience, entrenched in both the familiar and the foreign:

“With each year, we’re faced with the decision of which traditions to keep, and which ones, sadly, begin to fade away. It is a struggle we wage on one of this contradiction’s biggest battlegrounds: the kitchen. It is an experiment in synthesizing traditions on our own terms rather than the terms set for us… We can never go back to what it used to be, but we can move in a direction that says yes, we are thankful for what we have, but we will also never forget what has been taken from us.” 

Other immigrant communities share a similar tradition of food fusion on the holiday. Nguyễn sees the holiday as a time to give thanks in the form of offering her mother a break from cooking the usual Vietnamese foods they eat, and to and try something a little more exotic — like green beans and mashed potatoes

Geo talks of a time when he rejected the Thanksgiving holiday completely.

“I had little connection to the narrative,” he said, describing the Thanksgiving folklore as a myth that ignores a history of genocide and trauma. After starting his own family, however, he decided it was an opportunity to “acknowledge where you came from, where you are going, and do it on your own terms.

Geo and Chera are certainly doing things that way. With an entrepreneurial spirit they have dreamed up creative menus, plating ideas, and partnerships, most recently teaming up with Uli’s Sausage to sell a Filipino-style longganisa as a fundraiser for Typhoon Haiyan relief.

“This stuff was very hip,” said Louie Alfajora, a regular drag performer at Inay’s who bartended the event, of the Turkey and Sh*t menu. “Usually we just slap [the food] into a banana leaf and call it good.”

Diner Kirin Bhatti enjoys eggplant kare kare, a vegetable stew in a peanut sauce that strayed the least from it's Filipino roots. (Photo by Anna Goren)Diner Kirin Bhatti enjoys eggplant kare kare, a vegetable stew in a peanut sauce that strayed the least from its Filipino roots. (Photo by Anna Goren)

The pop-up’s unique style attracted diners who reflected the diversity of Beacon Hill itself: old and young, white and people of color, nine-to-five professionals, service industry folks with the night off, artists, and activists alike.

“We wondered why we ever left,” said Geo, of a brief period spent outside the neighborhood. “This is what we always hoped Beacon Hill would become.”

Geo says he’ll continue doing dinners as long as there is interest and he breaks even financially. Based on the vibe last Monday night, that shouldn’t be a problem.

The next meal is slated to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after the organizers return from a trip to the Philippines to distribute supplies to victims of the Typhoon, drawing on some of the proceeds raised at the Turkey and Sh*t dinner.

Between re-imagining that mythical pilgrim story, the inevitable family drama, and the excessive food to digest, Thanksgiving can be a complicated holiday to navigate. But everyone seems to agree that getting together around food, family, and gratitude can’t be that bad.