My very first Thanksgiving in the States was at my Bo’s co-worker’s house in the backcountry of central Wisconsin. Times were rough but the co-worker, his wife, and their baby girl welcomed my Bo and me into their home. That year they could not afford a turkey, so my first Thanksgiving was celebrated with a roast chicken with all the fixings. That evening it snowed and Bo and I ended up spending the night with these 2 kind-hearted people. The next few years we did Thanksgiving with other good friends who warmly took in an immigrant and his kids. There was no way us newbies would have even known how to make Thanksgiving dinner, but from all those lovely invitations I became accustomed to the good old Midwestern Thanksgiving feast. The star performer was the turkey, of course, but I loved all the sides that came along with it. There was the stuffing pulled from inside the bird; green bean casserole with its crispy fried onions; buttery handmade mashed potatoes; puffy marshmallows on the candied yams, and the jiggling red and white cranberry and cream cheese jello mold. I would eat more of the sides than the actual turkey.
When we moved to Virginia, and Mang had come over, Bo still wanted the Midwestern Thanksgiving feast, so that is what my Mang would make. I was in charge of the sides and Mang did the bird, and for the past 35 years, not much has changed regarding Thanksgiving duties. Every year my father and I bicker over whole versus jelly cranberry sauce, while Mang tries not to scorch the homemade gravy while telling us to pipe down. However, one thing did change when my Mang came over and that was the use of the turkey leftovers. The first few years she made Turkey rice congee, but lack of enthusiasm for it made my Mang come up with another idea. Turkey Phở!
My Mang figured Turkey – it’s just like chicken but bigger – so why not? After Thanksgiving dinner, it has now become a tradition for Mang and Bo to take all the meat off the baked turkey and leave just the bony carcass. Of course, as they are doing this there is the usual annual bickering of where to cut the meat, how to cut the meat, and is that really the meat you want? Some of the turkey meat will be left alone for me because though, I love pho, it has been known that I will get cranky if I have no turkey to go with the leftover stuffing, green bean casserole, and mashed potatoes. Mang takes the cleaned turkey bones, throws them in a big cauldron of boiling water that already has seared ginger and onion in it, and then she pulls out the huge stainless-steel herb infuser ball. Into the herb ball, she puts in coriander seeds, star anise, black cardamom, black peppercorns and a small stick of cinnamon. The ball is then lowered into the hot water and chicken stock is added to it. This pot of turkey goodness will now be left to simmer for hours on end. We all will have another round of the Midwestern Thanksgiving feast before bed and the stock pot will be turned off.
First thing on Black Friday, Mang will turn that pot on again and let it slowly come to a low simmer. The whole house smells like a Phở restaurant. She will boil the Phở noodles and prep the accompaniments of cilantro, bean sprouts, and Thai basil. Next comes the chopping of the scallion, onion garnish and the slicing of the turkey meat into small, neat pieces. Lunch that day will, of course, be Turkey Phở! This is the culmination of our life experience as immigrants here in America. It is an amalgamation of all that is good from both cultures and starting a new cultural tradition. I still eat Turkey Pho with my parents, but now I make Turkey Phở for my friends, Americans all, though they be black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, Persian or Hispanic. Everyone is welcome to a bowl of Turkey Phở! For to me, it is a very American dish!