Thanksgiving: History of the Original Multicultural Meal

ellis island

Thanksgiving serves as a wonderful reminder of the different foods, faiths, and freedoms Americans enjoy. Here are some great ways to celebrate this day from Josie Ortega.

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Easy, Nostalgic Thanksgiving Stew

Along with turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, I’m hoping to eat some tamales for Thanksgiving dinner this year.

Our tradition is to trek to New York City to celebrate with my Mexican in-laws. My husband’s family moved to the United States, to New York City, when he was five years old. He still remembers the first English word he learned: sneakers.

Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday—maybe because he’s so grateful and proud to be an American, or maybe because of all of the food.

The day before Thanksgiving, we’ll head to the Upper West Side to eat pizza and watch teams of volunteers inflate enormous balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Some years we wake up early the next morning to brave the cold and find a spot to watch the parade in person; some years we watch on TV.  Every year we eat bagels.

Thanksgiving Stew Recipe

On Thursday, if we’re lucky, my mother-in-law cooks tamales, or another Mexican specialty, to supplement the traditional Thanksgiving feast. What I know for sure: there will be plenty of comida.

My mother-in-law shows her love by feeding us. It’s not uncommon to see rice, pasta, tortillas, and potatoes offered in her kitchen—at the same meal. (For the record: I was never allowed to order more than one starch at Cracker Barrel.)

I’ve come to believe that tamales are perfectly appropriate for this holiday. Aside from being delicious, their masa filling reminds us of the corn that the Wampanoag people shared with the Pilgrims.

multicultural thanksgiving

Homemade Chicken Tamales

The Mexican comfort food staple you can easily customize!
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Course Dinner
Cuisine Mexican
Servings 34 people
Calories 156 kcal


  • 1 package dried corn husks
  • 6 cups masa harina
  • 2 tsp Kosher salt
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 3/4 cups avocado oil
  • 2-3 cups filling *see notes. You can really go any route here–shredded rotisserie chicken, carnitas, cheese, veggies, or chorizo.
  • 1 cup salsa If your filling is extra saucy, adjust your salsa accordingly.


Preparing Your Tamales

  • Soak the corn husks. Place the corn husks in a large stockpot or pan and cover completely with warm water. Soak for 30 minutes or so until soft.
  • Meanwhile, in the bowl of a large stand mixer, add masa marina, salt, and baking powder, and whisk. Add the oil, then beat on low until combined.
  • Gradually add the stock, and beat on low until combined. Once the stock is mixed in, increase speed to medium, and beat for 10 minutes until fluffy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Cover the mixing bowl with a damp washcloth or paper towel and refrigerate until ready to use.
  • Mix together your desired filling(s) and sauce until combined. As a rule of thumb, you want enough sauce to coat and flavor the filling, but not so much that the filling is too juicy/watery.

Assemble tamales.

  • Lay the soaked corn husk on a flat surface.
  • Spread your masa on the corn husk. About 1/4 cup (or a little more) will do. Spread it out into a rectangle large enough to enclose your filling. (I keep a little bowl of water nearby to dip my fingers regularly, which helps the masa from sticking.)
  • Add your filling/sauce to the center of the masa– just a tablespoon or two will do.
  • Fold the corn husk in half vertically. Then very carefully, fold the corn husk in half so that the masa wraps completely around the filling. You can pinch it together just a little bit.
  • Wrap the corn husk into a little burrito. Continue folding the corn husk completely over to one side so that its shaped like a burrito/cylinder.
  • Fold the skinny end down to close one end of the tamale. One end of the tamale will be exposed, and the other will be folded over. (I like to fold my tamales to cover the side with the seam.
  • Shred a few corn husks into long skinny strips to tie the tamales together (perfect use for the husks that are too skinny!). You can also use baking string.

Cooking your tamales

  • Add water to the bottom of a stockpot or Instant Pot. Then add a steamer basket, fill it with your tamales, and steam until the tamales are hot and cooked through and the masa separates easily from the corn husks, about 30 minutes on the stovetop or 20 minutes (high pressure, natural release) in the Instant Pot.
  • Remove from the steamer and serve immediately. Or refrigerate in a tightly-sealed ziplock bag for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.


FIlling: In a large saucepan, cook 1 c finely chopped onion in 1 tsp hot olive oil over medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Carefully add 3/4 c tomato sauce and 3 tbsp taco seasoning. Cook while stirring constantly until thickened, about 3 minutes. Stir in 2-1/2 c finely shredded cooked chicken, 1/2 c chicken broth and one undrained 4 oz. can of diced green chiles. Cook and stir until heated. Cool to room temperature before adding to tamales.


Calories: 156kcalCarbohydrates: 21gProtein: 3gFat: 6gSaturated Fat: 1gPolyunsaturated Fat: 1gMonounsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 1mgSodium: 271mgPotassium: 128mgFiber: 2gSugar: 3gVitamin A: 86IUVitamin C: 1mgCalcium: 40mgIron: 2mg
Keyword comfort food, mexican
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Getting Everyone Involved

Thanks to Squanto, the Pilgrims learned hunting, fishing, and planting techniques that worked well in the Americas. So they were able to survive after losing half their population during the harsh 1620-1621 winter.

And thanks to my in-laws, I’m reminded that at its heart, Thanksgiving is a multicultural meal.

In New York, we have opportunities to eat some of the tastiest foods from all over the world. (Little Italy, here I come!)Though of course there are challenges when people from different backgrounds come together, it’s clear to me that great, delicious things can happen when cultures combine and influence one another.

I understand that not everyone enjoys an NYC Thanksgiving, complete with authentic Mexican food. But if you’re married and raising children, you have experience in navigating between different family cultures and combining traditions to come up with something new. And solo adults, too, still must decide how and whether to maintain, adapt, or let go of family traditions.

The Pilgrims made their long voyage to be able to worship God in freedom. At Thanksgiving, we can talk about our own families and their reasons for moving to the United States when they did. We can appreciate our own multicultural heritage. And we can eat foods to reflect it!

Thanksgiving Stew Memories

This year we put a new outing on the agenda for our NYC Thanksgiving trip: Ellis Island. My kids love the book At Ellis Island: A History in Many Voices with its narrative of a young Armenian girl traveling to America. It’s full of photos, documents, and quotes from real immigrants who spotted the Statue of Liberty from their ships and passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. (Yes, of course, I cried.)

Our ancestors may have come in ships, or on airplanes from Mexico City. Or they may have been here all along. For a Native American perspective, check out Cherokee author Traci Sorrell’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, a beautifully illustrated children’s book about gratitude.

Thanksgiving reminds us again that the United States isn’t made up of people who share a common race, but of people who share common ideas about liberty and opportunity. Our motto E Pluribus Unum means “Out of many, one”. It’s the perfect idea to bring to your Thanksgiving table, with family stories, and new traditions. And certainly, if you’re very fortunate, both turkey and tamales.

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