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From Tacos to Saag Paneer, These 3 Thanksgiving Dinners Celebrate a Taste of Home

These family meals illustrate what the holiday is all about: comforting food cooked with love and served to those we cherish most.

  • 9 min to read

For Thanksgiving, many home cooks prepare a familiar menu – mashed potatoes, yams, green-bean casserole, pumpkin pie and, of course, turkey. Yet whatever you serve, the holiday is really about the warmth and companionship of spending time with loved ones. In the following pages, you’ll meet three families in the Kansas City area who prepare a mix of classic Thanksgiving dishes alongside those reflecting their own family traditions. From the Marquez family’s holiday feast of tamales and arroz rojo to the Ajmera-Strickland family’s "Diwaligiving" dinner, these stories illustrate what Thanksgiving is all about: comforting food cooked with love and served to those we cherish most.

The Ajmera-Strickland Family

More than 50 years ago, Manoj and Rita Ajmera immigrated to Wisconsin from India in search of better education opportunities. Although they planned to return to India after Manoj earned his master’s degree in civil engineering, the new parents realized that the same opportunities Manoj had in the U.S. would also benefit their young daughter, Aviva. With their daughter’s future in mind, the couple chose to make a new home in upstate New York.

“Growing up, I was always told, ‘An education is one thing no one can ever take away from you,’” Aviva says.

Today, Aviva has built a successful entrepreneurial career in Kansas City, with her contributions to the area’s business community widely recognized. Co-founder and chief executive officer of SoLVE, a business consulting firm, Aviva is also chair of the Women’s Capital Connection, an all-female angel investing group that supports women-led companies throughout the region.

Eight years ago, she married Wayne Strickland, who shares Aviva’s love and commitment to family and family traditions. When they married, Strickland already had three adult children and Aviva had a young daughter. Today, the couple has three grandchildren. Together, they have celebrated holidays and created new traditions in which they embrace and unite their individual backgrounds.

“I grew up as a first-generation immigrant and only child in upstate New York,” Aviva says. “Wayne was raised in Arkansas. Everything about our family is a merging of cultures, traditions and families.”

For their first Thanksgiving together, the couple prepared a traditional menu including turkey, gravy, stuffing, ham, mashed potatoes, green-bean casserole, cranberry sauce and Wayne’s celebrated cornbread, plus pecan, apple and pumpkin pies. Although the feast was delicious and memorable, something was missing for Aviva. Over the next few years, she realized she was yearning to celebrate holidays from her own culture with the whole family – in particular, Diwali.

Known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali is a multiday Hindu festival that brings together family and friends every autumn. Diwali is celebrated with feasts, dancing, music and abundant mithai (Indian sweets and desserts). The Ajmera-Strickland family celebrated Diwali annually, yet because it often fell in the middle of the week, it was difficult to gather everyone.

“Diwali is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in India, and one my family always celebrated here,” Aviva says. “In many ways, it reminds me of Thanksgiving: spending time together, laughing, lots of food and taking a break from work to focus on what’s most important in life – family.”

In 2013, Strickland found a solution: A new family holiday dubbed "Diwaligiving."

“Wayne wanted to honor things that were important to me and make sure I could celebrate something important to me,” Aviva says. “Really, the transition from Thanksgiving to Diwaligiving was apropos to how we do a lot of things in our family.”

The celebration is now the signature holiday in the Ajmera-Strickland home. “Our older kids, who are married, spend all day having traditional Thanksgiving meals with their in-law families, so they really look forward to coming to our house for Indian food,” Aviva says. “That first year, we started with one Indian item and rice. Then, the kids started making requests for more Indian dishes. Now, it’s half and half.”

On Diwaligiving, the dinner table overflows with the family’s traditional Thanksgiving foods as well as Indian dishes. Favorites include raita, a side with yogurt, cucumbers, cilantro, coriander and cumin; chicken tikka masala, roasted marinated chicken in a spiced curry sauce; saag paneer, with Indian cheese and greens; basmati rice; butter chicken; chicken keema, a blend of chicken, onions, tomatoes and aromatic spices; and naan. Samosas, a fried dish with a savory filling, are served with chutney as appetizers.

Wayne, Aviva, and their 17-year-old daughter, Asha, spend the morning and afternoon together preparing the meal. Wayne makes the ham, dressing and other traditional Thanksgiving fare, Asha makes dessert and Aviva prepares the Indian dishes. When their adult children and grandchildren arrive in the afternoon, the home, illuminated by candles and holiday lights, is filled with the aromas of sage and cinnamon, cardamom and cumin, and cornbread and chicken keema.

