As American as Thanksgiving (no matter what's on the table)

The other day I ran across a short story recalling of the author’s idyllic Thanksgivings on the Minnesota Plains. His descriptions sounded amazing: family gathered around the table, mom bringing in the trays of food, dad carving the turkey and grandma always at the ready to help the little ones with their needs.  If there was snow on the ground, sledding after dinner; if not, a quick game of flag football. It reminded me of the first time I really considered what an idyllic Thanksgiving should be.

Until I was in sixth grade, I always considered the Thanksgiving celebrations in my house spectacular. My parents immigrated to the United States: one from Central America, the other from Cuba. Holidays, regardless of what the actual celebration was, always meant that puerco asado would be part of the menu. Puerco asado or roast pork is a mainly Cuban tradition for either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve but many immigrants serve it for other significant holidays, one of them being Thanksgiving. The significance of this meat dish is that it is time consuming to make. First, naranjas agrias or sour oranges have to be squeezed and the sofrito (a base of spices, onion, garlic and green peppers) has to be prepared. These two ingredients are combined to make up the marinade for the pork meat. The meat will marinate for 24 hours then will slowly cook over the course of the day in the oven or the outdoor pit that has been specially dug up for the holiday.

But when I reached sixth grade, I came to the realization (or so I thought) that puerco asado and yuca and arroz con frijoles were not part of the American notion of an idyllic Thanksgiving. I wanted an American Thanksgiving like my “normal” friends at school, like on TV, you know,  like the Pilgrims. What kind of people were we serving these immigrant type foods on the most “American” of holidays? I made my case to my parents like only a good litigator could. I showed them my history book and recounted the story of the Pilgrims, the Indians and was especially attentive to stating the facts around the foods served.

We lived in America and we needed to have an American Thanksgiving. Mind you, turkey is a North American bird; so, what do you do with a turkey? Do you cook it like chicken? Does it pair with yellow rice? No, no I explained. You stuff it and cook it in the oven. Then you mash potatoes and make green beans with almonds in it and finally, you bake a pumpkin pie. Stuff it with what? Why would you mash perfectly good potatoes? Since when do you cook green beans with a nut? And how can you make a pie out of a squash?

It was no easy task but the Thanksgiving of my sixth grade year was the most idyllic I’ve ever known. The turkey was a beautiful, golden brown on the outside but raw on the inside. The stuffing tasted like cardboard. Apparently, you can’t mash perfectly good potatoes in the home of an immigrant. Almonds do not soften when you bake them even if it is with green beans. But at the very least, pumpkin pie is something that the Sara Lee brand carries.

You are probably wondering what the scoop is with the Sara Lee brand pumpkin pie? The Sara Lee brand is an eye-catcher because it literally translates to "Sara reads." It is a brand name that can be read in Spanish. So we at least had pumpkin pie. You know what else we had? We had puerco asado, yuca, arroz con frijoles and to make it as American as could be, we also had canned biscuits. Thank goodness for the kindness of neighbors. Isn’t that part of what Thanksgiving is about? Isn’t that part of what being an American is about?

Idyllic Thanksgivings are hard to come by. When you get one, hold on to it. You don’t know when another one will come your way. Happy Thanksgiving!

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