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Turkey with tamales, chorizo or mofongo? Hey, that's how we Latinoize Thanksgiving

Latino cooks change up the Thanksgiving meal to reflect their own culture even as they embrace a new one.

MIAMI, Florida - My Cuban grandfather had lived in the United States for over four decades before he thought to ask, “San Gibin? So which saint are they celebrating?”

While Thanksgiving is a holiday for families to gather and express gratitude, for many Latino immigrants, it’s an unfamiliar albeit welcome tradition. After all, they understand only too well the feeling of arriving to a new country and adapting to a different way of life. But it hasn’t stopped Latino cooks from changing up the Thanksgiving meal to reflect their own culture even as they embrace a new one.

A Mojo (garlic-infused Caribbean marinade) Turkey, from the Nibbles and Feasts blog.Courtesy Ericka Sanchez of Nibbles and Feasts

Popular food blogger Ericka Sanchez was eight years old when she first encountered Thanksgiving in El Paso, Texas. Just arrived with her family from Central Mexico, they celebrated the holiday at the homes of new friends and neighbors where the traditional meal was served alongside tamales, enchiladas, and pozole. It wasn’t until Sanchez was in high school that her family started hosting their own dinners.

“The turkey was always Butterball with the recipe that was on the turkey since we had no idea what to do with it because it was so new to us,” remembers Sanchez. “Later on we started adding chorizo to the stuffing and chiles to the cranberry sauce, like jalapeños or guajillos. We added spice to the entire meal.”

Karina Taveras was already familiar with Thanksgiving when she came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. Her family observed the holiday every year in honor of their Puerto Rican grandfather who’d grown up with it.

“For [my mother] it was something really special that took her back to her childhood. She was very adamant about cranberry jelly in a can and sweet potatoes with marshmallows. For my sister and I, it was candy,” remembers Taveras.

Now based in Miami and hosting a large group of family and friends this year, she’s including deep fried Middle Eastern kipes, themselves a legacy of Lebanese migration to the Dominican Republic. “They’re just synonymous with celebration,” explains Taveras.

For Manhattan real estate agent, George Fresser, cranberry sauce was the hardest sell for his Cuban-American family. Canned cranberries would sit untouched at the center of the table alongside rice, black beans, and yuca.

One year he whipped up a batch from fresh whole cranberries with cinnamon, and orange rinds that his family actually liked. Believing he’d won his case, he spotted his mother enjoying them in a decidedly Cuban way.

“My mom took it to the other level and put it on Cuban crackers with cream cheese and said - 'Ay niño, this is better than guayaba con queso,'" he recalled with a laugh.

Regardless of where you’re from, the struggle to bring out the flavor of a heavy, roasted turkey is universal. If you’re from Mexico, this could mean a mole turkey. For people from the Caribbean, a citrus and garlic mojo is your best bet.

“Without some sort of sazón criollo, the turkey is about as appetizing as a wet paper towel,” says Miami-based architect Carolina Calzada. “Mojo is everything and my mom does it the best. I'm learning, but haven't quite perfected it.”

Some families sideline the turkey altogether. For nonprofit arts administrator Melody Santiago-Cummings, a typical Thanksgiving meal includes pernil, which is roasted pork, mofongo (mashed green plantains) stuffing, Puerto Rican pasteles, which are like a turnover, and a panacotta-like tembleque (coconut custard) sprinkled with cinnamon and coconut shavings.

“We always celebrated Thanksgiving but it was a Caribbean-Latin version. It wasn’t what I saw on television or heard from my friends,” says Santiago-Cummings. “The pernil is the star of the show and the turkey is just there to placate a couple of people.”

Santiago-Cummings is used to compromises. She not only has to negotiate between the Puerto Rican and Cuban sides of her family, but a husband from New England who’d grown up with a very different holiday, though he’s adapting well.

“[My husband] lost his mind the first time he tried pernil and mofongo - it was like a You Tube video of a baby eating bacon for the first time. This year, he’s the one making the pernil.”