My Favorite Thanksgiving Tradition Happens the Night Before

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My father hates Thanksgiving. You wouldn’t guess it from the calm and kind way he delivers grace right before the big meal, but it’s true. He tolerated it when we were kids, because we were kids. When I went away to college, he kept showing up at Thanksgiving, despite his disdain, because it was one of the few times a year my parents got to see me. As my siblings and I got older, Thanksgiving became an optional holiday for him, and none of us bat an eye the times he opted to skip out. We all know he hates Thanksgiving.

My parents might not typically spend Thanksgiving together these days, but they’re still together, happily, and thankful for each other, too. But the two of them could not be more different. I often cite them as the most convincing argument that opposites do indeed attract. My mother loves parties, loves socializing in large groups, loves food and wine and shopping sprees. She’s loud and bossy and extroverted. My father is frugal, quiet, shy, prefers solitude. He likes running, watching tennis, reading the newspaper. Growing up, we joked he only had one friend, but it was also mostly true. Once, someone told a funny story about how they thought my dad drank a lot of beer because at one of my mother’s many parties in the house I grew up in, he was never seen without a beer bottle in hand. The punchline was that it was the same single beer, all night. A bottle of Stella gradually warming in his palm, sipped slowly. I inherited his ability to stretch one drink into several hours.

My father immigrated to the United States from India when he was young with two brothers and his parents. He was raised vegetarian. He has always been a wonderful mix of very serious and very goofy. He has always been quiet, practical. He was the first person in his family to not have an arranged marriage, and when he married my mother, well, let’s not get into that, that’s a very long story. But when he married my mother, he married into a family of loud, partying, over-the-top white Midwesterners. He married into a family that celebrates Thanksgiving with a million little traditions, pretty much all of them revolving around food, and my father hates food.

Okay, so that one’s an exaggeration. He likes food fine, and his favorite foods (pizza, potatoes, shrimp) he likes a lot. But he’s very far from foodie status, about as far as you can get. His tastebuds have expanded in recent years, and I think in retirement he has especially learned the joys of a very good rooftop bar, but I think he’d still say the best part of that rooftop bar is always the view, not the food or drink. For me, with just about every experience in life, food comes first. For him, it’s probably fourth or fifth.

A holiday built so significantly around a meal just simply is not my father’s cup of tea. And almost none of that meal includes food he eats. He’s a bizarre subtype of pescatarian but who doesn’t actually eat fish, only crustaceans. So no to turkey, no to gravy. He’s picky about vegetables, so a lot of the sides are out of the running, too. He’s not a pie guy; he prefers chocolate chip cookies. At Thanksgiving, the times he comes, he basically eats gravyless mashed potatoes and dinner rolls, a meal as pale white as my mother’s half of the family.

I don’t remember when or how exactly it started, but at some point my family invented a new Thanksgiving tradition. The night before, we went to Tamber’s, a restaurant genuinely unlike any other. My auntie and my tío always host Thanksgiving, and they used to live in Baltimore, home to Tamber’s, a 1950s-themed diner serving traditional Americana diner fare…as well as all the staples you find at takeout Indian restaurants in the U.S. You can get a burger and chicken tikka masala at Tamber’s. Mattar paneer with a side of fries. A meatloaf blue plate special and vegetable pakora for your appetizer. This is not the first time I’ve written about Tamber’s. It’s a magical place — one I haven’t been to since my auntie and tío moved from Baltimore to Nashville nearly two decades ago. I think about it all the time, how its born of a clash of cultures not unlike myself.

Especially in the hours leading up to Thanksgiving, I think about Tamber’s. Having Indian food the night before the full day of cooking, baking, basting, stuffing, carving didn’t stop as a tradition even after my auntie and tío left Baltimore. In Nashville, we found a great takeout spot. It didn’t have the mashup appeal of Tamber’s, but it was really good Indian food, and I loved riding along in the car with my tío to pick it up. It became my favorite Thanksgiving task. When I got a little older, I became in charge of doing the ordering, picking an array of foods for everyone to enjoy, asking for extra mango pickle for myself, always always always wondering if I’d ordered enough garlic naan and then ending up with too much.

Again, I don’t actually remember its origins. It’s possible we all just really liked Tamber’s and the tradition was an accident. I could call up a family member; my auntie especially would remember. She has hosted Thanksgiving for so long and keeps a written journal through the years about the details — which new pie recipes worked and which didn’t, the trick to the merengue for the lemon merengue pie, whether canned green beans or fresh are better for the casserole, what we made too much or too little of. But I almost don’t want to check what the real answer is, because I like to believe we started our night before Thanksgiving ritual for my father, and I refuse to believe anything else. An offering for the person who hates this holiday. We all love to eat Indian food, but it’s a part of him, a part of me and my sister, and none of the rest of the family can claim that for themselves. It’s a tradition that feels distinctly Indian American, distinctly second generation, distinctly me.

My dad, he hates Thanksgiving. But this is a tradition he not only participates in but relishes — quietly, as that’s his way. I order a couple of the veg dishes Indian hot, for him and for me. I order too much garlic naan. He eats some of the leftovers the next night in lieu of turkey. There’s something for everyone.

Now, I carry on this ritual of Indian carry out with my girlfriend. We don’t do Thanksgiving with my family anymore, a new tradition that began against my will two years ago but has continued. I’m surprised to admit how much I like it, this quiet Thanksgiving we do between the two of us. I feel like my father, relishing this one-on-one time with her the way he likes to just hang out with my mother. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to Thanksgiving with the family. They’d hate to hear that, I’m sure. But Thanksgiving doesn’t need to be big to feel whole. I feel them close, all of them, even the one who hates this holiday the most. Despite that hate, he always said grace from the heart.

This year will be my first Thanksgiving in Orlando, my third Thanksgiving with my girlfriend. I had a place for Indian delivery in Miami, but I haven’t found my go-to spot in Orlando yet. I’ve been fielding recommendations ever since I arrived. I didn’t plan it this way, but the first time I get Indian takeout in this city will be tonight, the day before Thanksgiving. It doesn’t have to blow me away. It just has to be dependable. Crispy in the right places, soft in others, spicy but well melded. It’s the perfect tradition in that I want to keep it going forever but the stakes don’t feel too high. Just me and my love, eating the food I love best out of plastic containers, garlic naan foil-wrapped and plentiful, extra mango pickle for me, extra raita for her. A mango lassi, which my girlfriend will steal sips from. Cheese naan if they’ve got it, the treat I used to get after every shift when I briefly served at a strip-mall Indian spot in high school.

Tomorrow, I’ll be on my feet for hours, roast the turkey I’ve already spatchcocked and hope I don’t fuck it up. At least the night before, I’ll already have had a perfect meal.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 458 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Oh my gosh thank you so much for this story. I remember going to Tamber’s Nifty Fifties with family, with friends, with lovers. I moved away from Baltimore about twenty years ago too, and I miss the city a lot. Tambers was a very dependable and comfortable (and tasty) place to go. Thanks also for the inspiration to make a new Thanksgiving counterpoint tradition.

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