“Most days of the year, you live your life, but when you have a holiday that brings cultures together like this, it makes you pause and reflect," Strickland says. "Our family learns about this culture, everyone’s world expands, and it’s so fun.”

The Marquez Family

In 1982, 14-year-old Antonia Diaz and her family left their home in Mexico for California. While her parents worked factory jobs, Antonia, the second of eight children, helped care for her siblings. Although daily life was focused on work, the Diaz family still made time to celebrate their family traditions and also establish new ones in America.

During their first year in the U.S., one of those celebrations was Antonia’s November birthday – which, that year, happened to fall over Thanksgiving weekend. For the first time, the family cooked and shared an American Thanksgiving meal. Turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes were on the menu, and Antonia’s mother also prepared Mexican dishes, including frijoles rancheros (pinto beans stewed with onion, garlic, cilantro, chiles, bacon and chorizo) and cochinita pipil (a pulled pork dish) to accompany the traditional American fare.

“There’s not a holiday similar to Thanksgiving in Mexico, so a big part of this was an opportunity to celebrate like everyone else in the States, but we also included our own traditions,” Antonia recalls.

While the Diaz family was building their new life and traditions in the U.S., Jose Marquez, Antonia’s future husband, was in the process of emigrating from El Salvador. After serving two years in the military during the country’s civil war, Marquez escaped the strife in his native country and settled with his sister in California. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Marquez met Antonia through mutual friends, and they married in 1990.

As a newlywed, Antonia cooked her first Thanksgiving turkey that year. Like her mother, she served classic Mexican dishes, including her family’s favorite, pozole, a traditional Mexican stew often served as a celebratory dish. Antonia’s pozole rojo, which is common in Zacatecas and other northern states of Mexico, brims with pork, hominy, cabbage, salsa, guajillo chiles, onions and garlic. The young couple also incorporated El Salvadoran dishes from Marquez’s childhood, including torta de pollo, a spicy chicken sandwich served on savory bolillo rolls.

In 2001, the couple and their three small children – Ernesto, Bianka and Cristian – left California for Kansas City. The Marquez family also brought a decade of Thanksgiving dinner traditions with them. Since settling in Kansas City, the family has hosted Thanksgivings for more than two dozen friends and family members each year. A daylong celebration, the menu still includes a blend of their favorite American, Mexican and El Salvadoran dishes.

At the Marquez Thanksgiving table, turkey with all the trimmings is served alongside tamales, arroz rojo, a Mexican red rice dish; tacos de carne al vapor (filled with steamed and braised beef); camote en dulce, a Mexican sweet potato dessert topped with caramelized brown sugar; and buñuelos, fried dough balls sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar that are popular throughout Latin America. Antonia’s pozole, which she has been perfecting for decades, is the star of the family’s Thanksgiving feast.

“When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was one of the few days each year my parents weren’t working,” says Ernesto, the eldest of the three children. “I woke up smelling salsa for pozole, and had a warm feeling knowing that big pot was on the stove. At that moment, I realized it was Thanksgiving morning.”

Antonia begins preparing her pozole the night before by cleaning the guajillo chiles and leaving them to soak in water overnight. On Thanksgiving morning, she prepares the meat, and while it simmers for several hours, Ernesto is in charge of stirring the pot.

Next, she drains the chiles and blends them with bay leaves, garlic and other spices and pours them into the stew. She then adds pig’s feet and hominy, and lets the mixture simmer for another hour or so, filling her home with a comforting, spicy aroma.

“Aside from my mom asking us to watch the pozole pot, she doesn’t ask for any help in the kitchen on Thanksgiving,” Ernesto says. “Occasionally, we’ll help chop vegetables as we get closer to eating. Other than that, she cooks everything herself. So, we all usually sit around in the living room watching movies or football games. There’s a nice, warm, cozy feeling surrounding the kitchen and living room as we wait.”

Each Thanksgiving, the Marquez children look forward to this delicious blending of traditions and memories their family has created over the years.

“Thanksgiving is an American holiday we embrace,” Ernesto says, “but like people from other countries, we also bring our own culture and background.”

The Dumala-Kuchibhotla Family

Sunayana Dumala immigrated to the U.S. in 2007. It was here that she met her husband, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a fellow immigrant from India. Together, they fulfilled a mutual dream of building their lives and futures in America. Throughout several moves – from Minnesota to Iowa to the Kansas City area in 2014 – celebrating American holidays, including Thanksgiving, became important new traditions for the couple.

