The word roast always takes me back to my first months in the US as a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. At the time, I had long pitch black hair with corkscrew curls to my hips and I lived in a Jewish Orthodox enclave called Squirrel Hill. I chose it because my parents had read that it had the lowest crime rate in the city and because living there let you walk to Carnegie, perhaps you can imagine me walking to Carnegie every day on such a street and appreciate that almost three times a week random strangers would ask me where I was from, not out of impoliteness, but perhaps as a way to place the accent with the face, but I would reply I'm Indian, to which the next question was which tribe? During my first week we had an international student orientation day and we were told that there were four important things to let sink in on our arrival.
American people love cleanliness. Please bathe regularly with soap and use deodorant. Carnegie is pronounced Car-neg-ie, not Carn-uh-gie. Pittsburgh is the original home of the world famous Heinz Company. If you drive downtown, there is a gigantic ketchup bottle tilted to 45 degrees pouring liquid neon red. Pittsburgh was a recovering, is a recovering, mining town, now a bustling city, fortunate enough to be at the intersection of three mighty rivers- the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. What they didn't tell us- Monongahela is an Indian word, meaning falling water, Ohio, an Indian word meaning great or beautiful river. What they also didn't tell us- Pennsylvania was once home to 19 American, Native American tribes, all of whom were displaced and forced to migrate elsewhere in the 17 hundreds because they weren't given federal recognition. So I had been in the US for only two and a half months. One arrival lesson I had to quickly learn was how to change my response to that question, where are you from?
I had to stop saying I'm Indian and start saying I'm from India. The idea of the roast is also about my sinking into a great American tradition. So this is about food, eventually, but oddly enough, it was my second lesson about native Americans, though this time about the selective endurance of collective amnesia. I had a wonderful roommate and to this day she's a beloved friend, and she decided that my first Thanksgiving be an occasion, even if it turned out to be an excess of what is done traditionally. We would each have a pie of our own and she took our orders- pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan, apple and chocolate pudding, so each of us had our own pie. I was also witness to the great drama and stress that comes with hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Who to invite, who to conveniently forget to invite. She spent close to three weeks preparing our gorgeous mid-century home organizing dinner according to tradition.
This again created conflicts of what a traditional Thanksgiving dinner should look and taste like. One of my roommates was a Vegan activist from Ottawa, but none of us, not even he, wanted a tofurkey. We decided on some pumpkin dish, I can't even remember now, for him. She was also in constant debate with her boyfriend who insisted that a real thanksgiving Turkey was made by smothering one hand with butter and then insert holding, using the other hand to part skin and flesh to put the hand with the butter into the fold. After dinner, she said we could all take a walk to help with digestion and enjoy the first snowfall in Schenley Park. Of course, others then said traditionally, we would be in Turkey coma and lounging about on sofas watching football on TV. I lived in this anticipation day in and day out, for weeks, as I've said, and I remember thinking it seems a bit much, but the excitement and joy is infectious. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we still had classes on Thanksgiving in those days, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, um, after my black women's migration literature class, I turned to my classmate, fully infected with this mood of excess and indulgence, and I said, Happy Thanksgiving! And she said, "Atreyee, my children and husband are Native American. We don't celebrate Thanksgiving."