A Colombian, a Haitian, and a Mexican are sitting at a table. No, this is not a joke. It's the story of a real Thanksgiving gathering, where Latin American and Caribbean culture mingled with New England traditions to produce a celebration like no other.
It was my second year studying in the United States. The year before, I had celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time. That Thanksgiving was spent at a boardinghouse with several students from other countries, just like me, and the American landlady who invited us all over. I took a lot of pictures for my mother and sent them back home to Mexico City. She was especially curious about the stuffing, and decided it was quite odd that anyone would bother to stuff a bird.
But that was the year before, and this time, I had no dinner invitations.
For most international students, Thanksgiving is that time of year when they are left alone on campus to eat cold pizza while all the other students devour turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie with their families. After all, Thanksgiving is an American holiday, and many international students are passive spectators who watch the festivities with anthropological interest.
My friend Veronika, who was born and raised in Port -au-Prince, Haiti, suggested we spend Thanksgiving break together and eat turkey at a restaurant. Considering that until that moment I had no plans and might have ended up eating Spam out of a can, I enthusiastically agreed.
But a couple of days before break, Veronika called to say a family of Colombians and Cubans had invited us to share Thanksgiving dinner with them.
This family gathering was hardly a Norman Rockwell scene. But that was just fine. From the moment we arrived and were effusively greeted by our hosts with a hearty embrace and a kiss on the cheek, we felt right at home.Most people unused to mixing with Latin Americans, however, might have felt overwhelmed by the high-decibel excitement and exuberant greetings, which are common in Latin American circles.
We helped ourselves to a platter of shrimp and then sat down. Since many Latin Americans think of time as something subjective, meant to be enjoyed instead of measured, we surmised that the turkey wouldn't be served on schedule. And we figured the cooks would welcome a visit, so we also went into the kitchen to chat.
More guests arrived, each carrying a different side dish. The crowning moment came when the turkey was carried out to the dining room and triumphantly set in the center of the table.
It was golden and glistening and smelled just as appetizing as it looked. But the dishes that surrounded it were far from typical for the holiday. Empanadas Colombianas, crispy pieces of dough filled with meat, instantly caught my friend's eye. Substituting for mashed potatoes were the Moros y Cristianos. This dish, which in English means "Moors and Christians," is a Cuban specialty that combines black beans (the Moors) and rice (the Christians). It's not only tasty but also historically informative, as it visually exemplifies the three centuries of Moorish rule in Spain.
Whether they were interested in the history of their food or not, everyone understood the appeal of fried platano macho, a tasty and ultrasweet variety of banana. Also among the desserts were enough cakes to please even the sweetest tooth. And more traditional desserts were not shunned. In fact, a variety of pies coexisted peacefully right next to the platanos.
This doesn't seem so odd if you recall that many typical Thanksgiving foods are the result of the fusion of different cultures. The Aztecs were known to serve North American turkeys in the 1400s. Potatoes were first harvested in Peru by the Incas and then made their way north. And pumpkins were popular throughout the continent before the arrival of the Europeans.
This kind of cross-pollination was especially evident at our multicultural Thanksgiving celebration. After dinner, the daughter of our Colombian host showed us her CDs while Cuban music played in the background. She said she likes Mexican heartthrob Luis Miguel, and considers Britney Spears's latest song "really cute."
Her Britney Spears CD sat on a shelf next to an album of Cuban boleros, there was a painting of tropical fruits on the wall, and the smells of spices and roast turkey wafted throughout the house.
As immigrants bring new elements to American culture, something completely new emerges, such as this Latin American-style Thanksgiving. And just as the English settlers found innovative uses for pumpkins, our blending produced interesting results.
You may not experience a Thanksgiving like the one I did, but it's always possible to dip into a different culture by way of its cuisine. This Cuban recipe for Moros y Cristianos, for example, could be just the adventurous side dish you're looking for this holiday.
(Cuban side dish of beans, rice, and pork)
This dish, which in English means 'Moors and Christians,' is a Cuban specialty that combines black beans (the Moors) and rice (the Christians). Its name refers to the three centuries of Moorish rule in Spain.
1-1/2 cups black beans
6 cups water
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound lean boneless pork, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
2 cups long-grain white rice
Freshly ground black pepper
2 ripe plantains (or you may substitute bananas) for garnish, sliced into 1/2-inch round pieces (optional)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped for garnish (optional)
1/4 cup grated Cheddar cheese, for garnish (optional)
Rinse the beans. Put them into a large saucepan with 6 cups of water. Bring beans to a boil, turn heat to low, and simmer until they are tender but still intact, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. If the liquid appears to be evaporating too quickly, add more boiling water. When the beans are done, almost all of the cooking liquid should have cooked away.
Drain the beans, reserving any remaining liquid. Add enough water to the liquid to bring it back to 6 cups.
In a heavy skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat. Fry the diced pork, turning it often with a spoon until the pieces are golden brown. Remove and drain them on paper towels. Add the garlic, cumin, onions, and green pepper to the fat in the skillet. Stirring frequently, cook for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Stir in the pork bits, reduce the heat to low, and cook uncovered for 10 minutes, adding a tiny bit of water if pan cooks dry.
Place contents of the skillet in the saucepan and add the rice, the beans, and the 6 cups of bean liquid. Stirring, bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 25 minutes, until the rice is tender and all the liquid has been absorbed. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Fry the plantains (or bananas) in 1 tablespoon vegetable oil until they turn golden brown. Serve them on a plate beside the rice and bean dish. If desired, top the dish with fresh cilantro and grated cheese.
Serves 6 to 8.