“I heard about Thanksgiving when we first moved to the U.S.,” Dumala says. “One thing that attracted me is that it’s a harvest festival. I could tie it back to Makar Sankranti, our Indian harvest festival [in January].”

While living in Iowa, Dumala and Kuchibhotla celebrated their first Thanksgiving with Indian friends who had become like family. “That Thanksgiving was a great experience,” Dumala remembers. “We had turkey. They also made Indian curries and sides.” Indian dishes included khandvi, a savory appetizer from the Indian state of Gujarat made with flour and yogurt and served with chutney, and biryani, a rice dish made with meat or vegetables and aromatic spices. Vegetable biryani is Dumala’s specialty.

“Whenever I cook biryani, it reminds me of my home in India,” she says. “India is a spice-rich country. Each ingredient has its own uniqueness: The fragrance of bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and garlic add to the dish. Although each spice has its own taste, when combined, they make one distinctive dish.”

Over the next few years, the couple continued celebrating Thanksgiving with friends in the U.S. when they weren’t visiting family in India. In 2014, they hosted their first Thanksgiving at their new home in Olathe, Kansas, where they had moved after Kuchibhotla accepted an engineering position with Garmin.

“Our friends came from Cedar Rapids, [Iowa,] and we all cooked together,” Dumala says. “We had mashed potatoes, and I attempted to do green-bean casserole. I had never made anything like it before, so I was going outside of my comfort zone, but everyone liked it.”

The couple shared a Thanksgiving reunion in Denver in 2016 with nearly a dozen Indian friends who had traveled from across the U.S. Although the reunion was joyous, Dumala was already looking forward to hosting the holiday at her own home again the next year. Tragically, that Thanksgiving dinner was never celebrated.

On Feb. 22, 2017, Kuchibhotla was fatally shot at a restaurant just minutes from their home in Olathe. His killer was found guilty of premeditated first-degree murder, sentenced to 50 years in prison without parole, and later pled guilty to additional federal hate-crime charges for a total of three life sentences. “Last year, I planned to celebrate Thanksgiving with my husband and friends, but in a moment, my hopes for our lives were taken away,” she says. “Srinivas was the love of my life.”

After losing her husband, Dumala returned to her family in India to begin healing and contemplate if she wanted to continue living in America. After months of soul-searching, she made her decision and returned to Olathe.

“I chose to come back to fulfill the dreams my husband and I had when we came here,” she says. “Yes, there is one man [who] showed me the worst here, but there are many people [who] showed me the best of America. The love I received from the community brought me back. Fulfilling those dreams, the same dreams other immigrants have, was my answer.”

In the past year, Dumala formed a nonprofit, Forever Welcome, which aims to generate empathy and understanding for immigrants across the U.S. by bringing their personal journeys and contributions in their communities to light.

“Forever Welcome gives me the courage and strength to move forward,” Dumala says. “I want to help those who have the same dreams I have, to show them they can still come true. America doesn’t just give you a place to fulfill your dreams or provide a better quality of life, it also gives us all a chance to explore the world’s cultures without going around the world. When we welcome immigrants, we’re giving ourselves an opportunity to learn and respect these cultures.”

Although she's focused on the future, Dumala still faces heartache daily. “It’s an everyday struggle,” she says. “When you lose a loved one, the holidays aren’t the same.”

Nevertheless, Dumala is dedicated to her dreams. She's even creating new traditions despite her overwhelming loss. “Last year, I started a Thanksgiving tradition,” she says. “I took Louisburg Cider Mill donuts [from Louisburg, Kansas,] to my husband’s colleagues at Garmin. It was a way to remember him and to say thank you. I’m going to do that again this year.”

Dumala is also making plans for a Thanksgiving gathering this November. “This Thanksgiving will be a potluck," she says. "I want my friends to relax, talk, eat, enjoy and catch up on what’s happening in each other’s lives.”

This Thanksgiving, as in year’s past, Dumala’s table will feature Indian appetizers, curries, rice and desserts served alongside traditional Thanksgiving fare. Dumala will cook vegetable biryani, her specialty, and pinwheels made with paneer cheese. Serving these comforting dishes for Thanksgiving unites Dumala with her roots while also deepening her connection to her home in Olathe.

“Food connects all of us,” Dumala says. “Thanksgiving is a way to make new friendships and build stronger community.”

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