Yesterday I wanted to write about Thanksgiving and what it means to me. But I was too busy cooking for the 25 adults and 6 kids who came to dinner last night at the Nomad Chef. This was the first time I’d spent it with as many complete strangers. It is usually a day spent with family and extended family. I imagine there are many Thanksgiving traditions in the US, but in my childhood there were three of us: my mom, my sister and me. It was a day where we did whatever we could to expand our little universe. My mom would typically invite everyone she knew who had few if any local family members. It could be neighbors or her work colleagues, and yes, even complete strangers. I remember one in particular where she was doing last minute shopping on the morning of Thanksgiving and met a young man in the grocery store. He was one of many who turned up later for our afternoon meal that lasted well into the small hours of the morning.
This particular stranger had a big afro, which was the fashion in those days. “Why,” I asked her, “did you invite him?” My mom was known for her honesty and directness. “Well, because he looked nice and he was all alone on Thanksgiving.” She later told me (a few years later, when this young man had finished Stanford University) she wanted to make sure my sister and I had some exposure to black American culture. She was a single mom, white American, and our father was black; he lived far away and we rarely saw him. She thought it was really important that we mixed race kids see the world beyond our little ivory towered life in Palo Alto, 200 meters from Stanford University. So the strangers she brought home for Thanksgiving, and even week day dinners, were carefully curated by her to give us to the whole world, right in our living room. Life was always filled with surprises when my mother was alive. And these strangers became our extended family.
When I grew up, or barely, I had my own child, my son. I was 19 years old when he was born. My mom died two years later, so I carried on the tradition of creating a big “family” for every Thanksgiving. We both needed family. It is no surprise that this holiday was my son’s favorite. Food and family, even though the family members were constantly changing, are all we need to be happy.
I was worried about this Thanksgiving. My first Thanksgiving in a world that no longer included my son, two years ago, was only a few weeks after he died. I was there, but not really there. I cooked for 35 people that day, mostly his friends. It was kind of an extended memorial service. We danced and danced, and some of us cried. I have good memories of this sad day. Then last year, many of the same people, many of his friends, and some of my new friends – the ones who know me as a family of one – came for dinner. Loads of little kids, some of whom were, or were to be my son’s godchildren. I felt so surrounded by love. And I always feel his presence when I’m cooking on his favorite day.
But last night was different. In my secret restaurant, founded in his honor, I open my doors to anyone who wants to share in the nomad experience. Last night there were people from many countries, speaking many languages, and even a few Americans. There were a few people who’ve come here before, a couple of my newest friends, but the majority I’d never met before. I was so happy to share my family tradition of inviting complete strangers into my home, feeding them and enjoying their pleasure as they discover some of the artifacts of my past: my son (through his love of this day, and his presence in my heart as I cooked and served), a room filled with strangers, a meal curated to share my whole world with my guests, and the oyster pie that my grandmother taught me how to make as a child. I no longer have a legacy to share with my son, but he has left his with me. These two photos are of one of our last Thanksgivings together. In one, I was his sous chef. And in the other, his friend and partner in the original Nomad Chef.