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Las Vegas Immigrants Add Diversity To Thanksgiving Dinner

immigrant_thanksgiving.jpg

Illustration by Natalie Cullen

Ah, Thanksgiving.

Planes, trains and automobiles to get us to a destination where we might dread the conversation but we hopefully enjoy the food.

If you grew up in America, and are among the fortunate with the money to afford a nice meal, that means turkey and sides.

But as perhaps the ultimate melting pot in America, Las Vegas is home to immigrants who didn’t grow up being told the nice story about pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a bountiful harvest.

For immigrants, Thanksgiving can mean many things.

And UNLV history professor Elizabeth Nelson, who teaches a food history class, said the diversity of foods brought to the table by immigrants enriches the meal, just as diversity enriches the country.

"It's hard to say that there was ever sort of a pure American menu for Thanksgiving because it's always been populated with dishes from immigrant groups," Nelson said.

She said what most historians consider the first Thanksgiving was a harvest feast in 1624. Besides some turkey and duck, Nelson said they also had plenty of shellfish, which was a staple of the diets of Native Americans in the area. 

Nelson said that Thanksgiving as always been a way to bring different groups with different cultures together. 

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"One of the things that is really interesting about Thanksgiving is it really starts as a New England holiday," she explained, "One of the things that New Englanders tried to do as a way of encouraging sectional harmony and bringing the South into their vision of the world is to try to get Southern states to celebrate Thanksgiving too."

When Southerners started celebrated the holiday, they brought Southern cooking to the table, which was heavily influenced by slaves. 

That incorporation of food traditions hasn't stopped. 

For instance, now that much of our country's immigrants are coming from places other than Europe, food traditions from Latin America, Asian and other areas are also finding room on the Thanksgiving table. 

Robert Solano is an immigrant from Guatemala and a chef at downtown's Mundo restaurant.

Solano said when he lived in Guatemala they didn't celebrate Thanksgiving but when his family moved here when he was 10, they embraced it.

"We loved it! It was always a bountiful of food," he said.

Now, they bring their own twist to the holiday with dishes like turkey tamales. 

"We always have the staples of turkey and potatoes, but then everyone brings something from home," he said. 

Filipino chef Coco Cruz agrees.

Cooking it with Chef Coco - Episode 1

When her family celebrates Thanksgiving, they bring a thick noodle dish called pancit palabok, which is served with eggs. They also serve leche flan, a thick egg custard topped with caramel. They also make egg rolls filled with turkey served with a sweet and spicy sauce. 

Erik Pappa is part of the Vegas Viking Lodge, a group dedicated to the Norwegian culture.

Pappa said one of the most important parts of Scandinavian cooking is lutefisk. A white fish that is treated with lye and has a gelatinous texture that not everyone loves.

"Either you love it or you hate it," Pappa said.

But it is a rite of passage in a lot of ways for people of Scandinavian decent, he said. 

Despite the individual food traditions, whether from England, Ireland, Guatemala or the Philippines, everyone agreed that Thanksgiving is really about spending time with family and friends and enjoying amazing food. 

Guests

Elizabeth Nelson, UNLV history professor; Robert Solano, chef, Mundo restaurant; Coco Cruz, independent chef; Erik Pappa, Clark County spokesman

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