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Voices: Remembering Our Tropical Thanksgiving

One of my favorite childhood Puerto Rican Thanksgivings was one without a turkey - my mom said it was to hot to have the oven on.

WASHINGTON, DC -- My favorite Thanksgiving dinner involved very hot weather, a decisive mom and no turkey, by the way. But first, a little background.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, you always have one foot in the United States, and one foot in Latin America. The island politically is part of the U.S., but culturally it’s Spanish-speaking, boisterous, and different than any of the 50 states. Sure, there are American fast food/casual dining chains, but some have beer and wine on the menu. The school lunch might be a hot dog one day, followed by rice and beans and flan the next. One minute we're talking business with someone in English, and the next we've switched to rapid-fire Spanish with a friend to see what’s up for el wikén (the weekend).

There’s probably no better example of blending both our worlds than the iconic American holiday of Thanksgiving, or as it’s said colloquially in Puerto Rico: Sansgibin.

While millions around the globe have Christmas and New Years in common, the Thanksgiving story of the Mayflower pilgrims is unique to the U.S.. But it's observed in its own particular way in Puerto Rico.

One year, my Mom decided it was simply too hot to cook a turkey. My father, who grew up in New York, became quite discombobulated.

My mother says that when she was growing up in a small town on the island, Thanksgiving was indeed a holiday, but it didn’t automatically mean that people would cook turkey. Sometimes it was chicken, many times pork, other times no meat at all, but rather a blend of rice and beans with vegetable side dishes and other foods unique to the island.

The Thanksgiving holiday with the traditional turkey as the main dish probably didn’t get real serious on the island until the 1950s and 60s, and Puerto Ricans blended their foods with the American traditions to create a twist on the traditional holiday. Instead of pumpkin pie, we make flan or tembleque, a cinammon-coated coconut custard. A common side dish is tostones, or fried green plantains, or guineos en escabeche, which are green bananas in garlic sauce, or arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas).

There are funny memes floating around the Internet where turkeys are talking about moving to Puerto Rico because people eat pork. And while that’s true, the turkeys better watch out because Puerto Ricans have perfected a dish that fills the hankering for pork and the desire to join in on the Thanksgiving turkey tradition.

Unlike the turducken, which is a chicken stuffed into a duck that is then stuffed into turkey, the pavochón (a mashup of the Spanish words for turkey and pork – pavo, lechón) is not two meats blended together, but instead a turkey seasoned like a roasted pig. Instead of the traditional stuffing, the pavochón is stuffed with mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish of fried plantains that are mashed with garlic, olive oil and other ingredients. It’s probably one of the most popular ways to cook a turkey on Thanksgiving.

The thing is, though, Thanksgiving is cold weather food. There is a lot of oven action on Thanksgiving, and that’s fine when the leaves are orange and the air is brisk and cool. Not so cool when it’s a tropical island with hot weather year round. At least in my house, that can definitely impact what you cook, even during a traditional holiday.

One year, my mother decided it was simply too hot to leave an oven on for hours cooking a turkey. “Ay no, pavo este año no (fuggetaboutit, no turkey this year),” my mother said. "In fact, let’s have a picnic in the backyard, what do you think about that?" said my mami. We kids cheered. Not because there wasn’t going to be a turkey, but because we were going to be doing something different and it sounded like fun. We weren’t old enough to be set in our traditions and ways.

Patricia Guadalupe, at right, with some of her siblings, in Puerto Rico.
Patricia Guadalupe, at right, with some of her siblings, in Puerto Rico.

My father, on the other hand, was discombobulated, or as discombobulated as a guy who smoked a pipe and watched public television could be. As a native New Yorker, Thanksgiving to my father meant turkey with all the trimmings, eaten inside a warm, cozy house crowded with relatives. And by golly if he couldn’t be in New York for the holiday, then it had to be re-created as best as possible.

Eating outside, on a picnic table in the backyard? Oh, the humanity! As far as my father was concerned, the world was coming to an end, but we couldn’t figure out if that was him really talking or he was just channeling one of those British shows he loved to watch where people don’t show up late and hate changing things; in other words, the exact opposite of life in Puerto Rico.

"I just don’t understand why you can’t open up a few windows and turn on a fan," said my dad. "Do whatever it takes so it doesn’t feel so hot, and by the way, it’s not that hot, the turkey won’t take long, it’s just one day that we do this, what’s the big deal, turn the oven down and cook it longer, what’s going on, turn on the air conditioner," pleaded my dad. You name it, he said it. He probably commiserated by phone with relatives back in New York, el pobre.

Patricia Guadalupe, in the back row, at left, with her mom and siblings - the picture was a gift for Father's Day.  Note the "guayabera" shirts on the boys.
Patricia Guadalupe, in the back row, at left, with her mom and siblings - the picture was a gift for Father's Day. Note the "guayabera" shirts on the boys.

When my mother said "Oh my God it’s just a turkey, what’s the big deal," that unleashed a whole lot of back and forth between my parents in the kitchen. I thought, 'Wow, just like in the movies, an argument at Thanksgiving!' You see, no one in Puerto Rico waits until Thanksgiving to get into a family argument. Whatever the issue might be, it's fought when it happens. So this was unique! It almost felt like being in the States, with the national dog show on TV in the background, albeit with subtitles.

After much back-and-forth, the Sansgibin backyard picnic won out. My mother said she wasn’t dealing with the turkey and that’s that, end of story. I chimed in, telling my father it was different and fun, so why not?

Trust me, a handful of loud kids jumping up and down screaming, 'Yeah, why not?' wears down even the best of them, no doubt about that.

And so we took Thanksgiving outside, al fresco.

We had all kind of delicious dishes that my mother made from scratch, and we indeed had a fun time. Even my father later admitted that was the case.

In so many ways our turkeyless feast was the epitome of Thanksgiving, or rather, Sansgibin. We were surrounded by loved ones and happy to be celebrating an American holiday tradition - only in our own, tropical family way.

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